Ecotourism and Nature Travel to the Gulf Shores of Alabama: Part 2

Reader Contribution by Lisa Kivirist and Inn Serendipity
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Alabama’s Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores are becoming a natural playground. Joined by my photographer-husband John Ivanko during a recent trip here, we discovered so much more than sandy beaches and plentiful sunshine. Sure, we kicked off our sandals, splashed around in the Gulf, and grabbed an Adirondack chair to catch the sunset and count shooting stars at night.

But in Orange Beach, you’re just a few minutes’ drive away from some of the best birding along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s easy to disappear into some of the many natural areas set aside as parks and preserves. As we covered separately, the area is also becoming known as a food traveler destination.

This is the second post, covering our additional ecotourism adventures and several accommodation options, including the new The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a LEED-certified property soon to open.

Hiking, Biking or Yoga in the Gulf State Park

Nestled between the communities of Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores, the 6,150-acre Gulf State Park has it all, pristine beaches, inland lakes, maritime forests and coastal marsh for hiking, biking and even yoga during the annual Awakened Life Yoga Festival in April.

We had a chance to grab a yoga mat and experience a portion of the three-day Awakened Life Yoga Festival. It provides a well-organized portal to experience nature through a yoga lens, offering a variety of offerings for beginners to seasoned yogi, including power to peaceful yoga asana, meditation and kirtans.

“We want to create a unique space where we can bring together an amazing group of teachers, coaches and artists to help folks connect to their own creativity and spirit,” explains Jen Hammond, yoga instructor and the event’s organizer. Need a pick-up after a yoga session?  Head over to Soul Bowlz for their organic acai smoothie bowls made with fresh fruit.

While not in the Gulf State Park, for a bird-eye view of the coastal area as well as an adrenalin boost, Hummingbird Ziplines at The Wharf offers eight ziplines, traversing more than 6,000 feet. In contrast to what’s offered at many of the other shops at The Wharf, Hummingbird’s gift shop even features Fair Trade items.

Eco-Lodging at The Lodge

While Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores are populated with high rise condos, a great option if you want to cook your own local seafood in your kitchen while taking in the breath-taking views of the Gulf of Mexico, there are also more quaint beach houses, both reserved through Meyer Vacation Rentals. If you’d rather unwind in the peace and quiet in nature, try the more rustic cabins, cottages or camping at the Gulf State Park. 

Graced by a panoramic view of the beach and ocean, The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a soon-to-open luxury eco-hotel also nestled inside the park, promises to offer one of the most environmentally-sensitive lodging options not only in Alabama, but perhaps the entire US. Owned by the Alabama State Park but operated by Hilton Hotel and Resorts, The Lodge grew out of an extensive collaborative community effort after Hurricane Ivan destroyed the area in 2004. A master plan for the state park was developed that shepherds both the environment and economy. 

The result is a LEED Gold certified high-end 350 room luxury hotel. Each step of the planning and building process involved a commitment to stewarding the ecosystem in a way that still provides the lodging experience Hilton guests expect.

“The community and partners came to a decision early on that this was not going to be another hotel on the beach and we were going to do this right,” explains Chandra Wright, Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives at the Lodge at Gulf Sate Park.  “For example, we know that sand continually moves and a way to help naturally preserve the dunes was to build in a way that sand can move under the Lodge.  You’re not going to see any manicured lawns anywhere here and instead experience a Lodge right in the middle of an active dune system.”  The Lodge will also be built to withstand a category five hurricane, or “tropical occurrence” as they are dubbed in the local tourism world.

Such innovation requires pushing the envelope within typical Hilton expectations and requirements as well.  You won’t find any single use plastic items on the property, including no straws or plastic bottles.  Guest bathrooms will have bulk dispensers instead of individual shampoo and toiletry containers. 

“What you will see are lots of educational components on why we’re doing what we’re doing throughout the property,” adds Wright.  The Interpretive Center on the property is taking the bar higher and going for LEED Platinum designation, aiming to generate more power than it uses.

The Lodge and all of the increasing eco-experiences and awareness germinating on the Gulf Shores serve as more than a fun vacation destination; they remind both the community and visitors alike that we are all an active, integral part of our landscape and play a vital role in preserving it.

Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs.

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