Seagulls squawked from their hidden perch somewhere in the thick fronds of palm trees. The air was tinged with salt and humidity, only the latter of which I minded. The heavy blue jeans were stifling and made me feel out of place as I walked through a sea of bare legs and sandalled feet. But I had come prepared – shorts and brand-new flip flops were packed beneath piles of travel brochures and notebooks. At least, I think was I prepared for the week ahead.
I pushed the noisy shopping across the parking lot, past the car’s trunk without a single cubic inch to spare, to the passenger door. Even the backseat was filled side-to-side with file tote crates and camera gear. I filled the empty passenger seat with grocery bags, set the larger items on the floor, and wedged one awkward bag behind the seat.
That’s it, I thought to myself. I have everything I need for the week. I hoped I was right, but the stores would be only minutes away even if I needed to return for more supplies. This was a well-stocked town with every big box store I could need.
I opened the windows and the moonroof – warm air flooded into the air-conditioned car. The only air conditioning I needed was the breeze blowing through the car as I traveled along the four-lane Gulf Shores Parkway. The highway was lined with one-story buildings painted in soft pastels and topped with metal roofs. There were almost as many palm trees as permanent residents – nearly 20,000 people called these beach towns home.
Turning onto Beach Boulevard – still four lanes with a median of towering palm trees – I continued toward the condo. I glanced to my right and saw a sliver of shimmering blue above a sand dune. I laughed out loud with giddiness. I had finally seen the Gulf of Mexico!
Then I reminded myself, This isn’t a vacation. It was a workation – a fine balance between work and vacation. But would Gulf Shores and Orange Beach be the perfect workation destination?
Compared to cities like Boston and Charleston, Gulf Shores was a young town. The construction of the Intracoastal Waterway in 1937 opened the beaches to development. The first post office was built in 1947, but it would take more than another decade before the town was incorporated.
There were few skyscraping hotels or resorts along the beach – a welcome break from other popular beach destinations with skylines dotted with endless concrete towers. Of the few, Turquoise Place by Spectrum Resorts was one of the best. The all-inclusive resort offered every kind of amenity, from indoor and outdoor swimming pools to an on-site restaurant. But I wanted something quiet – and affordable. 85% of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach lodging are vacation rentals like homes and condos.
I put on my turn signal and turned into the parking lot at Sugar Beach Condominiums. The name was painted on the front of the building in bold blue letters. The three-story white stuccoed building was topped with a blue metal roof and featured blue awnings over the doors and balconies. It was about halfway between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, the perfect place to explore both destinations.
With barely contained excitement, I punched the four-digit code into the lock on the drab white door. I swung it open, marched across the tile floor, slid open the glass door, and stepped onto the balcony.
There it was. The Gulf of Mexico. I could only see a sliver of the turquoise water and white beach, but it was enough to feel me with joy. I had saved over two hundred dollars by booking a condo unit with a Gulf view rather than Gulf front. It was money well saved because it meant I could do more with my vacation time.
I stood on the balcony listening to the rhythmic crashing of the water on the beach. It was like a metronome, and I vowed to keep the balcony door open while I worked. The brilliant white sand was like a blank canvas, untrampled by visitors. It was March, the shoulder season to the busy summer tourism season, and instead of thousands of beachgoers, there were less than a dozen.
Turning my back to the beach, I slowly entered the condo I had so quickly passed through minutes earlier. A long couch with a tropical floral pattern dominated one wall of the small living room. A turquoise ceramic fish sat on a glass-topped wicker side table. The walls were painted in pastel blues and greens – the color scheme of any beach condo. A fully equipped kitchen was awkwardly wedged into an el-shaped space in the condo corner. A dining table with four chairs stood opposite the couch. I moved three of the chairs to a bedroom and pushed the rectangular table flat against the wall – like so many other remote workers, I had just turned the dining room into a home office.
I found a two-tiered plastic cart beside the elevator and rolled it across the concrete parking lot to the car. I unloaded totes of notebooks and travel brochures, soft-sided bags of computer and photography equipment, eventually getting to the two gargantuan duffel bags stuffed with all the clothing I would need for warm days and chilly nights.
A man walked past the car. He was finely dressed in flip flops, board shorts, and a Ron Jon Surf Shop tee. His skin was darkened from years of sunlight exposure, contrasting against his silver beard. His eyes were hidden behind thick sunglasses.
“Did the family leave you to unpack the car?” he asked.
“Oh no, all of this is mine,” I replied with a chuckle.
His jaw dropped a fraction of an inch, and his eyebrows rose high over the top of the sunglasses. He quickly walked away in deafening silence.
