When I decided in the bleak midwinter that we needed a beach vacation, I had a clear idea of what I wanted: LAID BACK. Traveling with two three-year-olds, I knew what I did not want: high rise resorts, crowded beaches, or any tacky tourist stuff. I wanted a house on the beach for minimal schlepping. I wanted to do nothing more but play in the water, hang out on the sand, maybe take a few walks, enjoy drinks on a porch overlooking the water, and cook up a bunch of local seafood at home rather than going out to eat all the time. These criteria led me to choose to rent a house on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and I couldn’t be happier with our choice.
I had never been to Dauphin Island before, but it fit my criteria perfectly. There was one resort, and the rest of the island was dotted with houses on little streets that dead-end at the beach, essentially giving each grouping of 6 or so houses their own private beach, with no parking or public beach access near the houses. There is exactly one grocery store on the island (Ship & Shore), and it’s predictably pricey, but there’s a really good little grocery store (Greer’s) and farm stand a 15 minute drive inland. There are a few restaurants, but no chains. We had one excellent dinner out, slightly inland at Baudean’s– I had grouper topped with soft shell crab and a delicious butter pecan sauce. There is an excellent seafood market on the island, Skinners, where we picked up fresh shrimp and fish for dinner most nights. Bike and kayak rentals were readily available, including seats and trailers for kids, and the entire island was very bike-friendly.
There is an excellent little aquarium called the Estuarium on the island where you can touch rays, crabs, and other sea life and get up close with all the things that usually freak me out when they bump up against my legs in the water. Our girls LOVED it. There is also an Audubon Bird Sanctuary and a historic fort, Fort Gaines, which is where the quote “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” was first said. We didn’t check out either of those because we spent as much time beach bumming as possible. I wasn’t kidding when I said my entire plans for the week were to sit on the beach and hang out at the house while drinking as many mojitos as possible.
There is a golf course on the island, and the boys in our group played 9 holes. They report that the course had been badly damaged by a recent hurricane, but is under new management and is being improved. They had a good time, and in return, the moms got some kid-free time at the beach.
Speaking of the beach! I used VRBO.com to find a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house for us to share with two other families– a total of 6 adults and 4 toddlers. Ours was the fourth house down from the beach, and my husband said next time he’d prefer to be the house on the end, though the rest of our friends said they didn’t find the little walk to the water to be that bad at all. Honestly, it wasn’t any longer than you’d schlep to get from an upper story at a resort down to the water at most places, I think. The beach itself was sandy and quiet, and the water was perfect– a little windy and choppy on our first couple of days, and lake-smooth and calm on our latter few days. The ONLY drawback to this fabulous little island is you can see about 16 offshore oil rigs from the beach. I would kind of squint and pretend they were boats out on the horizon. I have a feeling the slightly-less-scenic view is what makes prices at Dauphin so much cheaper than places like Destin.
One of the highlights of the week was the day we swam about 40 feet from a playful pod of dolphins. They were jumping and diving, and we could hear them calling to each other underwater. The definite low point was when Claire, Jon, and I all got stung by jellyfish on our last dip in the ocean at the end of the week. In between the high and the low, we watched the girls transition from clingy and anxious about the waves in the first days to floating free “by myself” in their puddle jumpers by the end of the trip. It definitely helps that the surf calmed down, but they also just grew to love the water.
We had a blast sharing the house with some of our best friends, and I’m pretty sure going with other families is the only way to do the beach with young kids. It was no big deal if one of our girls wanted to stay on shore, because some of the others were bound to be there to hang with them. It was no big deal to take turns hanging out in the house with napping kids while some of the other grown ups grabbed some solo time reading next to the water, which isn’t something you can do while trying to make sure small people don’t drown. It also didn’t make us feel trapped by toddlers’ early bedtimes, because we could make pitchers of drinks and play games and hang out on the porch after we got all the kids down. One night we all drank pina coladas and watched the sun set from our house’s rooftop deck while our friend Ken played guitar.
Overall, I’d highly recommend Dauphin Island if you’re looking for a quiet, chill beach vacation experience. We had a great time and I can absolutely see us going back as long as we live such a reasonable 7 hour drive away.