Most golfers can’t take two weeks off for a getaway. Even seven days can be a crunch on the vacation schedule. So what if you have just a handful of days for your next trip — what can you pack into four nights’ lodging and five days on the road? Well, it turns out, you can still plan a pretty spectacular golf vacation in many of the nation’s great destination regions, including Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Depending on where you’re coming from and which airlines you prefer, you can fly into either Mobile Regional Airport (70 miles) or Pensacola International Airport (40 miles) and get to the heart of Gulf Shores (Orange Beach) with ease. For the purpose of providing you with options, we’re going to suggest two nights at two different hotels, but you can just as easily pick one and stay there all four nights.
Day 1: Arrival
Welcome to America’s most budget-friendly shoreline, a region many travelers have summed up as “coastal beaches with Midwest prices.” The 32-mile stretch of soft, white sand from the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar in the east to Fort Morgan in the west presents surreal value on real beauty and quality golf along the barrier island known best as “The Gulf Shores.”
You get off the plane, pick up your rental car and are starving … for food and golf. So first off, head straight to the home of the famous “Throwed Rolls” at Lambert’s (in Foley, Alabama) where the complementary appetizer buffet (and incredible rolls they chuck at your head) have you asking for a to-go box before you even really get to whatever you order. Many stagger out of that experience looking for ways to quickly burn 6,000 calories — and either walk down the street to The Track for a little mini-golf and a ride on their three-story Go Kart track or drive 3.4 miles to Glenlakes Golf Club for some “real” golf.
Depending (seasonally) on how much light you have left in this day and how much you want to play straight off the plane, Glenlakes Golf Club has two welcoming options. The 18-hole, 6,938-yard Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge Vista-Dunes course is a great introductory round. Somewhat Scottish links-style in feel with plenty of mounds and bunkers, you can get all your jetlag kinks out here — or you can take it even easier in warming up on the fun 3,065-yard Lakes nine.
The Lodge at Gulf State Park is 12 miles south of Glenlakes Golf Club and a rather unique Hilton Hotels experience. I stumbled upon this great beachfront property by accident when my intended stay (Hotel Indigo in Orange Beach) was booked full, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled by the blessing in disguise. With 6,150 coastal acres in Gulf State Park, the room and dining views are incredible, with various styles of suites, an infinity pool, a 900-acre freshwater lake and miles of hiking and biking trails not far from the Gulf State Park Pier. Spend at least two of your four nights here (or check out Hotel Indigo, only 1.9 miles east, if The Lodge is full).
Assuming Lambert’s didn’t wipe out your hunger entirely for the week, the Hilton has two restaurants — Food Craft and Perch — or you can drive a few miles for a different sort of coastal ambiance at GT’s on the Bay or Big Fish Restaurant (also on Bay La Launch).
Day 2: Go Time
It’s perfectly reasonable for golf groups to stay up way too late their first night (talking, laughing and maybe doing a little drinking) and sort of stagger out of bed on Day 2. You won’t find any judgments here. The best trip planners often experience a bit of uncertainty when mapping out Day 2. The question is: Do you go out hard with a 36-hole day or be a bit more chill and just find a great 18? We suggest you split the difference and play 27 holes of Earl Stone Golf at Peninsula Golf and Racquet Club. (Happen to have the family along? You’ll pass the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo on your way.) And make sure to send someone over to City Donuts in Orange Beach to fetch breakfast before heading to Peninsula (8.3 miles).
Earl Stone is a far-too-unheralded architect skilled at maximizing fun out of minimally elevated playgrounds. Peninsula is the epitome of that distinction — a mostly flat but character-rich property on Fort Morgan Peninsula, wedged between Little Lagoon and Bon Secour Bay, adjacent the Bon Secour Wildlife Preserve. Covering 800 acres of pristine parkland with oaks, cypress, eagles and alligators, Peninsula has been called “one of the most memorable and enjoyable courses in the southeast” by Golf Digest.
“This is my best work,” Stone has said. “God left us a golf course just waiting for someone to grow grass on it.”
Each of the three nines — Cypress, Lakes and Marsh — are distinctive, beautiful and fun. The Lakes nine is my personal favorite, along with any of the other many holes with water views.
If it’s a hot day, make a quick stop at Matt’s Homemade Ice Cream (next to the Zoo) for a crazy sundae, huge banana split or one of their famous Coke, Sprite or Root Beer floats.
After a day of 27 holes, you’ll probably be a bit tired yet pumped up to be here, so it’s time for a big meal. Gulf Shores has some incredible barbecue. I know, by word of mouth, that Moe’s Original Bar B Que in Orange Beach is phenomenal, but I can’t come to the Gulf Shores without dining at Hog Wild Beach & BBQ. And while I’ve seen their famous “Tantrum” sandwich, I can’t help but order Big T’s Sampler. Every. Single. Time. To be honest, I’ve never even seen a menu here. The first time my son and I walked in, we asked a waitress what she’d suggest. “Big T’s,” she said. She looked smart so we went with it. She was a genius.
After dinner, take a walk on the beach near the hotel to burn off more calories and take in one of the typically beautiful sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, then hang out in the lounge and then hit the hay. There’s much more to explore — and still three more days to enjoy.
