A Dog-Friendly Beach Vacation

Article & Photos by Rika Dockery

When my brother-in-law invited my husband and me to pitch in for a vacation rental home on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, we immediately said, “Yes.” Late September is a great time to visit the Gulf because the weather is still warm but the crowds have subsided and the prices are more affordable. The Gulf Shores tourism are includes a long stretch of beach starting with Perdido Key, Florida, and moving west to Orange Beach, Alabama, Gulf Shores, and the Fort Morgan Peninsula.

I looked up the listing for Susan’s Sandcastle III – a 7 bedroom 7 ½ bath home that sleeps 30, right on the Fort Morgan beach. The pictures show two levels of sunning decks, a walkway down to the beach, and brightly painted rooms with beach decorations. I imagined myself relaxing on a reclining beach chair while listening to the waves hit the sand.

We had a few months to look forward to this vacation and in the interim we got our puppy, Maggie. As we approached our trip, I realized we didn’t have pet-sitting arrangements that I felt comfortable with. I contacted the vacation rental owner and she agreed to let us bring Maggie along. Though a bit apprehensive about having a dog along on vacation, I learned that many restaurants and activities are designed for pet parents and their fur babies. There are 200+ restaurants in the Gulf Shores area but for this trip we only considered dining at the establishments that allowed dogs.

Our five-month-old puppy was already an experienced traveler and easily made the twelve-hour drive south to Gulf Shores. Fort Morgan Beach is the only dog-friendly beach in the area so we lucked out that our vacation rental house was on the Fort Morgan Peninsula. Maggie loved her first experience with sand but was a bit wary of the ocean. After a couple of days, she ventured out into the water but I had to watch to make sure she didn’t try to drink the seawater, which makes dogs sick.

The local Gulf Shores Visitor Bureau was helpful and provided lots of suggestions for pet-friendly restaurants and activities. There are two dog parks in the area: one in Orange Beach and the other in Gulf Shores. The state parks have many trails where you may bring a leashed dog. Lake Shelby has a special dog area where pups can swim in the lake. There are also kennels in town if you want to drop off your pooch for the day while you lounge at the beach or sight see.

The Coastal Arts Center allows leashed dogs in some of the galleries as well. I’d never seen a dog at mini golf but found one, Tiki’s, which allows leashed pets. Even one of the dolphin cruises allows dogs. Captain Lori of Dolphin

Queen Cruises was happy to accommodate pets on one of her six passenger charter experiences.

The Sandcastle
Our group decided that most of our meals would be shared at the house. Each couple was given a night to cook dinner. We also bought food for breakfast and lunch that was shared. Susan’s Sandcastle III had the
perfect set-up for these plans.

The house elevator makes unloading groceries easy. A large stocked kitchen opens to the dining area that seats twenty at the dining table. There is comfortable seating for ten in the adjacent living room and many evenings the guys would watch TV while the ladies would help with that night’s dinner.

When someone saw dolphins out playing in the water, we would all pop out to the upper deck to watch. It was like having our own private Nature Channel live show.

Four of the large king bedrooms have patio doors leading to the main deck and wooden walkway to the beach. The owners provide beach towels and chairs and even pails and shovels for the children. Some of our guys brought fishing poles and enjoyed private beachfront fishing.

Owner Susan and her husband Jerry own two other properties.
Susan’s Sandcastle I with 5 bedrooms, (sleeps 16) also in Morgantown.
Susan’s Sandcastle II with 5 bedrooms, (sleeps 18) is further down the peninsula closer to the ferry to Dauphin Island.

Around the Town
For our first meal out with Maggie we headed to Flora-Bama, the iconic saloon on the state line. We were met by Ricki Stewart, Marketing Assistant, who gave a tour of the entire complex. Dating back to 1964, Flora-Bama has evolved but remains a favorite for locals and tourists alike.

The original structure has grown to include thirteen separate bars with live music every day. They open at 11 a.m. and stay open as late as they have customers. Across the street and also on the water between Ono Island and Perdido Key, are the Flora-Bama Yacht Club and Old River Bar & Grill. Both restaurants are dog-friendly with outdoor seating.

