When I’m opting for a non-work beach vacation that’s drivable for us from Tennessee, it’s hard for me to go anywhere but South Walton, Florida. Then the virus arrived and changed my tune. Suddenly, I wanted to be as far away from people as possible, and that’s just, well, impossible along 30A. So I Googled my little heart out one night and that’s how I came across Dauphin Island in Mobile County, and thus found the perfect pet-friendly beach vacation in Alabama, situated right along the Gulf.
Can we just talk about what a mind shift it is trying to plan vacations where the goal is to see no one, go nowhere, have contact with absolutely no one and try nothing local? It’s a whole new concept of vacation, and while it’s not perfect—I definitely miss getting to know a place through its local populace—it’s a temporary solution for those of us who require a break from routine.
My inbox has been inundated with requests for travel advice from Tennessee friends and other Southerners trying to crack the code: how can we get the mental break we all need right now but do so safely? I’m in the same boat, guys. I love me some Emerald Coast beach days, and before the pandemic, SVV and I had planned to squeeze in a 30A vacation in May ourselves. But now we’re holding off until the fall, at the earliest, when the kids go back to school and it’s not a madhouse.
What we’re seeing now that Florida vacation rentals have reopened is some serious disregard for public safety and social-distancing rules, not just in the state but across the coast. Friends in Orange Beach are texting me gobsmacked that the scene down there is a full chaos—restaurants and bars at full capacity, beaches absolutely brimming with tourists—and for those of us anticipating a second wave of this virus, I’m going to assume it’s coming sooner than the fall now. So let’s talk about alternatives, shall we?
A beach vacation in Alabama devoid of crowds
We go to Alabama regularly; my dad is from Birmingham so we have family down there, and we’re huge fans of Huntsville, visiting as frequently as we can. However, as a die-hard 30A girl, I’ve spent very little time on the Alabama coast and knew absolutely nothing about Dauphin Island prior to visiting; in fact, I’d never even heard the name, and I consider myself an expert on Southern travel. It truly was an Internet rabbit hole that took me there. And when I saw that I could rent a house right on the beach—because, well, the entire island is essentially a beach—and take Ella along for the ride, I was sold.
Dauphin Island is a 14-mile-long barrier island, that is less than two miles wide at the widest point. It’s also at risk of disappearing over the coming years as climate change raises sea levels.
What to expect from Dauphin Island
First of all: Dauphin Island is tiny. You cross over Mobile Bay via a long, winding bridge, and once on the other side, don’t blink or you’ll miss the town itself entirely. I can’t tell you about the restaurant and bar options, as other than popping into Lighthouse Bakery to grab breakfast for the road on our way out of town, we went nowhere but our beach house. And that’s exactly what we aimed to do.
In Tennessee, we loaded up my Jeep full of coolers and bins of nonperishable food and alcohol (duh) and brought everything in with us. It wound up being the cheapest vacation I’ve ever taken! Other than the lodging, which ran us $1285 for the length of our stay, we spent $40 on gas on the way down, $40 on the way back up and $2 for ice at an outdoor dispenser. It’s funny how much money you save not eating out for every meal on vacation.
Where to stay on Dauphin Island
The three-mile bridge over the Mobile Bay deposits you right in the heart of the town. There’s also the option to take a scenic boat ride over via the Mobile Bay Ferry, which travels between Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point.
Once on Dauphin, there’s just one main road—Bienville Boulevard—that bisects the island for seven miles, as well as a dedicated bike lane on the south side of the road. We saw many runners and cyclists passing our house all day, every day. And while Dauphin Island may be 14 miles long, the inhabitable part of it is only half that. The rest of the barrier island is undeveloped coastline.
Our beach vacations tend to be a mix of resorts, condos and house rentals, but Dauphin Island is devoid of chains. There are a few roadside motels, but the island mostly comprises vacation rentals—and as we wanted a kitchen and to be able to seclude ourselves on our own slice of sand while taking Ella along for the ride—this was ideal for us. We found a great pet-friendly house for $250 a night on Airbnb and quickly booked it for four days.
There are about 1,300 residents on Dauphin Island, though pretty much every house we saw was a vacation rental, so I imagine that less than half of those live there year-round. Most of them seem to rent their places out on Airbnb, which was how we found our cozy A-frame. The decor was dated, sure, but the house was three bedrooms and two bathrooms, pet-friendly and would be perfect for a family with kids. It was also right across the street from beach access, which was key.
But there are a ton of Airbnb rentals on Dauphin Island, so I’d suggest customizing your search by number of travelers, date range, and price point and seeing what you find.
The beaches of Dauphin Island
Is the water surrounding Dauphin Island as pretty as the Florida Panhandle? Definitely not. Though the south side flanks the Gulf of Mexico, the bay empties into it on the northern border; therefore, it’s got all the murkiness of the Atlantic Ocean and lacks the sparkle of the Emerald Coast, though some of the drone shots we got make it look prettier a bit further out. Did that affect our time there? Not at all.
We didn’t even make it to the east side of the island once—I’m serious when I say we barely left the rental house, other than to access the vacant beach directly across from our rental—but Dauphin Island East End Public Beach looks nice. They do charge $2 for admission per walk-in. I can’t speak to how crowded it was, but nowhere on the island seemed to have many people. We flew the drone, so were able to glimpse parts of the island we didn’t visit, and hardly saw a soul out, even with the weather a perfectly balmy and sunny 80 degrees.
There’s another public beach at the west end of the park that was manned by a family. They charge $3 per person and have no amenities (it’s basically a parking lot). We tried to go one day, but they didn’t allow Ella, so we turned around and went back to our beach instead.
The one thing that Dauphin Island does share with the Florida Panhandle, though, is epic sunsets. We were not disappointed there.
Would I go back to Dauphin Island?
Absolutely. It’s a sweet, sleepy little inlet, and when it’s safer to be out in public, I’d love to explore more of the wildlife and check out the beach restaurants and bars and also the 137-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The island is one of the top spots in the country to witness bird migrations during the spring. And while a fisherman I am not, Dauphin Island apparently is a hotspot for fishing, and the one place we did see several people was lining Dauphin Island Beach and Pier, though everyone was appropriately spaced well beyond six feet apart on the benches and tables situated along the 850-foot structure.
This was a pure vacation, so our main goal was just to chill, but the Dauphin Island Park & Beach Board has a helpful website full of outdoor activity ideas throughout the small barrier island. Do you have any plans to go to the beach this summer?
For other outdoor trips to take this summer, I recommend the following: