Tourists fill the boardwalk benches along the Gulf Shores beachfront. At Gulf Shores Souvenirs & Gifts, where a big purple octopus sits atop the store, customers make their purchases, then flip-flop across the highway to the beach. And the amusement park at Waterville USA is open for the season.
It's time for spring break on the Alabama Gulf Coast.
The annual escape to the South's sandy resorts begins in early March as universities in northern states take spring recess. A list maintained by merchants shows Indiana and Illinois students are expected to be among the first to arrive. By Easter, long before peak summer season, the tourist industry on the Gulf Coast is expected to ring up millions of dollars in profits. At least that's the hope for business owners who say the signs of damage from Hurricane Ivan, which hit hard here in 2004, have been cleared away.
Last year, storm-repair activities were still under way at Gulf Shores, but real estate agents say bookings for this year's spring break are running at impressive pre-Ivan levels.
"Beachgoers are coming back as they know we are really back in top form at the beach," said Bill Bender of Bender Realty Inc., which manages more than 200 rental condos in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan.
"Our online reservations in January are up 78 percent over those in January 2006," said Sarah Kuzma, the spokeswoman for Meyer Real Estate, which represents 2,000 vacation rental properties, with approximately 1,700 condominiums in 169 buildings and 300 beach homes.
"Visitors will be paying more for accommodations than two years ago, but not as much as one may think," says Marie Curren, a spokeswoman for Brett/Robinson Vacation Rentals, a major landlord here. "Our rates reflect a 5 percent increase from 2006."
She said a family of four, which typically rents a two-bedroom condo on the Gulf front for a week, can expect to pay between $178-$207 per night, plus tax and cleaning fee. It pays to shop around. There are minimum stay requirements and special offers.
Gulf Shores restaurant owner Eddie Spence said the condominiums and hotels have recovered from Hurricane Ivan, although not all the restaurants wrecked by the 2004 storm have returned. Still, he expects a "great spring break" followed by a "big summer" for Gulf Shores. He said returning visitors can expect to see "beautiful white beaches, the town starting to thrive again, back on its feet. ... Very few signs that remind you of the hurricane anymore."
Whether you're a college student, a family or a retiree, recreational options abound. Among the most popular spring-break activities on the Alabama Gulf Coast are golf; scenic cruises and charters including dolphin-watching trips, http://www.dolphincruises.com; hiking and bird-watching at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge; and historic sites like Fort Morgan near Gulf Shores and Fort Gaines at Dauphin Island, also popular with bird-watchers.
Other destinations include Zeke's Landing Marina on Highway 182 in Orange Beach for fishing or dining, a good spot to see big boats returning with the catch. Gulf State Park, between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, offers wide expanses of public beaches with a newly built pavilion for gatherings and quiet fishing at Lake Shelby across the highway from the beach. For children, Waterville is an amusement park in Gulf Shores, http://www.watervilleusa.com.
The Flora-Bama Lounge on the Alabama-Florida border at Perdido Key is a popular entertainment stop on the beach, known for its live music, mullet-tossing contest and other antics. Lulu's, the bar and restaurant run by singer Jimmy Buffett's sister, Lucy, also draws large crowds on the Intracoastal Waterway in Gulf Shores. The Wharf, a major new attraction, offers shopping and entertainment, including, movies and concerts.
While things look rosy for visitors and businesses that cater to tourists, the real estate market is in a slump largely because of soaring insurance rates related to the hurricanes. State Farm, Alabama's largest home insurer, recently announced plans not to renew about 2,600 policyholders, mainly condos on the coast.
But the slump creates an opportunity for some. If you like the area enough to consider a real estate investment, it's a "buyers' market."