The Lure of Legendary Festivals: Late summer and fall adventures abound on Alabama’s Gulf Coast


Less than seven hours from Chattanooga, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama offer a unique blend of Southern hospitality, pristine sugar-sand beaches, beautiful turquoise waters, amazing local cuisine, and an array of festivals and special events that draw visitors from around the country.

“We have visitors tell us all the time that we are ‘their beach’ … the place they come every year to make memories with their family or friends, the place where they can escape and just relax,” says Kay Maghan, Public Relations Manager for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “Many people comment that our beaches are as beautiful as those in the Caribbean.”

The Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival is held in November

The Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival is held in November

While the 32 miles of beachfront in the area is the biggest draw, there are many activities to enjoy off the beach, including 24 miles of biking and jogging trails in area parks, zip lining and Segway tours at Gulf State Park, golfing, dolphin cruises, sunset sails, kayaking, standup paddle boarding, parasailing, mini golf and the tallest Ferris wheel in the Southeast. Fishing enthusiasts can cast their lines at the second longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico in Gulf State Park or join a chartered fishing trip. After a long day of sun and adventure, there are an abundance of restaurants to appease any palate—crab claws are a must-have local dish.

“We have an impressive range of culinary offerings – from casual seafood shacks to elegant (yet still casual) restaurants with chefs who bring ‘big city’ experience and elevated dishes, all focusing on local seafood fresh from the Gulf,” says Maghan. “One of the things I personally love about the culinary scene here on the island is that the vast majority of our restaurants are locally-owned.”

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach also have a thriving music scene, with live music available in bars and venues across the area, including the historic Flora-Bama Lounge that offers live music from regional and national acts 365 days a year, The Amphitheater at The Wharf which has featured national acts like Hank Williams, Jr., Taylor Swift, and Kenny Chesney, and several local restaurants and bars that regularly feature musical talent.

Every fall, the Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival—based at the Flora-Bama—draws more than 200 Grammy Award-winning and emerging songwriters from across the country and world who perform original songs in multiple locations in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, as well as Perdido Key and Pensacola, Florida. Over the eleven-day festival the music covers the gamut, with hits written for everyone from George Jones to George Strait, Jimmy Buffet, Tim McGraw, and Jason Aldean. Both Billboard and American Songwriters magazines have recognized it as the granddaddy of songwriter festivals, and it’s been called one of the Top 20 Events by the Southeast Tourism Society.

“The festival is dedicated to the men and women who write the songs that many of us know because our favorite singers or bands perform them,” says Maghan. “Festival attendees enjoy an up close and personal concert experience and are often able to learn the stories behind the songs as told by the original author.”

Founded in 1984, the festival is dedicated to the late Frank Brown, who was the night watchman of the Flora-Bama Lounge for 28 years and loved listening to the music at the lounge. All of the regulars knew and respected Brown, and he was even featured on Paul Harvey’s syndicated radio show, “The Rest of the Story.” With unique “listening room” experiences where performers talk about their songwriting inspiration, the sincerity and authenticity of the performances is unlike any other music festival in the country. Families can enjoy festival music over dinner at numerous local restaurants, and for the late-night crowd music continues into the early morning hours at the Flora-Bama. Most venues are free to attend, but a few charge a modest cover at the door.

Emerging songwriters from around the world perform their original songs in multiple locations. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores CVB

Emerging songwriters from around the world perform their original songs in multiple locations. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores CVB

Another draw for festival attendees is the Oyster Cook Off and Craft Beer Weekend held the first weekend of the festival at The Hangout, a popular restaurant and music venue on the beach. The Oyster Cook Off brings together celebrity chefs from across the country and well-known gulf coast restauranteurs and features over 60 beers from more than 25 craft brewers. Because both events take place in November, it is also an ideal time to enjoy Gulf Shores.

“Fall is one of the best times to visit Gulf Shores and Orange Beach because the weather is just perfect – not hot and humid and the waters of the Gulf are still warm,” says Maghan. “Rates drop in the fall, which makes a weekend getaway a very affordable option for couples, groups of friends, or families.”

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Jennifer Watts Hoff is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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