ORANGE BEACH, Ala. - Sitting smack-dab on the Florida-Alabama state line is a rambling beachside roadhouse called, unsurprisingly, the Flora-Bama. It's Ground Zero on the Redneck Riviera, the place where songster Jimmy "Margaritaville" Buffett spent a lot of time wasting away before he moved on to Key West, Fla.
Key West may try to claim Mr. Buffett as its own, but this part of Gulf-lapped Alabama is his home. His sister has a restaurant up on U.S. 98 overlooking Weeks Bay, Lulu's Sunset Grill, where a specialty is "redneck caviar," a mixture of black beans, onions, peppers and seasonings, served on crackers.
Tourism brochures call this stretch of glistening white Alabama sand on the Gulf of Mexico the Azalea Coast. The busy port city of Mobile on the other side of Mobile Bay, where early French settlers first brought Mardi Gras zaniness to North America, is prepping for its tricentennial next year with all sorts of cultural events focused on its glorious gardens, concerts and museums.
But out here on Pleasure Island, the 32 miles of beach that stretches from the Florida border to Fort Morgan on the eastern side of Mobile Bay, the locals have a saltier take on the area.
They sell tourists "Redneck Riviera" T-shirts. There is a joint in Foley called the Redneck Rendezvous. Gulf Shores has Bubba's Seafood House. And there's a lively club for the younger crowd called Live Bait in Orange Beach. The big social event of the year is the annual Mullet Toss at the Flora-Bama on the last full weekend in April. Contestants vie to see who can toss a mullet (a slimy fish scorned by sporstfishermen and gourmands alike) the farthest across the state line.
A local giveaway newspaper is called The Mullet Wrapper.
Fodor's new Gulf South guidebook, describing the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, reports tongue-in cheek:
"Right off Alabama's shore, though not listed on any map, is the Barrier Island Republic. The coup, so secret the U.S. hasn't got wind of it, from which the Republic was formed, took place at a beach keg party in the late 1970s when a group of hard-partying locals seceded from the United States. The seagull, the flying rat of the coast, is the Republic's official bird. The Republic has no government, the locals just wanted to let people know they weren't willing to succumb to condo-fixation."
If you're planning to party with these folks, you'd better line your stomach. A good place to start is Tacky Jack's Bar and Grill, a two-story weathered establishment hanging over the marina on Cotton Bayou in Orange Beach. From the bar on the top floor overlooking the water you can watch pelicans patrolling for their dinner or maybe spot a school of dolphins. Like the Flora-Bama, it's a local institution.
Breakfast at Tacky Jack's is an exercise in gluttony. If you order the Farmer's Omelet, you get enough scrambled eggs and cheese to feed the New Orleans Saints' front four - a staggering amount of food dumped atop a plate-size, inch-thick bed of hash browns.
But get there early. There's usually a sign-in sheet outside the door and a bunch of folks on the dock waiting to get in.
Lunch also is a challenge at Tacky Jack's. If your taste goes to gator, the menu offers "Chunks of Croc." That means alligator tail, fried or blackened, which perhaps just came from the nearby swampy country.
"Gator is our best seller," says Mike "Chopper" Schaffer, owner of Tacky Jack's and creator of its colorful menu. "But it's a labor-intensive. To tenderize it you've got to beat it to hell and back with a mallet."
Another option is "Mudbugs on a Railcar," translated to mean a sandwich of crawfish (crayfish) tails on a po'-boy bun.
Since Tacky Jack's is slightly out of the way, away from the view of tourists cruising the Pleasure Island beach strip along Highway 182, Chopper says 70 percent of his customers are locals, many of whom arrive by boat. They can dock right there and gas up.
It's party time
But enough about that, on to the party.
It's 4:30 on a Monday afternoon and Flora-Bama's main lounge is packed, mostly with snowbirds, "empty nesters," middle-aged and retired men wearing baseball caps and their women with permed hair, Midwesterners who migrate to this part of Alabama by the thousands in the off-season. The snowbirds are so numerous in these parts that each state has its own social club.
Country singer Ken Lambert, who sounds a lot like Willie Nelson, is strumming his guitar and singing a song he wrote titled, We Can Kill 'Em, a diatribe against politicians of whatever stripe.
"String 'em up and run 'em through," he sings. "Politics may not be the oldest profession, but the results are the same ..."
The audience of Social Security recipients whoops and claps.
"I'm glad you folks stopped here and not some trashy place down the road," Mr. Lambert deadpans.
The crowd howls again.
During spring break and on summer weekends, the Flora-Bama scene can get downright wild, with hundreds of college-age kids and twentysomethings chugging draft beer from giant plastic pitchers, the crowd spilling out onto the beach. Since it opened 40 years ago, the club has added patios, bar rooms, game rooms, lounges and a liquor store. Like fresh raw oysters? You got 'em. Lottery tickets? No problem.
As many as three bands can play at the same time on indoor and outdoor stages, and it's open from 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. (Young kids are welcome until 5 p.m.)
If you're sitting at the main bar, you're one foot into Florida, informs a blond barmaid named Debbie from Pensacola, Fla. It was laid out that way, she says, because the Sunshine State has looser liquor laws than the Heart of Dixie.
"We call it our five-star roadhouse," says Bebe Gauntt, spokeswoman for the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You can find something going on there anytime day or night. You might even walk in on a wedding.
"After a hurricane you'll likely see folks wading out of there in waist-deep water with their drinks in their hands. People will call from out of town asking, `Is the Flora-Bama still standing?"'
Ready for some sunshine and fresh air, which is why most folks go to the seashore to begin with?
A respite from the condos, beach houses, hotels, convenience stores, bars and tattoo parlors is Gulf State Park, between the towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. Here are 6,150 acres of public land with 21/2 miles of beach and dunes along Highway 182. It has a golf course, tennis courts and swimming pool, an 825-foot fishing pier, a beachfront resort hotel with moderate prices, a nature center, boat launch, playground, game room and camp store, along with hiking and biking trails, campgrounds and cabins and three lakes with canoe rentals.
It's a popular place for the retirees who descend on the place in their RVs.
Want to wet a hook?
The creation of more than 200 artificial reefs off the Alabama Gulf Coast - with junked cars, Army tanks, refrigerators and such - has made this a nautical Nirvana for anglers. Some 15 fishing tournaments are held each year from June through September, culminating in a monthlong rodeo in October.
The Alabama deep-sea fishing fleet has more than 100 boats available for charter, each equipped with fish-finding and navigation devices. (A fishing license is a must.)
From May to December, the deep-sea anglers go after sport fish such as tuna, barracuda, wahoo, bull dolphin, sailfish, mackerel, sharks and blue and white marlin, many weighing up to 700 pounds.
From the piers, jetties and the beach you can catch redfish, bluefish and pompanos. Freshwater fishers can head for the Bon Secour River, the 700-acre Lake Shelby, or 395,000 acres of other rivers, inlets and coves where speckled trout, black and striped bass, bream and red drum abound.
Golf your game?
More than 13 championship courses are within an hour's drive of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and the subtropical climate invites play year-round. The newest Arnold Palmer-designed course is Cypress Bend at Craft Farms, recently rated the "most playable new course in the U.S." by Golf Digest magazine.
If you go
INFORMATION: Gulf Shores Welcome Center, 3150 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores, AL 36542. Phone: (334) 968-7511 or (800) 745-SAND.
Orange Beach Welcome Center, 23685 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, AL 36561. Phone: (334) 974-1510 or (800) 982-8562.
Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Drawer 457, Gulf Shores, AL 36547.
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