We chose the Yacht Club for appetizers and a drink. Their raw oysters and firecracker calamari were delicious. I had the signature drink “Flora-Bama Jama”, created for their 50th anniversary in 2014 when Kenny Chesney played a free concert on the beach to a crowd of 40,000. Flora-Bama drinks feature Kenny Chesney’s Blue Chair Bay Rum. Flora- Bama is also military friendly and draws football fans on Sundays. The complex features a liquor store, marina and watersports rental. They also offer deep sea and inshore fishing charters.

I returned to Flora-Bama on Sunday for church, yes church! Central Church holds 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. services at the Flora-Bama where “it’s ok to not be ok.” It was nice to worship with visitors from all over the world and I did see a couple dogs at the service as well.

On the way back to our house I stopped at another dog-friendly restaurant just west of Perdido Key called The Gulf. Bar manager Victor met me and gave a background on the restaurant’s five-year history. The Gulf features all outdoor seating and the buildings are made from twenty-seven shipping containers. Recycled materials are used throughout, such as tractor seats for bar stools and old ship wood for chairs. Lights hang between the numerous palm trees that are scattered throughout the grass covered seating areas. A pleasant candle scent lured me into the gift shop where I wound up buying a candle called “puppy breath.”

The food menu at The Gulf changes three times a week and they are known for simple but good meals (like fish tacos, grouper sandwich, and burgers). The clientele seemed a little younger and hipper than some of the other ocean restaurants we visited. I saw a young family with a designer baby stroller and another well-dressed couple enjoying a cocktail and amazing views of the water. Victor mentioned that someone had recently brought in their pet monkey. Every month the restaurant features a full moon party.

My husband and I skipped out on our group’s pizza night and drove to town for date night with Maggie. We arrived at Bill’s on the Beach in Gulf Shores and met up with owner, Bill Henry. Bill and his wife have been coming to the area since the early 80’s. When Bill retired from international accounting, they moved to the area and bought property in the then less developed part of town.

Three years ago, Bill opened his restaurant and claims his chef, Rudy Rudolf, is the best in the area. Bill recommended the week’s featured special, Caribbean Spiced Pompano & Baby Shrimp, which my husband enjoyed. I picked the Shrimp and Grits, which was also amazing. Bill told us that all their meals feature local produce and fresh, ocean caught fish.

Another dog-friendly restaurant recommended was Cosmo’s Restaurant & Bar. I noticed one of their stores was named Maggie’s Bottle & Tail and arranged to meet the owner and her dog Maggie. Jodi & Brian Harsany opened Cosmos in 2006, named after their black lab mix. A couple years later they opened Maggie’s, named after their second dog, as a retail gift shop. Maggie’s has a nice collection of pet related gifts. The multi-building store features a large bottle

beer and wine collection. The complex also includes other dog-friendly restaurants. Luna’s, named for the Harsany’s third dog, is a gastro pub featuring thirty-two local and world class craft beers on draft. Buzzcats serves coffee and breakfast. The owners have two more restaurants at other locations, Cobalt and GT’s on the Bay but the other locations are not pet-friendly.

After touring the property with owner Jodi, Maggie and I were seated at a table on the covered outside deck. All week I’d wanted to try a Bushwhacker and finally took the opportunity. It was a delicious, sweet, creamy adult milkshake. My friendly server described one of her favorite meals – banana leaf wrapped sea bass with house rice and lemon garlic asparagus. She also pointed out the pecan crusted red fish as a local’s

favorite. Some items on their dessert menu change daily, like their chocolate creation and bread pudding. Just as I was leaving the musicians were setting up to play.

We didn’t make it to Pirate’s Cove Marina & Restaurant but were told it’s another great dogfriendly, family complex. If you visit the area without a pet, our homeowner Susan suggested Lulu’s (owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister) and breakfast at Hazel’s. Some of her other favorites include: The Original Oyster House, Shrimp Basket, King Neptune’s, Nolan’s Steak House, and De Soto’s Seafood Kitchen.

Based on our experience I would definitely recommend Gulf Shores as a beach vacation destination. And for those wondering about the feasibility of bringing their furry family member, my conclusion is that it is possible to have a great petfriendly experience.

Susan’s Sand Castle III is a great place for a dog lovers get-away. Click here to check on availability and details for your escape


Rika Dockery owns and manages two vacation rental properties in the greater St. Louis area. Until her website is up and running, you can connect with her on Facebook



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