That’s almost always the reaction whenever I tell friends from elsewhere, i.e. not the South, about my frequent pilgrimages down to the Gulf. Then in a can’t-resist-moment, I draw my phone and begin showing pictures like a proud parent showing off Junior’s latest school photo. That’s when the surprise really begins.
Yes, for those who don’t know, Alabama has miles and miles of the most beautiful sugar sand beaches you can imagine stretching along the warm, emerald shaded Gulf of Mexico. Sure, like many of the world’s coastlines, there are areas of irresponsible development on the Alabama coast boasting one high-rise condo after another whose succession is only interrupted for a tacky souvenir shop here and a liquor store there. But, thankfully, there are also still wild and incredibly pristine areas to enjoy.
My favorite place along the coast is the lovely and truly one-of-a-kind Fort Morgan Peninsula. Surrounded by bay on one side and gulf on the other, the peninsula is known for its relatively unspoiled natural beauty, dramatic history, and for more than a few enduring oddities.
First, let’s talk nature:
Bay Meets Sea
There’s something about being at the junction where a bay as vast as the Mobile meets the gulfstream. The silt coming from the bay mergers with the gulf to create the most beautiful shade of emerald green water. And every fisherman and boater I know loves the option of being able to play in both waterways.
Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge
French for “safe harbor,” Bon Secour is indeed that for several endangered species including sea turtles, migratory birds, and for what remains of a once magnificent coastal dune system. It’s a great spot for a morning stroll and spotting winged creatures both large and small, from herons and egrets to hummingbirds.
Pretty Amazing Sea Life Too
Just one short walk on the beach this past weekend; and, I spied tiny, crazy-cool neon blue jellyfish, numerous rays, blue crabs, a lone blue heron, and – my favorite – the big brown, ancient looking pelicans.
And, now for a little history:
The Fort of Fort Morgan
After the War of 1812 Congress began to realize the strategic importance of protecting the entrance to Mobile Bay and established Fort Morgan as the “Guardian of the Bay” as it’s been known since that time. From those early days through the last century, the star-shaped fort has seen a lot of action including the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. It also functioned militarily during the Spanish American War and served as a testing and training facility during WWI and WWII.
Think history is in the past? Get this: just six years ago, during a wall restoration project at the fort, a 90-pound l-i-v-e shell from the Union Navy, fired at the fort in 1864, was uncovered. Talk about living history.
In addition to touring the facility and grounds, there’s also a small, yet informative museum. Check the calendar for battle reenactments during the year, including a big one in August to honor and commemorate the historic Battle of Mobile Bay.
A Stop Along the Trail
Sadly, these weren’t the only struggles that took place on the peninsula. The area also served as a significant stop in 1836-37 on the Trail of Tears when the Creek Indians were removed from their ancestral lands in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia and relocated by force to Oklahoma.
Quirks a Plenty:
Walking along the sands of Fort Morgan isn’t your typical beach walk, there’s always a surprise or two along the way.
It is a surreal experience to walk along the store and suddenly come upon the wreckage of a 150-foot wooden boat. Uncovered on the beach for the most recent time after Hurricane Isaac in 2012, the hulking hull has inspired much talk about its origins and mission, from serving as a blockade runner during the Civil War to a rum-runner during prohibition. People love to speculate; but, historians say it probably has a less sexy history most likely serving during WWI as a lumber transporter.
From Ida and Isaac to Ivan and Camilla, this area has seen more than its fair share of damaging winds. What makes Fort Morgan so special is the lack of development, but that lack of development is in large part simply because it’s risky business to build here. The beach is littered with a handful of homes that have fallen casualty to recent hurricanes serving as a haunting reminder that beach dreams can often be temporary.
First time visitors are always struck by the sight of the natural gas rigs that are visible from the coast of Ft. Morgan. At night, with their lights illuminated, they look like mini-cities in the distance and serve as a constant reminder of the choices we make and how it can forever alter our natural resources. Even while lounging in your beach chair sipping a margarita, it’s hard not to contemplate the effect man is having on this landscape and environment when you see these mammoth structures.
Only in Alabama
For those who don’t know, college football (nope, I don’t mean soccer, although it too is becoming way popular) is big in Alabama. Every Saturday in the fall, a football watching, fan cheering, beer drinking ritual takes place in just about every bar, restaurant, and home in the state. At Fort Morgan, some even get their football fix while sunning on the beach by setting up seaside screens. From beach chairs and umbrellas to flags and bikinis, the beach-goers on this stretch aren’t afraid to show their team flair.
If you have followed this blog at all, then you know I usually end each post with recommendations for places to eat, things to do, etc. Other than visiting the fort, running or walking along the beach, biking the flats of Fort Morgan Road, and some bay or sea fishing, there is gloriously little else to do here.
Restaurants? Not so much. There are 2-3 spots sprinkled along the peninsula.
Grocery stores? Nope, aside from one or two handy convenience stores for when you run out of tonic and/or ice and two small fish markets.
Souvenir stands? Not a chance.
So…if you are someone who needs those things, it might be better to redirect to Gulf Shores.
If packing almost all of your groceries and supplies in and cooking most of your meals at your beach house sounds appealing and your idea of nightlife is more star-gazing than booty-shaking, this is the place for you.
When it comes to the Alabama coast, this is definitely the place for me.
We’ve always enjoyed choosing between the vast selection of old school beach homes rented by the friendly folks at Ft. Morgan Realty.