Day 3: Whacky then Tacky
If you take my word as gospel (which you should when it comes to Gulf Shores), the only big choice you really have to make when you’re down here is whether to stay in the same place all four nights — or split it two and two. Those who like to explore a bit more will go with the two-and-two option. They’ll do one of the two hotels mentioned above for the first two nights and then go a bit more golf-centric the next two nights — staying at Kiva Dunes Resort or the Courtyard by Marriott Gulf Shores at Craft Farms.
Either way, wherever you stay, you’re going to play both courses. So for practicality purposes (because Craft Farms has 36 holes of golf) we’re going with Craft Farms. However, after a stellar breakfast at Another Broken Egg Café, we’re going to play Kiva Dunes on Day 3.
Kiva is an exceptional semi-coastal play — the only Alabama golf course considered to be on the Gulf of Mexico (although the course never quite makes it down to the beach itself). 1976 U.S. Open winner Jerry Pate built this course with ground movement. “Most of the elevation changes are below ground,” Pate told me. However you interpret that, know this: Kiva Dunes contends for “Best in State” every single year, and the wild movement of the fairways (seen and unseen) contributes to a lot of fun for the golfer. Families who visit and are looking for a resort with a beach club and more expansive lodging options will capitalize on Kiva Dunes’ vacation rentals (or stay at Spectrum Resorts’ nearby Beach Club Resort & Spa). I say this to clarify that the greater Kiva Dunes resort area is about much more than golf and can be a destination all its own.
After 18 holes and lunch, you can always capitalize (space permitting) on a great replay rate oread out to the beach for the afternoon if you’re dying to get back and show off more than just a golfer’s tan (or sunburn).
When play time is over (and there’s a lot of play time in coastal Alabama), check in to the Courtyard by Marriott Gulf Shores at Craft Farms (15.5 miles east of Kiva Dunes) and then grab dinner at Tacky Jacks’ newest location in Gulf Shores at Waterway Village where live music combines with an eclectic environment, a wide variety of beer and a most-interesting menu featuring such items as TJ’s “Insane” Burger, fish tacos, Samiches and appetizers like the “Mexican Garbage” nachos.
Day 4: Take 36
By now you’re ready for a 36-hole day and by golly you’re getting a good one with 36 holes of Arnold Palmer golf at Craft Farms. Be forewarned: Both courses are loaded with water — I’m not even sure which course has more. I love that, but you might not. Just make sure you have control of your swing … or enough balls.
The Cotton Creek course has water in play on seven of the first nine holes. Some of the holes even have water on both sides, like the fifth and ninth. My favorite hole is the dogleg-right par-4 No. 6, which requires you stay left of the water on your tee shot and then carry the water to a peninsula green on approach.
The Cypress Bend course has water in play on eight of the first nine holes. All of the 3-pars on this course are pretty special, with my favorites being those at No. 6 and No. 8. Continuing with the aquatic theme, Cypress Bend gives you water in play on eight of the nine holes on the back, too. It’s worth noting that the closing hole on each course is exceptional, something you’ll appreciate on whichever course wraps your day.
Grab lunch in the clubhouse between rounds. I enjoyed the burger but especially remember their incredible onion rings and the great restaurant view of the 18th hole on Cotton Creek. You can sum up the Craft Farms experience with five words: Arnold Palmer. Water freaking everywhere.
This is your last night in the Gulf Shores — at least on this itinerary. The more guys (or girls) you have with you, the more critical it is that you make the drive to the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar for dinner and … well … a most unique of food and beverage and entertainment experiences. The Flora-Bama has been billed at the “No. 1 Best Beach Bar in America” and is almost always listed among the “Best Bars of the South.” It’s a memorable party scene — and they are famous for their live music (every day of the year), Oyster Bar, interesting décor, the massive concerts they throw on the beach and, of course, their famous frozen Bushwacker alcoholic shake that has a little bit of everything in it.
Consider this: The Flora-Bama has five different music areas, so everyone can find something to their liking. We know of golf groups who go there every single night (and can’t blame them) although it makes golf articles a bit less diverse in content. But it’s definitely a great way to “wrap” an epic Gulf Shores golf trip.
Day 5: One Last Swing
Just because we “wrapped” the trip last night with a party at the Flora-Bama lounge doesn’t mean you have to stop golfing (if you’re not too hung over). In fact, we encourage golfers to schedule one last round before flying home — and that one last round is at Rock Creek, another Earl Stone creation and one of my personal favorites.
To be honest, Rock Creek makes a bit more sense to play if you’re flying in and out of Mobile. It’s 30 miles north of the Courtyard Craft Farms and on the way to the Mobile Airport. People flying in and out of Pensacola might be better off doing Rock Creek on Day 1 and Glenlakes on Day 5, but take both into consideration when planning your visit. We just don’t recommend eating at Lambert’s immediately prior to flying (unless your plane seat reclines all the way flat).
In short, I love Rock Creek. I love all the bulkhead greens with their wooden borders and the plateau fairways. There are so many great marsh carries throughout the round, and my favorite hole is the downhill par-3 No. 16. You’ve had all week to dial in your game, which is ideal rolling into Rock Creek where accuracy is at a premium from the very beginning. The course starts strong and ends strong, kind of like this entire trip. And everything in the middle is just gravy … like the South itself.