I probably should keep my mouth shut. Some intel is better kept to one's self. The more you say, the more the likelihood you change the circumstances. That's why there is no shortage of crowded beaches on the Gulf, no lack of tourist towns along its coast.Gallery: A lost beach retreat
They've been talked into popularity and thus into predictability and now are up to their gills in travelers craving the sun, the surf and the whole spring break/Endless Summer experience.
I don't want to make waves here, but anyone with an inkling of coastal coasting knows them by heart. All are within a day's drive of Texarkana, with Galveston being the closest. Others would include South Padre Island, Biloxi, Gulfport, Gulf Shores, Pensacola, Orange Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Panama City. Strangely enough, when you think about it, and the length of its coastline, Louisiana doesn't have a presence in this Gulf Coast panorama—but that's another conversation.
It also should be noted that some of these places are popular, not in spite of the crowds, but because of them. It's where the boys are, and the girls, and that's part of their attraction.
Some are very family friendly, which is to say they come by the carloads. They were designed with children in mind.
Nothing wrong with any of th0se attributes. I've been to all of these beach towns and love most of them.
But Dauphin Island isn't one of those places. If you're really trying to get away from it all, this might be your ticket.
I've been trying to get to Dauphin Island for almost two decades—before storming its beaches in early June with my family. I shouldn't have waited so long.
The island isn't quite as invisible as it had been. It was in the news early last month, hit hard by Tropical Storm Barry.
But if you can squeeze in between the storms that sometimes flood it—and who can predict?—you'll find something a little less overrun, a little less commercialized than those other brand-name getaways.
Dauphin Island is located south of Mobile, Ala., but you'll never have to go through this port city unless you absolutely want to.
You will go through some of the poorest parts of Alabama to get to the island—and some of the most scenic, once you drop south of Interstate 10 past Pascagoula and wander toward the coast.
(I-10 traffic, by the way, can be brutal during the vacation season from New Orleans eastward. We spent more than an hour and a half stopped in traffic the day we went. We went back by a different route.)
Alabama Highway 188 is your best scenic option and will take you to Bayou La Batre, a commercial fishing and shipbuilding port that is as gritty as it is charming. There is nothing touristy about this town. It has a working man's appeal and is genuine in all regards. Although they haul in tons of seafood for state and coastal customers, you too can get your fill of fresh seafood here. But you will have to rub elbows with real folks to make that happen.
You cross a 3-mile long, two-lane bridge to get to Dauphin Island, spanning a barrier island with an historic fort on it built to protect the west hip of Mobile Bay.
Once you make the crossing, the nearest Walmart is about 45 minutes away. In this day and age, that translates to being on the outskirts of civilization.
It also means merchants have a captive audience and price their wares accordingly. So you are probably going to spend a bit more on basic goods and services. On the other hand, you can bring groceries with you and won't have to deal with as many sellers vying for your dollars. There aren't that many options here—which is a good thing.
There are a couple of hotels on or near the beach, but no long lines of high-rises as you find in many resort cities. And the buildings are only a few stories high. The area features old and new construction, so you can be as rustic or regal as you like.
Most of vacation rentals on the island are beach houses. Many of them sit directly on the shore, so the tide comes right up to their piers. During storms, water will roll wildly under the house.
Speaking of which, Dauphin Island is a great place to watch a storm or, on the bay's side, the sunset.
The barrier island is long and narrow. And from some homes' perches, both gulf and bay views are not only visible but prominent.
You are never far from the ocean at Dauphin Island. While Galveston, for example, identifies properties by how far they are from the shoreline—Row 1, Row 2, Row 4, etc.—and are priced accordingly, Dauphin Island is so thin its west end has only one row on either side of the main road.
There is a public beach on that end that narrows into the ocean, and a good portion is primitive and accessed by trails. The only cost of entry is a nominal parking fee. Several other public beaches can be found here, including one by Fort Gaines, the historic site that guards the bay.
There also is a vehicle ferry, like there is in Galveston. But this one charges for the ride, based on the type of vehicle and passenger count. It runs on a schedule. During peak season, two run. There is a pedestrian option.
The island also has an 18-hole golf course on the gulf side. Pretty unique. Some online reviewers were a bit critical of the condition of the course, but most were thrilled by the uncommon experience it represented.