The alarm clock was a shrill and annoying thing – I suppose that is its purpose. Each morning, I fumbled around with blerrie eyes and jabbed “snooze” on my cellphone. The room was dark. The sky outside was dark. I had made the decision during the workation to stick to my usual work schedule – 5 a.m. alarm; shaved, showered, and dressed by 6 a.m.; writing in the home office until 9 a.m.
Coffee was first on the agenda. Then, breakfast. With the daily necessities of human living out of the way, it was time to work.
Words flowed from my fingertips like paint from Picasso’s brush. Thoughts, feelings, and recollections of senses turned into lyrical sentences, crafted into paragraphs, and they filled the white space on the computer screen. I was in the groove, fingers pounding on the keyboard like a marathon runner’s feet on the pavement.
That’s when the fire alarm pierced the silent air.
I opened the door of the condo and stepped into the concrete hallway. Lights flashed. A shrill alarm echoed. I looked to see if anyone would evacuate, but no other doors opened. The alarm stopped a few moments later and returned the air to a welcome silence.
I walked back inside the condo, cozied up to the dining room table desk, and tried to organize my thoughts. Five minutes later, the alarm sounded again. I sat at the desk, wondering if I should leave. But before I could stand, the alarm stopped. Then it started for the third time.
Frustrated, I walked to the security guard shack at the entrance to the parking lot to ask about the occasional alarm.
“They’re working on the fire alarm this week,” the security guard explained.
This week, I echoed in my head. How am I supposed to get any work done here?
The solution was a visit to one of my favorite kinds of places for remote work: a coffee shop. There were a few coffee shops spread throughout the beach towns, but only a few were suited for remote work.
The first I visited was The Southern Grind Coffee House at The Wharf. When Jimmy and Jaime McPhillips opened the coffee shop in 2012, Jaime used her interior design background to create a gorgeous and comfortable atmosphere. The concrete floor and exposed industrial ceiling were painted turquoise, paired with an off-white on the walls. Solid wood tables, coffee tables, and benches were stained a light brown with leather armchairs to match. The walls were covered with wooden cutouts of anchors, sea life, and lighthouses. Shelves were stuffed full of books, clocks, and lanterns.
Writing comes easily to me in public spaces. Noise-canceling headphones playing “deep focus” music keep my attention on the screen. A delicious mocha latte and a savory dessert are a bonus.
After a few hours of keyboard-pounding excitement, the alarm sounded. But unlike the jolting morning alarm or the frustrating fire alarm, this was a welcoming alarm – it was the end of the workday. It was time to pack away the work implements and discover amazing things to do at the beach.
Shoulder season travel means there are just as many things to do as during the summer months, but they may not be as comfortable. Jet skiing, kayaking, and snorkeling would have been uncomfortable in the frigid water. I was eager to try Sailing, but the sunset cruise was canceled when the wind picked up and dipped the air temperature into the 40s.
Miniature golf – putt-putt to those who know the casual sport well – is a staple of almost any beach destination. Shrimpy’s Mini Golf was the cookie-cutter of putt putt courses with kidney-shaped greens, water tumbling through the middle of the course, and quirky décor like the giant pink shrimp on a metal pole. However, the miniature golf course at The Track – one of the largest outdoor attractions in Gulf Shores – was less of a cookie-cutter design and more customized. Slight hills, a tumbling waterfall, and a giant paddlewheel boat made the course unique and exciting.
Then, my jaw dropped!
What is that?! My mind screamed.
From the highest point of the putt-putt course, a scant 20’ tall, I could see the go-kart track. Higher than the hill, maybe fifty feet, go-karts raced along a descending spiral, round and round, finally straightening only to drop the final ten feet into a sharp turn.
I finished the round of mini-golf as quickly as possible, returned the club, and nearly jogged to the go-kart track. I strapped into the kart, listened to the instructions, and waited for the green light. Like Tom Cruise in one of his wild Hollywood movies, I had a need for speed. The light turned green, and I pressed the pedal to the floor. Round and round I went, three, maybe four loops, to the top of the track before descending on the other side. The lap was over entirely too fast, but I had four more to enjoy. This wouldn’t be my only race of the day.
After the heart-pounding excitement of go-kart racing, I opted for gentler activities the following days. I took a scenic twenty-minute drive to visit Fort Morgan State Historic Site and explored the coastal fortification that once guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay. I went bicycling around the lake at Gulf State Park, where I spotted great egrets and blue herons. I took a class in glassmaking at the Coastal Arts Center, learned how to build a sandcastle with SandCastle University, and shopped for gifts at The Wharf before the week was done.
