This often-overlooked Alabama island has all of the amenities of a popular beach destination with a small-town feel.
By Clinton S. Thomas March 21, 2022
Imagine a place where the sun shines most of the year and the temps are warm, even in colder months. A place where there’s something for just about everyone to enjoy, and life’s daily stressors seem to melt away. A few years ago, I found paradise on Alabama’s Dauphin Island. Surrounded by water, but easily connected to the world, this destination flows with opportunities for relaxation.
Driving along Mobile Bay, I reached the Dauphin Island Bridge leading to Alabama’s southern shores. Our family has enjoyed the reclusive tiny island located across the bay on the edge of the state for several years. For most, mentioning Alabama beach destinations likely brings Gulf Shores or Orange Beach to mind. Dauphin Island, often overlooked, offers the same beach experience as both, but you’ll find fewer visitors here throughout the year.
Before the bridge was built in 1955, visitors arrived at Dauphin Island via small plane, ferry, or boat. But the bridge, stretching across the open bay, is now the most popular way to reach the destination.
As for accommodations, visitors can choose to stay at a local RV park, hotel, beach rental house, or one of several island resort condominiums. Prices vary throughout the year, with winter rates being the highest. (My family has always opted for one of the two-bedroom, Gulf-facing condominiums available for rent — there’s nothing like opening a balcony door at night to let the ocean sounds flow freely inside.)
The island also offers two public beaches for day visitors at no cost. In addition, all beaches in Alabama are considered open, so once on the sand, there are 14 miles for swimming, fishing, walking, sightseeing, and shell hunting. Fishing is a popular year-round pastime, with many people booking a one- or two-day experience.
Once on the island, you’ll have little need to leave, as all amenities are within a short walk or bicycle ride away. There are restaurants serving everything from seafood to pizza to hamburgers, plus stores selling fishing supplies, beachwear, groceries, souvenirs, and more.
Nature lovers, meanwhile, will enjoy the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, which was established in 1961 and now offers marked trails, sitting areas, ponds, and access to the beach. Visitors will also have the chance to observe one of the sanctuary’s alligators, either sunning in the grass along the pond’s edge or traveling across it. I, myself, have spent hours at the sanctuary, walking the well-marked trails and watching birds and alligators at the small pond.
Those interested in history will also find much to do on Dauphin Island, as it’s home to the historic Fort Gaines, which was initially established in 1821 and served through World War II. The fort is most famous for the American Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. Here, cannon placements, weapons, documents, and historical artifacts from the fort’s long history are all on display. History buffs might enjoy the Dauphin Island Indian Shell Mound Park, too, which features a short walking trail and information about Native Americans and their fishing habits while living on the island.
For an educational venue the kids will appreciate, head to the Alabama Aquarium at the Sea Lab for one of the daily tours. The facility provides a variety of programs for children and adults, working with several higher education systems in Alabama, including the University of Alabama.
Three art galleries are set up, too, with classes on Saturdays in oil and watercolor painting. In addition, a weekly music event is held in the city hall, and parades are scheduled throughout the year.
Those who want to venture off the island, a toll ferry across Mobile Bay is available. The boat also takes cars and bicycles across the bay to Fort Morgan at Mobile Point. From Fort Morgan, visitors can enjoy shopping at several outlet malls and bookstores. The trip across the bay takes about 40 minutes and, in many cases, offers dolphin sightings and views of other marine animals.
Although leaving the island is an option, I rarely go on these excursions. I’ve found the peaceful atmosphere, friendly people, and homey feel — not to mention the beach and many attractions — of Dauphin Island to be enough. That coupled with the sounds of the tide washing in along the coastline is guaranteed to leave anyone feeling relaxed.