Dauphin Island has a lot of little things to do and not many big things. This is a good fit. Most sights can be seen in half a day or less. It means you can divide your day into beach time and poking-around time. Some of these places are the Audubon Bird Sanctuary and the Indian Shell Mound Park. The sanctuary is big enough to get lost in. My son and I managed to do so, even with a map. Interesting educational stops include the Estuarium at the Sea Lab and several art galleries—none too prissy, and all with a sense of history.
Fishing is big here, as you might expect. You can't help seeing fishing piers jutting this way and that on your way in and out of town. You also can take boat excursions in Mobile Bay or full- and half-day fishing trips into the Gulf. The truly unambitious can fish in the surf at the foot of their beach house and might catch something memorable, or at least dinner.
The many attractive and unique places to eat on Dauphin Island include a seafood market that makes plates of shrimp, corn on the cob, sausage and red potatoes to go. A lovely boil, only steamed.
Although the island certainly offers enough variety in its eateries to make it interesting, few seem remarkable. Good. Solid. Mostly unadorned. What you would expect and might even imagine, but missing the Wow factor. Some of them we checked out included Lighthouse Bakery, Waves, Billy Goat Concessions and Miguel's Beach'n Baja. We really liked Islanders Restaurant and Bar for its style, service, elevation (walk up the wide steps to enter) and open-air deck.
We tried to visit Foxy's Waffle Bar and Sugar Den, but it was always closed when we showed up—regardless of its posted hours. Just as well. We also missed out on JT's Sunset Grill on the bay side, known for its sunsets.
One online site says there are 16 eating places, including Skinner's Seafood, on the island. Some of them will remain undiscovered. There is a Subway in a convenience store coming into town—one of the few signs of branded America.
While storms interrupted our vacation, they were truly beautiful to watch from a distance. As with all beach vacations, you must be tolerant and forgiving of the sand. Wonderful and white as it may be, you will be sick of dealing with it before your vacation is done, and too much of it will stow away in your vehicles and belongings to serve as silly reminders of a vacation once had.
It took about nine hours to get from Texarkana to Dauphin Island—including stops—when we took a northeast route that bypassed I-10 and South Louisiana. Not an easy trip, but not bad.
Despite an airstrip on the island, I didn't see any planes fly in or out while I was there. Of course, I wasn't looking or paying attention.
If you could afford it, flying would be the way to go. Then again, if you could afford the fly, wouldn't you be heading somewhere else?
Which is the point: Everybody is heading somewhere else.
I like Dauphin Island not for what it is, but for what it isn't.
It isn't busy very often and it isn't conventional. It moves at its own pace.
So stay away. It isn't your kind of place. I was obviously wrong to suggest it.
A Few Things to Do
Art Does It
1101 Bienville Blvd.
The Art Does It, or ADI, gallery is open noon to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. It is home to many local and seasonal artists. For information, contact Regina Kollegger at 251-214-6485 or [email protected]
213 Bienville Blvd.
Audubon Bird Sanctuary is 164 acres of woodlands with miles of walking trails through pines, live oaks, magnolias, swamps and along Gulf beaches. The half-mile interpretive trail loop includes a freshwater lake, dune systems, Gulf beach and swamp. Also, a 1,000-foot boardwalk (handicap accessible) leads from the parking lot to a wharf overlooking Galliard Lake and an opportunity to catch glimpses of egrets, herons and hundreds of other bird species. For information, call 251-861-3607.
661 Bienville Blvd.
Old oak trees adorn this historic site of the home of the first governor of Dauphin Island. For information, call 251-861-3607.
Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab
101 Bienville Blvd.
The Estuarium takes visitors from the swamps of the Delta to the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Exhibits and interactive displays make science come alive at this spectacular facility, located on historic Mobile Bay. Dauphin Island Sea Lab is the state of Alabama's marine science research and education center. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 251-861-7500 or visit disl.org/estuarium.
51 Bienville Blvd.
Construction on the fort began in 1821 and was completed during the Civil War, with additional batteries added in the Spanish-American conflict. It has been called one of the best-preserved examples of 19th-century brick seacoast fortifications in the East. It was a key element in the battle of Mobile Bay, famous for Adm. David Farragut's command "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" For information, call 251-861-6992 or visit dauphinisland.org/fort-gaines.
Quarles Skate Park
1215 Bienville Boulevard
Skateboard enthusiasts of all skill levels can test their skills at the town's skate park on a variety of ramps and other devices. The park is free is to visit and is open every day during daylight hours.