Dauphin Island, AL: The Most Relaxing Beach Vacation You’ll Ever Take
“…Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” ~ Mark 6:31
Do you ever just really need a relaxing vacation? Not a go, go, go from morning til night, do all the things type of vacation but a lay on the beach, do nothing kind of vacation? That’s where we were in 2016; we just wanted a nice, relaxing, warm, get away from it all vacation. We also didn’t want to drive 18 hours to Florida so my husband pulled up and map to see where we could get to in about 12 hours. He ended up finding Dauphin Island, AL, a barrier island located in the Gulf of Mexico south of Mobile, AL. The island is only 14 miles long and 2 miles wide and boasts bike paths, walking trails, miles of white, sandy beaches and is the Sunset Capitol of Alabama. Yes, please!
We started researching places to stay and other than a condo building, it was primarily single family rentals on the beach. We invited my mom and stepdad to go with us then went to work finding the house that we wanted to rent. We knew we wanted a house on the Gulf side as opposed to the Bay side and we wanted a house that wasn’t on the tiered part of the island (some parts of the island are tiered so you have the 1st tier right up by the beach then there are 1-2 more tiers behind it that don’t have direct beach access).
We wanted to be able to go right down our deck steps and be on “our” beach because we didn’t want to have to lug all of our stuff far from our house and we wanted to be able to sit on the deck and watch the kids on the beach and in the water. We found a nice 4 bedroom house on the west end of the island that was very private and worked out pretty well. The weather that first year we went was pretty bad, it was chilly and it rained most of the week. We had one perfect day and we thoroughly enjoyed it by laying on the beach and getting burnt to a crisp! While the weather wasn’t great, we did love the island and the relaxing feel of the vacation so we decided to go back in 2017 and we went back again this year.
So, what is there to do there that keeps us coming back? Quite honestly, not much. If you are looking for a touristy spot with lots of things to do, this is probably not the right place; you should probably head east to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. There are a few things to do and we’ve done some of them but our favorite thing to do is hang out on our little piece of beach.
Things to Do in Dauphin Island
Hang out on the Beach. If you are able to rent a house right on the beach, you can literally walk down your deck steps to your own little slice of heaven. Our favorite thing to do is relax and play on the beach all day. We like to start our day having coffee on the deck or in front of the windows looking for dolphins followed by a mile walk on the beach, watching for dolphins and picking up seashells. After our walk, we eat breakfast, slather on the sunscreen and hit the beach! Here are some things we pack to “play” with on the beach:
o Boogie Boards – We bought the kids boogie boards for Easter the first year we went and we’ve taken them back with us every year. Boogie boarding is the kids’ favorite thing to do on the beach. If you’re looking to buy one, we bought 37” ones and those worked for our then 10 year old and still worked for our 17 year old this year.
o Wetsuits - Since we’ve always gone to Dauphin Island for Spring Break, the wetsuits have been a life saver. The kids can get in the water and boogie board while we’re sitting on the beach wrapped in blankets. Makayla likes to wear a full-length suit so she doesn’t have to worry about getting scraped on the sand but Connor likes the short suit. The kids finally grew so we had to buy them new ones this year, click the links to shop on Amazon. If you need smaller ones, Connor is selling their old, gently used ones on Poshmark.
o Folding Beach Chairs – The rental houses don’t usually like for you to take the deck furniture down on the beach so taking small, folding ones is convenient and easy to pack down to the beach.
o Sand buckets and shovels – These are great for the obvious reasons but they also come in handy for crab hunting at night. The kids had a ball hunting crabs our first year there, I think my stepdad had almost as much fun! If you think you might want to crab hunt, you should bring a good flashlight and a net as well to make it easier. While it is fun to find them and catch them, please be gentle with them and let them go once you’re done hunting.
o Kites & Frisbees – while some days the weather isn’t right for getting in the water, it’s almost always good weather for flying a kite and if it’s not too windy, the kids like to play Frisbee while they’re waiting for it to warm up.
Watch & Feed the Birds - There are so many different kinds of birds to watch on the Island. We love watching them walk along the beach and fly overhead. It is really cool to watch them dive straight down into the ocean to get a fish. It's also fun to feed the birds bread or crackers off the deck, they swoop down so fast and pluck it right out of the air. Just wait to do this until your last day there. We learned the hard way our first year there that if you feed them once, it's like a Hitchcock movie every time you go outside.
Dolphin Watching – We saw dolphins every, single day; every morning and every evening. They can usually be spotted in the area just behind where the waves are starting to break close to the beach; usually about 100 feet from the shore but sometimes as close as 30-50 feet. If you look for where the birds are flying around, that’s usually where you’ll spot the dolphins because they’re both looking for fish. If you’re really lucky, a shrimp boat will come by and behind it will be a pod of dolphins. It didn’t matter how many times we saw them, it was exciting every, single time.
