One of the many benefits of marrying my husband Jim – apart from the obvious love and companionship – has been gaining a whole other family: Two sisters and one brother, plus all the nieces and nephews … not to mention his parents. They’re spread out, from Houston, Texas over to the Gulf Coast of Alabama and up to the DC area. Yearly summer visits to Jim’s sister’s family in Orange Beach, AL have become tradition and one that I’ve been gleefully enjoying for the past three years. We gather there, right on the water, for a week or more of our yearly fill of Southern hospitality.
We beach, we laugh, we drink and we eat … drink some more. It’s my the perfect summer vacation.
Situated right on the Gulf Coast, on the little bit of Alabama between Mississippi and Florida, Orange Beach is a big vacation spot, but in a very small area of land. According to the US Census Bureau, the town is only 15.9 square miles, of which 8% is water! Every summer it seems to get more packed with tourists and vacationers. But for Jim’s sister Deirdre and her family, it’s home.
From the minute we get off the plane in Pensacola, Florida the adventure begins. This year, we stopped at Joe Patti’s, a fresh fish market right on the water. We got tuna steaks, scallops, crawfish and crab claws. And of course, a couple of loaves of freshly baked French bread.
When you first walk into the market you have to meander your way into the middle where the ticket machine awaits to let you know your place in line. Patti’s brother usually calls out the numbers and if you’re lucky, as we were that day, he’ll cut your tuna steaks for you. There are so many varieties of shrimp and fish caught right in the gulf your head will spin with the choices. You can even get your seafood steamed right on site to eat there or bring to the beach. On the other side of the market they pump out fresh baked bread – French, sourdough and Italian. A little counter offers West Indie salad, crab salad and ceviche. Then, there’s the hard scooped ice cream in the way back. If that weren’t enough, on your way out – or in – there’s a little trailer offering beignets.
After that, we load up at the liquor store. Here’s a tip: the liquor, beer and wine is cheaper in Florida than in Alabama. The taxes are just a lot higher. Luckily, Orange Beach is almost right on the line. In fact, a really fun place for drinks, music and bar scene is the Flora-Bama, situated across both states and right on the water. I remember my first year visiting: we were sitting on the back porch sipping something ice cold when my brother-in-law Todd noted a few skydivers coming in over the coast. Turns out, if they land in the Flora-Bama property, i.e. the beach right behind the bar, they get to drink for free all day. I, for one, am not up to that challenge.
Speaking of interesting ways to get to places … a great dive (pun intended) right on the water that we love is Pirates Cove in Josephine, Alabama. While you can get there by land, the fastest and most fun way is to get there by water. They have docks to tie up your boat or jet ski and a sandy beach for the kids to run around on. They’re dog friendly too! There are even a few resident pooches that roam from table to table looking for love and a stray bite of your lunch. The burgers are good solid dive burgers and the onion rings are huge and crispy … definitely a must. Don’t forget to order an icy cold Bushwhacker topped with an extra shot of rum on top to wash it all down.
Of course, if you’re looking for something more upscale, Fishers in Orange Beach has two restaurants in one – upstairs and dockside. Chef Bill Briand, schooled in New Orleans under Donald Link, keeps the menu seasonal and knows where and how his seafood was caught. Owner Johnny Fisher also brings in noted Southern chefs throughout the summer for what they call “Southern Grace Celebrity Chef Dinners”. You can check their events page for details on who and when.
My sister-in-law’s favorite restaurant is The Gulf, located just down the coast from her house a mile or two. It’s made of old, repurposed shipping containers painted bright blue, stacked and arranged to create both inside and outside dining areas. Think seafood, burgers and drinks, overlooking the gulf. They also offer a seafood bar where you can pile your plate high with crab claws and legs. Deirdre’s tip: get a little more than you think … you’ll eat it, it’s so good!
Of course, there’s nothing like eating a home cooked meal … right on the water at my sister-in-law’s. When we visit, most meals are eaten at home, cooked in her bustling kitchen with a dog or two hanging out or grilled out on the back porch overlooking the Gulf. My first year visiting, I met her good friend and NPR correspondent Debbie Elliott. She’s joined in the cooking at family parties and meals; she is a pretty phenomenal cook and gave me some great tips for this post. On this trip, I’m hoping to make it to one of the gems she suggested: the cheese maker shop at Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Alabama. Debbie recommends the Perdido made with herb ash or the garlic blue.
I count myself extremely lucky to join in on these family vacations. My new family has amazing Southern hospitality and knows how to make anyone feel welcome to join in, whether at their table eating burgers or on the deck shucking oysters. And not for nothing, my sister-in-law makes the best crab cakes I’ve ever eaten.
When I tell people I’m coming down to Alabama, they question me … give me a strange look. “What’s in Alabama?” they ask me. “Family,” I answer. Not to mention the best beaches and eats.