It was once called the Redneck Riviera – a stretch of ocean coastline where the working class went to for fun and sun while the uppity folk headed to Miami or Palm Beach. But, Gulf Shores offers any traveler friendly, relaxed service and access to some upscale attractions.
The Gulf Shores tourist region fills the long stretch of beach where Alabama meets the Florida Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico.
Those days seem far behind the region as its condos offer more multi-room suites than simple rooms — and the coastline marinas are filled yachts and fishing boats built in the region and selling up in that six figure range or higher.
I came to the region to try out a few of Alabama’s better golf courses, but I quickly discovered the travel culture of Gulf Shores bases itself on the sea. Visitors can sit on the beach all day and bake, but I’d recommend first time travelers to the area to get out on the gulf for a look at the Shores from a distance. A sunset cruise aboard the Wild Hearts sailing vessel out of Perdido Key will get you out on the open water for potential meetings with dolphins and other surface breaking marine life.
Back on dry land, I was on the scene to try the neighborhood golf courses. In the course of 48 hours, I tried out four courses: Craft Farms Cypress Bend, Craft Farms Cotton Creek, Kiva Dunes and Peninsula Golf Club. Each offered its own quirks and flares, but the set collectively serves the roll of “resort course.”
None of them are part of an official, big Gulf Shores resort, though each offers residences for sale or rental. However, each course plays like the links you’d find at most major resort properties. A resort course is usually marked by reachable distances, clear sight lines, only occasional water or sand, mild elevation changes and “bowl shaped” fairways.
In each of those instances, the idea is to forge a course that’s easy for a new player to tackle — fair for a stranger to play when he or she shows up on vacation. Extremely high end destinations, country clubs and other exclusive membership courses are traditionally designed to be more challenging so a player can experience them regularly while finding new challenges and consistent difficulties from play to play.
The golf courses of Gulf Shores are there for fun. Par fives are infrequent. Fairways are wide. Greens are reachable in regulation. However, while similar in design, the courses differ in terrain and atmosphere. Both Craft Farms courses – Cypress Bend and Cotton Creek feel very rooted in the deep south. With the occasional marsh, trees flocked with Spanish Moss and heavy, humid air come morning, there’s almost a Louisiana Bayou feel to them.
Peninsula Golf seems the most sophisticated. It’s a park style course offering up more spit and polish for the experienced player. It’s also obviously a local destination for upscale events. The greens at Peninsula were the best I found in the region — all in keeping with its top shelf ambiance.
Finally, Kiva Dunes serves up an island vibe — a Florida Keys energy marked by ample sand and the occasional gator sunning itself just out of bounds. Kiva is the shortest course on this list — relying on more frequent traps and undulating greens to challenge the player. A good player would be able to attack Kiva Dunes without pulling a driver from the bag. This reporter drove with his three wood and hybrids all day, and I parred six of 18 on the day.
No matter what the exact locale or greens fees, the golf experiences of Gulf Shores share the same attitude as their surrounding communities, citizens and visitors — friendly, approachable, rejuvenating and never pretentious.