If you aren’t staying right on the beach, there are 3 main public beaches on the Island.
o Dauphin Island Public Beach – This beach is centrally located on the island, near Holiday Isle Resort. There is a parking fee of $5 per car and the hours are 8 am to 6 pm daily.
o East End Beach – This beach is tucked away on the northeastern edge of Dauphin Island new Fort Gains.
o West End Beach – This beach is located at the far, western side of the island, It provides clean facilities, a picnic area and beach gear rentals. It is isolated down on the western side of the island so it is often not as busy as the main public beach. Our first year on the island, our house was far on the west end of the island and we would see surfers out in the water from West End Beach.
o Public Access – There are several places along the western end of the island that offer public access. Just look for the signs and find a place to park and you can enjoy the beach. We also discovered a little beach area off one of the trails in the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary so that is another option if you are looking for privacy.
If you are interested in leaving the relaxation of the beach, there are other things to do on the island:
Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium – The Estuarium is located on the eastern side of the island just past the Mobile Bay Ferry and across the street from Fort Gains. It is an educational public aquarium highlighting the 4 key habitats of Alabama. Outside is a 7000 gallon sting ray touch pool which the kids really liked, there is a Living Marsh Boardwalk that was a nice little walk and we got to see some more dolphins. Inside is an exhibit hall showcasing plants and animals. We visited the Estuarium the first year we were there and we enjoyed it but we haven’t felt the need to go back; the weather has been too nice to leave the beach.
Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary – The Sanctuary, located on the eastern end, consists of 137 acres of maritime forest, marshes and dunes, including a lake, a swamp, and a beach. It has been named one of the top four locations in North America for viewing spring migrations. While we’ve never seen an abundance of birds when we’re there, it is a really nice walk through the Sanctuary and we usually see turtles in the lake. There are also a few geocaches in the Sanctuary and near the nice, little, secluded beach area. We went to the Sanctuary our first 2 trips to Dauphin Island, Connor and I really enjoy it!
Indian Shell Mound Park – This is a park and bird refuge located on the northern shore of the island. The site is also historically significant due to the presence of prehistoric Indian shell mounds. It was a nice little hike with pretty foliage and trees, there was supposed to be a geocache there but we didn’t find it.
Historic Fort Gaines – Fort Gaines has guarded the entrance to Mobile Bay for more than 150 years and was one of the key sites in the Battle of Mobile Bay (“Damn the Torpedos! Full speed ahead!”) The fort has original cannons, a blacksmith shop, kitchen, tunnels, a small museum and gift shop. We visited the Fort our 2nd trip and I always enjoy a good historical field trip but there definitely isn’t a need to visit more than once. The blacksmith shop was interesting; he is a working blacksmith and actually makes knick-knacks, etc to sell. There is quite a bit of walking up hills and stairs so wear comfortable shoes.
Rent Kayaks or Bicycles – We’ve never rented bikes or kayaks while on the island but they do have a bike lane from one end of the island to the other so if you like to ride bikes, I think it would be a great way to see the island and get some exercise. We also see a lot of kayaks out, both in the Gulf and the Bay. One of our waitresses at Islanders says she loves to kayak in the Bay near the bridge. I’m not a strong kayaker so I’m not sure it is something I would want to try but they not only have places to rent kayaks to take out on your own, they also offer guided tours at Dauphin Island Kayak & Bicycle Rentals.
Mobile Bay Ferry – The Ferry connects SR 193 at Dauphin Island and SR 180 at Mobile Point, saving hours of driving time by providing a link across the mouth of Mobile Bay. The trip between Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at Mobile Point takes about 40 minutes and provides great views of both forts and is a great way to view sea life, birds and other boats and ships. Once across the Bay, you can visit Fort Morgan and then drive up the road to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. Make sure you check the Ferry times so you are back in time to make it back to Dauphin Island or you will spend about 2 hours driving back via Mobile. We’ve actually never taken the Ferry over to Fort Morgan. We were planning to our first trip there but the weather was so bad that the Ferry didn’t run most of the week. Since then, we’ve never wanted to take the time away from the beach!
Places to Eat
There really aren’t a lot of restaurants on Dauphin Island. We typically bring food to eat at home for most days and plan to eat out or order in 5-6 times during the week. Our philosophy on eating in is mostly that if the weather is nice, we don’t want to take the time to get ready to go out to eat, we want to be on the beach, in the sun! We bring breakfast foods like muffins and cereal because we all get up at different times in the morning so we just grab something whenever we feel like it and usually one morning we’ll fix a big breakfast of farmer’s eggs and bacon. We bring sandwich stuff for lunches and lots of different stuff to grill for supper. When you are ready to go out to eat, here are your options:
Skinner’s Seafood – This is our favorite meal on the island! Skinner’s is a carryout seafood place we go to on every trip. You go in and pick out what all you want and they boil it all up for you and put it in an aluminum pan to take back home with you. We like to get crab legs, shrimp, andouille sausage, corn on the cob and potatoes. The guys in the shop can help you figure out how much of everything to get and they didn’t try to oversell us on anything. For the 6 of us, we got 5 crab claws (Connor doesn’t like seafood), 2 lbs. of shrimp (that was too much for 1 meal, but was really good sautéed in butter for fajitas later in the week), 1 lb. of sausage, 6 cobs of corn and a couple handfuls of potatoes. It isn’t a cheap meal, I think we spent about $100, but to eat that same meal out at a restaurant you’d probably pay twice that much. We like to get Skinner’s on a nice day when we can eat outside on our deck with the waves crashing. It is something we look forward to every trip!