Between the work hours and go-kart racing and putt putt and museums and shopping and scenic drives, I got hungry. Fortunately, I never had to travel far or wait long for fantastic food.
The Gulf was the first restaurant I visited – and I didn’t realize until I arrived that there was no roof! You’ve probably heard of the movement to convert cargo shipping containers into homes, but have you ever seen them converted into a restaurant? Pulling into the parking lot, I was greeted by stacks of shipping containers painted a bright blue, connected with a rustic wooden deck, and cut open for windows and doors and serving counters.
Emmie met me as I walked “into” the restaurant. The look on my face of bewilderment mixed with awe must have been as apparent as my nose. “Have you been here before?” she asked.
After answering it was my first time, she instructed me about the particulars at The Gulf. Order food from a window over there, get your alcohol at the bar over here, take the beeper to your table, and when it vibrates, collect your food from that window right there. Easy enough. Fifteen minutes later, I settled at a picnic table with a hummus dip, homemade pita chips, and a seafood bowl.
Seafood is a popular menu item, and just about every restaurant serves it in some form. But when I visited The Hangout, I was there for the burger. One burger in particular. It was called The Lifeguard, and it would be my favorite meal of the year.
The Hangout was an interesting place. It was more akin to a campus than a restaurant with an outdoor amphitheater, sand volleyball court, and enormous dining area. I had never seen so many tables and chairs outside of the dining hall of a college campus or the food court in a mall. The hostess sat me at a table beside a large, open window – a garage door rolled up, allowing a gentle breeze to pass through. The table’s wooden top looked to be covered in about ten layers of paint, reminding me of old rowboats crammed into forgotten corners of marinas.
When The Lifeguard arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh. Two half-pound patties, each smothered in cheese, topped with a fried egg, onion straws, bacon, and pickles, served on a toasted brioche bun. I rotated the plate left, then right, looking for the best place to attack the burger. I would have to unhinge my jaw to eat that, I thought. Better to just use a knife and fork.
A great meal deserves to be followed by a great dessert – not necessarily in direct succession. A few days later, I walked into The Yard Milkshake Bar. I had no idea what I was about to endure.
In 2017, Logan and Chelsea Green opened an ice cream shop in their hometown of Gulf Shores. With six years of previous experience running an ice cream shop, they knew they wanted to create something new, memorable, and fantastic. Although not a new concept, they popularized the idea of crafting a milkshake, topping it with a dessert, and smothering it with sweet condiments. In 2019, the couple appeared on an episode of Shark Tank. They accepted an offer from Mark Cuban to invest $400,000 in their business – already with four locations – to expand to almost two dozen franchised locations across the country.
After studying the menu for several minutes, I ordered the Peanut Butter Brownie Bliss in a quart glass. They also offered their specialty shakes in a pint glass – half the size of a quart – and a whopping gallon jug – twice the size of a quart.
The quart glass jar – decorated with The Yard logo – was filled to the brim with an ice-cold chocolate shake with swirls of peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter layered around the lip of the jar was covered with chocolate flakes. A giant brownie was wedged on top, covered with whipped cream, and sprinkled with more peanut butter and chocolate drizzle. The towering dessert was served with a paper plate, a big plastic spoon, and several necessary napkins. Somehow – though I’m still not sure how – I finished the entire dessert and took the empty quart glass home.
I had spent the past eight days writing, editing, shopping, exploring, driving, and dining. Some days were chilly, and others were cloudy. But I never had a bad day. Work had been a moderate success, and playtime had been a magnificent experience.
Somewhere between the miniature golf and massive milkshakes, I realized I didn’t want to leave.
The turquoise water gently lapping against the white sand, waving palm trees, and temperate climate was comforting. Restaurants with open windows offering views of the Intracoastal Waterway and Gulf of Mexico, outdoor seating on the beach or wooden decks, and the extraordinary food were tempting. Museums, waterparks, miniature golf courses, and guided boat tours were enticing. Comforted, tempted, and enticed, I did not want to leave Gulf Shores.
The car was packed again – funny how it seemed to take up more room now. The condo was emptied of my belongings, the lights turned off, and the dining room table was once again just a table. I pulled out of the parking lot and drove across the Perdido Pass, leaving Alabama’s beaches behind. On the other side of the bridge, seagulls squawked, and the air was tinged with salt and humidity. I suppose that’s common at all the beaches.
But Gulf Shores and Orange Beach were not like any beach I’d visited before. They were the perfect workation destination. They could be the perfect vacation destination. I’ll have to return during some balmy summer week to explore that adventure.