Turn off your cell. Shut down twitter. Don’t let the worries of the day pile up. Forget about work, family, jobs, and that text message that needs answering.
Now breathe deeply. From the diaphragm into the chest and out through your nose. Diaphragm, chest, nose. Repeat, 10 times. Then do it again.
As this caffeinated world shifts to double-up time, and people search for ways to s-l-o-w down, one area of the world comes into sharper focus: Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Alabama has a gulf shores?
Yes, it’s 32-miles of pearly white sands that run alongside the blue-eyed Gulf of Mexico from the Florida border in the east, to Mobile Bay in the west.
In Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, southern hospitality is writ large, and praticed 24/7.
It’s where a kaleidescope of championship courses await you through the Gulf Shores Golf Association (GSGA). It’s where the air is distilled through pine branches, or comes at you with a tangy taste of the sea. It’s where cuisine is called “yummy” and seafood is fresh caught, and a staple of most dinner plates, including those served up in restaurants like the Cobalt, Tacky Jack’s or Live Bait. It’s one of the sunniest and warmest spots in the continential U.S. (average winter temperature 60 degree Ferenheit), and for golfers, it’s a must stop to stay-and-play.
“It’s really starting to show up on the GPS of Canadians,” says a fellow traveller, on my recent trip to Gulf Shores.
The GSGA recently reported that package rounds and bookings are up 17% compared to 2011. In addition, 100 percent of visitors who filled out a guest satisfaction survey reported an “intent to return” and 96 percent said they were “very satisfied” with Gulf Shores/Orange Beach as a golf destination.
Stay-and-play packages with lodging located in the centre of the beach action, or directly on a golf course, can be easily customized via GolfGulfShores.com.
The region is a 2000 mile flight from Toronto to Pensacola, Florida, but with connecting flights to terminus cities like Chicago, Washington and Atlanta, this bucolic playpen is easily accessible, and the nine member clubs of the GSGA, are a match for any in region in golfdom, including Pinehurst, Myrtle Beach, the Monteray Peninsula, Orlando, south Florida, or the coast of Fife.
If golf is an elixir for what ails stressed out Canadians, then the Gulf Shores is the perfect decompression chamber, says Chad Leonard, general manager at Rock Creek Golf Club, in Fairhope, Alabama. This captivating GSGA member club is located off the eastern shore of Mobile Bay and rates 4 ½ stars by Golf Digest. It’s stunning, tree-lined fairways make you think of the Carolinas, not Alabama, and its elevation changes are surprising since you’re only minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
Millar says it’s the variety of golf offerings (“each course is so different”) that gives the region its added oomph, and makes it such a draw for Canadians.
He admits that most Canadians think of the inland Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail when they picture golf in Alabama.
But Golf Shores is way different. Good different.
Its link to the Gulf of Mexico is profound, and any post-golf activities have to include the water, from charter fishing to boat cruises to a warm swim at sunset.
Not that its courses don’t match up with the best in the United States. If Rock Creek was the apertif, Kiva Dunes is the full meal deal.
It’s a match for the more infamous Kiawah Island Club in South Carolina – in layout, look and challenge. But its price points are lower, much lower. It was recently ranked by Golfweek as the No. 1 public course in Alabama.
Designed by Alabama native and former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, it’s the state’s only beachfront resort, and consistently ranks as one of the best 18 holes in the U.S. At just over 7,000 yards from the back tees, it meanders through natural sand dunes, lakes and wildlife areas, and is in immaculate shape. It’s golf as it should be played, says its General Manager Mark Stillings, on true links land, with a fresh breeze coming in from the Gulf.
The Gulf Shores region is virtually unknown to Canadian golfers, but its kalesidescope of course offerings is quickly changing that. With the Canadian dollar at par, it’s really a bargain hunters’ delight. Food, shopping, lodging, and golf come at pretty prices.
There are plenty of lodging options available for groups of all sizes, including massive beachhouses with all the amenities that sleep upwards of 30 people.
The itinerary for my four-day visit to the region was, to put it mildly, hectic. But, through the graces of Millar and the GSGA, we never seemed in a hurry.
If this four-day stay allowed me to fully exhale the stresses of my life, imagine what a full week, maybe two would do?
Here’s a short synopsis of the clubs not already mentioned.
Cotton Creek at Craft Farms is an original Arnold Palmer signature design. It and its sister course Cypress Bend, invite you in with their sprawling, clubhouses. Cotton Creek traverses some wonderful property, ripe with trees, and water on nearly every hole. Golf Digest rates it 4 ½ stars.
Glen Lakes in Foley, Alabama, is a Bruce Devlin-Robert Von Hagge Par 72 layout that is a true Scottish links – with much better weather. The course features exquisite mounding and bunkering and its Bermuda grass greens are quick but fair.
The Gulf Shores Golf Club was built in the 1960s, and the first of its kind in the area. It also features a plantation style clubhouse and was recently renovated to add to its beauty and playability.
Lost Key Golf Club in Perdido Key, is the only Florida stop on the tour, and redesigned by Palmer in 2006. It features Sea Dwaf Paspalum grass from tee to green, and Mother Nature’s bounty is everywhere. It’s the first course to be certified an Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary.
Peninsula Golf & Racquet Club in Gulf Shores is a 27-hole Earl Stone creation set on spectacular Mobile Bay. Its unique design cuts through oaks and cypress trees and features 30 lakes. A nice touch is the chilled apple drink served up on the first tee.
The 27-hole Timber Creek Club in Daphne, Ala. is reminicent of the Carolinas with its forests of flowering Magnolias, Dogwoods, and Loblolly Pines. The wetlands of D’Olive Creek meander through the property as well, offering beautiful vistas. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
Southern hospitality is part of the region’s DNA. It’s about service with a smile, and calling a person “sir,” or “ma’am.”
“We simply like to take care of people,” says Leonard, a Washington, D.C. native who eased into his southern ways after golf stops in other locales around the U.S.
The youthful father of three, says he has finally “landed in paradise” when named GM at Rock Creek.
Fairhope is a artsy Alabama town where car and home doors remain unlocked and people still stop to engage visitors. It’s pure southern Gothic, and very much represents the raw, natural ethos of the region.
Golf by the gulf can be as laid back or as tough as you want it to be. The member clubs of the GSGA offer a wide variety of tee blocks that make courses playable for all.
There’s a lovely duality about the Gulf Shores: it borders the states of Florida and Mississippi, but feels as if you’re in the Carolinas.
The easy going lifestyle is far removed from the hurried life its visitors leave behind.
And therein lies its beauty, says Millar, another transplanted northerner (Maine).
GOLF is a four-letter solution to slowing down your life, he says. GULF is where to do it. Mixed them together gives special meaning to the term: Let’s go Gulfing.
Go to www.golfgulfshores.com or call 888-815-1902 for details.
By: Rick Drennan