Island Rainbow – This cute little place on the main drag serves ice cream, snow cones, homemade pizza and breadsticks. They do have some outdoor seating which is good if you’re just going for some ice cream but if you are getting pizza, I suggest ordering ahead and bringing it back to your beach house. We always order pizza one night when we are there and it is really good; we get 1 supreme and 1 that’s ½ cheese and ½ pepperoni. Everybody always likes it. It reminds me of the pizza place from my hometown that I love and miss!
Islanders Restaurant & Bar – We’ve eaten at Islanders for all three meals between all of our trips to Dauphin Island but it looks like they no longer serve breakfast. The food is good, the prices are about average. They consider themselves “fine dining”, maybe for a beach town? They are pretty well-known for their bread pudding with rum sauce, which is really good. We always get a couple orders to split.
Waves DI – This is a little bar and grill that is family friendly. There is ample seating, live music and a laid back atmosphere. It’s a little noisier because of the music so it’s a good place to bring younger kids and not have to worry about them being a little too loud. The food was not that great: the pulled pork sandwich was good, the Wave-aletta was decent (not as good as New Orleans), the Chicken wrap was ok, my flounder wasn’t good (it was wet and mushy and didn’t have much flavor) and the soft-shell crab po-boy just didn’t taste right (the seasoning was overpowering and not very good). When we were in there, it was busy and our waitress seemed a little frazzled so, maybe it’s normally better?
Pirates Bar and Grill – One of the locals told us this is her favorite place to eat and it was voted “Best Food on Dauphin Island”. Unfortunately, the day we ate there, the food wasn’t very good and it was the waitress' first day. It was also cold and windy so we couldn’t eat outside. They do have a pool and beach access for a fee and live music so it might be a great place to go; it just wasn’t the day we were there in 2016.
Miguel’s Beach’n Baja – This cute little taco place is behind the gift shop. They have a pretty small menu and the burritos are a little pricey but they are also BIG and good. They are takeout only and closed on Sunday & Monday.
JT’s Sunset Grill – This is the very first place we ate at on the Island. It’s located on the bay side and has outdoor seating, which I always love. Everyone was happy with the food; I think the favorites were the seafood bisque, gumbo and hushpuppie. * JT’s is now Dockside Seafood Restaurant, which we haven’t tried yet.
Lighthouse Bakery – This place has excellent cinnamon rolls! Every trip, the men get up one morning and go get us cinnamon rolls for breakfast. They are big and yummy, especially the ones with pecans. I definitely recommend indulging for breakfast at least once on your trip, just make sure you get there early and it seems like weekdays are better, I think it is pretty common for them to run out while people are still waiting.
Capt’n Snapper’s – I can’t really review this place because it used to be Barnacle Bill’s when we ate there but we haven’t eaten there since it changed hands. When it was Barnacle Bill’s, they had the best seafood gumbo I’ve ever had so we were really disappointed when we found out it was under new ownership. The reviews for the new place weren’t great and complained about the price so we didn’t go this last trip.
These are a few of the places we haven’t tried yet:
Foxy’s Waffle Bar and Sugar Den – this place is new and sounds really good!
Where to Stay?
Our choice for lodging on Dauphin Island is renting a private home on the beach. We love having the ocean just off our deck and walking right down to the beach. It makes it so easy to go in and out to the beach and not have to pack up all of our stuff every trip. It’s also nice to be able to sit on the deck and watch the kids playing on the beach. In the mornings, when it’s a little too chilly to sit outside, we can sit in front of the big windows with our coffee, watching the sunrise and keeping an eye out for dolphins. It’s also really nice to have a full kitchen and lots of room to spread out and be comfortable in the evenings. We have always gone to Dauphin Island with my mom and stepdad, it’s nice for the kids to get to spend that time with them and it also makes a beachfront vacation more affordable for everyone. We’ve stayed in the same house the last 2 times we’ve gone.
The first year, the house was a little smaller and the view from the living room wasn’t nearly as good. There are 2 different rental companies that service the island, if you click the beach house; that will link you to the rental company. There are also condominiums on the island, Holiday Isle Condos and a Campground (we have friends that have stayed at the campground and had a great time).
So, I think I’ve covered just about everyplace there is to go on Dauphin Island. It is a small little place that is quiet and laid back. We aren’t typically the type of people that like to vacation at the same place more than once, there are so many places to see. But every time we start planning a beach vacation we just can’t believe that anyplace would be as great as Dauphin Island. For the price, I don’t think there is any other beach where you can rent a private house that sits right on your own private piece of ocean and that isn’t packed with tons of people.
There have been some days that other than people walking down the beach, we see no other people actually on the beach. It kinda feels like our own private little island. I’m sure it’s a little more crowded in the summer but if you get a house on the west end that is only 1 tier deep, you still won’t be surrounded by other people like you always are on a beach in Florida. Dauphin Island is our go to spot for a relaxing vacation and I truly hope you are able to plan a vacation there too!