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Alabama Getaway: Hangin' Out in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach

The twin communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are located on a gorgeous and clean stretch of Alabama's Gulf Coast, tucked into the shoreline between Mobile to the west and Pensacola, Florida to the east. The wide beach, far less crowded than many in the region, is the obvious draw for visitors but you don't have to look too far to find other types of entertainment; there's always a guy or a gal ready with a guitar and a serenade, the tigers and lemurs that live in the area would like to meet you and flying machines of all vintages are standing by to show off as well. And there's a pretty good chance that you're gonna get bushwackered too!

After a day of playing on the beach, music lovers can keep things going by visiting the Flora-Bama, a large roadhouse with two stages. The place takes its name from the fact that it straddles the Florida/Alabama border and folks come from both states and beyond to dance the night away or just sit and listen. The Hangout is another place to hear live music; the brightly-lit restaurant with its collection of Pez dispensers and lunch boxes has a great family atmosphere but as it gets a little later in the evening the Hangout gets kind of rowdy. Both of these venues are hosts for the annual Frank Brown Songwriters Festival that takes place late in the year when songwriters of all sorts --- the famous and hit song writers and unknown up-and-comers alike --- come to Gulf Shores to play their songs on acoustic instruments and sing them the way they originally conceived them. Despite their size, the Flora-Bama and the Hangout are both relatively intimate venues where fans can get up close to the performers and mingle afterwards to grab a photo or maybe get a CD autographed. The Hangout also hosts an annual namesake festival; the Hangout Festival this year takes place May 17-19 right on the beach adjacent to the restaurant and features a huge line-up of contemporary artists like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Stevie Wonder, Kings of Leon, Grizzly Bear, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Afrojack, moe, Slightly Stupid, Steve Aoki, the Breeders and dozens more. 

Another place that music fans need to make a pilgrimage to is Lulu's, the restaurant and bar owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister. There's lots of Buffett and other music memorabilia in the place and of course you can chow down on a "cheeseburger in paradise." All of these places offer the area's signature drink, the bushwacker. Recipes vary from bar to bar but the bushwacker is essentially an electric milkshake; a concoction made with ice cream, coffee liqueur and several types of rum. Yes, a few of these and you'll understand where the name comes from but bushwackers are very refreshing in moderation.

There are two attractions in the Gulf Shores area that are not to be missed. The first is the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, an impressively-stocked zoo that has an incredible back story (all but completely destroyed by hurricanes then painstakingly rebuilt) that you might have heard about when it was featured on the Animal Planet program The Little Zoo That Could. When you go to see the animals you can also find out about how the zoo is still recovering and hoping to expand and maybe meet some of the folks directly involved in the heartwarming effort. But for pure excitement, indulge in one of the zoo's animal encounters; for an additional fee you can meet (hold them, pet them!) one or more of the zoo's baby white tigers or go into the lemur enclosure where the playful critters will be leaping about and playing, often jumping onto your lap or shoulders. Cameras are allowed during these experiences so you can get pictures to make all your friends jealous. 

The other must-see attraction is the National Naval Aviation Museum, located just across the Florida state line in Pensacola. The museum sits on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the home of the famous Blue Angels flying team, and there's lots of Blue Angels memorabilia inside along with more than 150 other aircraft (and spacecraft.) There's also a simulated flight ride you can take where your "jet" will be "hit by a missile" but you'll "land safely" anyway. After the simulation you just might need a bushwacker!

Most visitors to Gulf Shores/Orange beach stay in one of the many condo towers that are right on the beach. I stayed at Turquoise Place in Orange Beach and highly recommend them; they have a great spot on the beach with spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico. I also recommend Tacky Jacks for a breakfast stop (have a bushwacker there with your eggs and bacon!) and the Compleat Angler in the Wharf entertainment district for dinner; the seafood, wings and burger joint is owned by former NFL star Bob Baumhower and he is often in the restaurant and very personable.

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