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The Alabama Gulf Coast may only stretch a mere 32 miles, but they are certainly 32 miles of some of the most beautiful white sand beaches in the country. Step over the Florida -- Alabama border at Perdido Key and in some ways, you step back in time to beach towns that came of age in the 1950s and '60s. But there is nothing old-fashioned about the intense construction and growth going on in the two resort towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. Striking glass towers housing luxurious condominiums sit in stark contrast to huge expanses of wild sand dunes and marshlands that hug the man-made intracoastal waterway. For every stunning accommodation block, there is an equally appealing back road with small scale homes and people quietly navigating their boats along the endless bayous.

It is true to say that there are some people who do not realize that Alabama has a coast at all and while neighboring beaches in Florida are jam packed with visitors throughout the year, there is a certain serenity and lack of crowds in Alabama. For this reason alone, you should consider the Alabama Gulf Coast for your next beach vacation. When you lay your towel out on one of the state's squeaky-clean beaches, there's little chance that you'll rub shoulders with anything other than a stray blue crab and a few brown pelicans. Rather than encountering hundreds of swimmers when you take a dip in the warm waters of the Gulf or the waterways that extend beyond the beaches, you're more likely to meet up with a friendly bottle nose dolphin or two.

Geographic and cultural "schizophrenia" is one of the Alabama Gulf Coast's best selling points. On the one hand it is an eco-tourism destination made up of low key, nature and water-based activities plus world-class fishing. On the other, Alabama's shore boasts some of the most modern facilities and up-market accommodation properties available anywhere with giant complexes like the Caribe Resort (tel. 888/607-7020; www.cariberesort.com) with its three super lux towers, a multitude of indoor and outdoor pools, a marina and even a lazy river. You can rent an immaculate two-bedroom, two bathroom suite here, complete with full kitchen (plus dedicated wine fridge and ice machine), huge living and dining areas, spa baths and a wrap around terrace from $195 per night or $1,170 per week. Their soon to be opened sister property, Turquoise Place (www.turquoiseplace.com), located right on the beach front where Orange Beach meets Gulf Shores is an architectural icon featuring state of the art design and eco-design elements. While other beach destinations seem to be suffering the effects of the current economic downtown, the AL Gulf Coast is booming and new developments like The Wharf (www.thewharfal.com), featuring a mix of condos, hotels, retail, dining, boating and entertainment facilities (plus the Southeast's tallest ferris wheel), just one of a long line of additions to the growing skyline.

But the true soul of the Alabama Gulf Coast lies just beyond the crystalline beaches in the meandering bayous and back water canals. There are over 400,000 acres of waterways to discover so it's good idea to enlist the help of a local expert like Captain Skip Beebe and his nature tours at Sailaway Charters (tel. 251/974-5055; www.geocities.com/sailorskip). The two-hour shrimping and crab-catching adventure takes you out on a pontoon boat across the waterways of Longs Bayou and Wolf Bay. See friendly dolphins, help hoist the shrimp net, learn how local oysters are harvested and have some close personal contact with a variety of marine and bird life. (Skip catches and releases, so there's no free seafood for your next meal.) The tours cost $25 per person with a minimum of six passengers or $150 for a private tour. You can cruise anytime from 8am to sunset. A walk along the beach takes on new meaning when you hike through the 7000 acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/bonsecour), a pristine landscape of coastal marshes and maritime forests. The refuge is home to the endangered Alabama beach mouse and serves as a nesting site for green, loggerhead, and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles. In addition to ospreys and several species of herons and hummingbirds have been identified, you may even encounter red fox, coyotes and armadillos.

No trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast would be complete without experiencing its most playful residents -- the bottle-nose dolphins. Take a two-hour cruise out on the back bays with Dolphin Express Cruises (tel. 251/971-1893; www.dolphinexpresscruises.com) and you are guaranteed a spectacular afternoon of marine mammal sightings. Cruises are priced from $17 per adult and $12 for children in low season. The Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research and Education Center (tel. 251/928-9792; www.weeksbay.org) encourages visitors to stroll along 5,000 feet of elevated boardwalks that wind through 6,000 acres of coastal habitat and wetlands including a protected estuary. With over 370 bird species in the area, turtles and reptiles, you're likely to encounter a variety of wildlife both in and out of the water.

Dining in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores is a south coast cultural experience. The deep fryer certainly gets a work out with everything from fried oysters and shrimp to fried cheesecake for dessert. While there, I heard Alabama referred to as the "stroke belt," but you can balance that fried food out with plenty of fresh and healthy options.

For the best examples of local fodder try:

Cosmo's (tel. 251/948-WOOF; 25753 Canal Rd, Orange Beach) is a relaxed environment with both indoor and outdoor seating, plus live music. Not only is this place dog-friendly but dogs get their own bowls and they hold "dog day afternoons" (next one is May 17) with proceeds going to local animal shelters. The menu is creative and colorful with interesting variations on traditional themes. My personal favorites were the Fried Chicken Wing sushi roll, the Fried Green BLT sushi roll, the Black N' Blue Shrimp wrap, the Banana Leaf wrapped fish and the baked Catfish stuffed with Crawfish and herbs.

King Neptune's (tel. 251/968-5464; www.kingneptuneseafoodrestaurant.com) is a small, classic Gulf Shores seafood joint. It may not look fancy, but they serve some of the finest Royal Red Gulf shrimp here (and their famed fried cheesecake). Baked oysters are a house specialty alongside Blackened shrimp and hushpuppies.

The Hangout (tel. 251/948-3030; www.thehangoutal.com). Although the new "Hangout" only launched this month, this open and spacious, almost barn-like local gathering spot is right on the beach and carries on the legacy of the original Hangout that was a 1950's beach landmark. Check out the Shaka Shaka shrimp for a zesty start, Blue Bayou Crab and Artichoke dip and the Crazy Cajun Creole Gumbo. Stay cool with the largest ceiling fan I have ever seen (humorously made by a company called Big Ass Fans).

Lulu's (tel. 251/967-LULU; www.lulusathomeport.com). Another large waterfront restaurant with live bands, events, and a casual tropical feel, located at a marina in Gulf Shores. Although Lulu is Jimmy Buffet's little sister, when it comes to producing some fine southern food, she doesn't stand in anyone's shadow. Try the Fish Tacos, Grilled Shrimp Quesadilla and the Big Fry Seafood Basket with Crawfish, Oysters, Shrimp and Catfish. Deserts are sensational here, so make sure you indulge in some homemade Bread Pudding and Key Lime Pie.

The nearest airports to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are at Pensacola, FL and Mobile, AL. Both are a little less than one hour's drive away.

Note: Charis Atlas Heelan was a guest of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau

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