Hops and Skips

Consider this teaching job: there are nine kids in your class, and you can see the ocean from your windows. My friend Asti landed this dream last year as 4th grade teacher at a tiny island school. Unfortunately for us, it meant a losing a couple of our closest friends to another state, but on the plus side, we had a new destination to visit.

Where is Dauphin Island?

Dauphin Island is a small barrier island off the coast of Alabama, about 45 minutes south of Mobile. Southerners from Tennessee, Alabama, or Mississippi are most likely familiar with the vacation spots along the gulf coast, from Gulf Shores to the communities of Highway 30A along Florida’s panhandle. Compared to these, Dauphin Island is definitely “off the beaten path.”

There’s a stalwart community of year-round locals and a steadily rotating tourist population, though one that’s quiet and that feels very much under the radar. You won’t find high-rise condos or strip malls. In fact, there are few amenities on the island – no grocery store; only a handful of restaurants and shops. The vacationers gather on the western portion of the island, stretching long and narrow with beach-front houses rising high on stilts. The year-rounders can be found in the 50-year-old ranch houses tucked into the island’s piney woods.

On an island this small, a golf cart is the most suitable means of travel. It’s quicker and less exhausting than foot or bike, but it gives time to enjoy the scenery. Shortly after arriving, our 4-wheeled island tour began, and, with a beer in hand, ocean breeze on my face, and no bottles or bedtimes to attend, I felt freer than I had in months.

The history of Dauphin Island

Prior to European settlement, it was a seasonal destination of local indigenous tribes for hunting, fishing, and shellfish gathering. When the French settled in 1699, they found numerous skeletons scattered on the beach and rather dramatically named it Île du Massacre (Massacre Island). The skeletons were actually from a Mississippian burial ground, not a massacre, but the misnomer stuck until they renamed the island for the heir apparent, called the “dauphin” (hence Île Dauphin). In the 18th century, it was a trading port between France and the Americas and later was taken into both Spanish and British possession before becoming part of Alabama territory.

A ride up to the old Isle Dauphin Club transported us into the island’s 20th-century history. Built in 1956, the sleek modernist architecture embodied America’s post-war prosperity, and the vacation club boasted a pool, golf course, and clubhouse with panoramic views of the Gulf. Today, visitors can use the pool for a small fee, and the former clubhouse is home to Pirate’s Bar and Grill. We enjoyed ocean-view dining and the largest fresh oysters I’ve seen.

Crossing the island’s 160 sq. miles shares another story of its past; as a barrier island, it’s particularly vulnerable to the forces of Mother Nature, often changing its very footprint. The old Dauphin Island fishing pier once stood above 20 feet of water. Today, it’s on dry land, thanks to the shifting of sand and tidal flats. Stairs have been added to the end of the pier for access to a quiet walk along Pelican Peninsula, a newly created stretch of land from what was once just an island. It’s a geographic phenomenon that’s happened only twice before in the island’s recorded history. 

What to do on Dauphin Island

It may seem quiet on the island, but life is tucked into every corner. You’ll find local history and a lending library at the welcome center and community center, housed in what was once the island’s schoolhouse; art classes and a storytelling jamboree hosted by the Heritage & Arts Gallery; morning yoga at a local church; basketball courts, tennis courts, and a skate park filled with active locals. There’s a constant hum of activity, neighbors sharing stories, a languid conversation in the respite of shade.

It quickly becomes apparent that Dauphin Island is a secret little sanctuary replete with history and ample stories to tell.

As a seafood addict, I was not disappointed with the local fare. We grabbed a lunch on the go from Miguel’s Beach’n Baja – filling Mahi Mahi tacos enjoyed seaside from one of the picnic pavilions at the eastern-most end of Bienville Blvd. After our first night’s experience with the largest oysters known to man, we next headed back to the mainland for no-frill’s dining at Baudean’s where the portion of grouper was enough for two meals and the mashed potatoes were an unexpected sensation. On our last night, we cooked a shrimp boil at home with a fresh trove from Skinner’s Seafood. Always hungry for a souvenir of Gulf dining, we grabbed another stash on our way out of town; the folks behind the counter will make sure you’re packed and iced for the long drive home.

The days are long in Dauphin Island. Maybe it was just my own perception of time, with this unusual sense of freedom; or maybe it’s that daily life beats at the pace of that golf cart – leisurely, bordering on lethargic, especially in the summer heat. You’d be remiss to visit the island without seeking an epic sunset. The public beach on the island’s west end is the perfect spot to enjoy a day in the sun with warm, quiet bay waters; then return at sunset for an amazing display – a parking pass is good for the whole day. The sun is slow to set; once it’s dropped below the horizon, the sky shines on as it lazily fades into darkness, shuffling through a rainbow of warm colors.

The world is at rest when darkness falls on the island. With few streetlights, the island glows with porch lights and living room lamps stretching beyond windows. Insects hum and chirp as the dense air hangs with humidity, cooling without the heat of the sun. On Wednesdays and summer weekends, Pirate’s hosts live music at its poolside tiki bar; Thursday-Saturday nights, the venue space at Dority’s opens to music, seafood, and a full bar. We kissed the sun goodnight at Pelican Pub, the local no-frills bar with darts, beer served from a cooler, and an outdoor deck overlooking the bay and bridge. 

It’s a unique little ecosystem on Dauphin Island, one that’s under constant threat – from Mother Nature, from tourism and development. The opinion on change is tenuous, a line that tugs between benefit to the island or fear of its detriment. What’s obvious, though, is that the island has been through it all before; the community will follow the path of the land, shifting with the tide, evolving and adjusting as time marches on.

More attractions:

Audubon Bird Sanctuary
Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Estuarium
Historic Fort Gaines

Best-Kept Secret:

Chicken biscuit breakfast from the griddle in the Chevron gas station. Freshly breaded and fried; request with egg and cheese. Delicious!

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