In Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico lies a sleepy little island where romantics seek out restful, secluded beaches, and poets gain inspiration while wandering its shell-strewn shores, sand dunes, and woodlands. Bird watchers flock there for the chance of a rare bird sighting, since the entire island is a bird sanctuary. From beaches, boats, and piers, anglers cast lines for the big catch, while golfers work on their drives on a course bordered by the Gulf waters.
This quiet escape 30 miles south of Mobile, Alabama, is called Dauphin Island. It is among the last places on the Gulf Coast that remains uncrowded, drawing visitors throughout the year. This lush barrier island keeps a low profile, though it is accessible from the mainland via a four-mile-long bridge. Flying to Dauphin Island is an opportunity to ditch traffic, seek serenity, and enjoy outstanding Gulf seafood.
To get to Dauphin Island Airport (4R9) you will need to cross about 3 nm of open water, although you can parallel the bridge that connects the island to the mainland. The barrier island is about 14 miles long and one mile wide. Exact measurements are impossible since barrier islands shift as the ocean builds them up or washes them away. Your bird’s eye view shows beaches and dunes facing the Gulf side and tidal flats and marshes on the Mississippi Sound side of the island. It somewhat resembles a slender fish, hooked and tethered to the mainland by a causeway. At the east end, Fort Gaines forms its head and Little Dauphin Island points northwest, toward the mainland.
The airport is on the northeast portion of the island, near the bridge. The single, asphalt Runway 12/30 protrudes into the bay from the northwest edge of town. Pilots say landing here is akin to landing on a 3,000-foot-long aircraft carrier. There are displaced thresholds at each end. Watch for downdrafts over the water on short final, and crosswinds, which are common since ocean breezes flow unimpeded across the runway. Winds permitting, it is recommended to land on Runway 12 and take off from Runway 30 to avoid operations over town.
You’ll see numerous natural gas derricks in the bay surrounding the island. Watch for extensive helicopter traffic servicing these derricks. Also watch carefully for large flocks of birds, particularly pelicans. The center of the runway is littered with shards of shells that seagulls have dropped to break open and gobble the meat inside. The shells are sharp, so avoid running over them. There is ample ramp space, and tiedowns for up to twelve aircraft.
If you fly in for lunch, the nearest restaurant is a half-mile from the eastern end of the runway, although most are approximately two miles away. If you like to walk, the terrain is flat. Exit the airport, then take a right (south) onto Omega Street, and another right onto the main drag, Bienville Boulevard. Otherwise, a phone call will summon transportation from most Dauphin Island restaurants and accommodations. A shuttle runs during the tourist season (see Transportation). A public phone is outside the shack beside the runway at the top of the steps. For information on the airstrip, call the Dauphin Island airport manager, Bill Meredith, 251-824-2831.
The nearest fuel is at St. Elmo Airport (2R5), 16 nm northwest. If you need full services, such as rental cars, fuel, and maintenance, Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM) is the nearest major airport. It is on Mobile Bay, south of downtown Mobile, 22 nm north of Dauphin Island. Services are available from Signature Flight Support 24 hours, 251-433-2800.
Over the past 1,000 years, many a canoe was paddled to Dauphin Island. Alabama and Coushatta Indians visited regularly, feasting on succulent oysters that they roasted on hot coals. After centuries, the heaped-up discarded shells formed enormous piles now called shell middens.
Evidence suggests some of the first landings of Europeans on this continent occurred here, centuries before Columbus. Sixteenth century British documents mention a Welsh prince, Madoc Gwynedd, who is said to have explored the area in 1170. Accounts of fair-skinned, Welsh-speaking Indians by 17th and 18th-century explorers further support that legend. Known as Mandans, they were described as living in permanent settlements with forts and towns laid out in streets and squares. Their language was remarkably similar to Welsh and they fished from coracles, a primitive kind of boat used in Wales today.
By 1540, the plundering expedition of Spaniard Hernando de Soto, on a fruitless quest for the Fountain of Youth, sailed into Mobile Bay, after trading and pillaging several Indian villages. He arrogantly demanded treasure, food, and women from Chief Tuskaloosa of the Mobile tribe. The chief did not comply and a furious battle ensued with huge losses of life on both sides. In its aftermath, Maubilia, the core city of the tribe, was left in ruins. Further attempts by the Spanish to colonize the area failed.
In 1699, a French explorer, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville explored Dauphin Island. His party discovered a heap of 60 human skeletons on the southwest end, leading his men to dub the island, Isle Massacre. Fortunately, le Moyne re-named it Isle Dauphine, in honor of the French crown prince, Louis. Dauphin and dauphine were the titles of the heir to the throne and his wife. Later, the “e” was dropped.
Back then, Pelican Island, now offshore to the south, connected with Dauphin Island, forming a deep-water harbor that could accommodate 30 ships at a time. In the race to claim North America, France made headway against Spain and England and was able to make Isle Dauphine the new capital of her colony. After a devastating hurricane in 1717 and continual attacks by Spain, people began abandoning the area for Mobile or New Orleans. Throughout the late 1700s the region passed back and forth between Spain, France, and England.
The island became U.S. territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 though the English briefly took Mobile during the War of 1812. To guard against future coastal attacks, the U.S. constructed a series of forts, one of which was Fort Gaines on the eastern tip of the island, completed in 1848.
Confederate forces occupied Fort Gaines for the first three years of the Civil War and in August 1864 it was the scene of the Battle of Mobile Bay. Union Admiral Farragut’s 24 ships engaged Confederate Admiral Buchanan’s ironclad Tennessee, and three small gunboats. One of Farragut’s ships, USS Tecumseh, was sunk by a tethered mine (called “torpedoes” then), and others took cannon balls from Fort Gaines. The ships had begun drifting towards Fort Morgan, three miles across the mouth of Mobile Bay on the mainland, when Farragut, aboard his flagship Hartford, shouted his now-famous order, “Damn the torpedoes…Full speed ahead!” The fleet regrouped and made it to Fort Gaines across underwater mines that failed to explode. Ultimately, the Confederates were forced to surrender.
After the Civil War, a few people remained on the island, making a living by fishing or farming. By 1950 there was daily boat service and about 250 residents. The Mobile Chamber of Commerce bought and subdivided the island in the early 1950s, selling 1,500 lots to the public to raise funds to build a bridge to the mainland. The bridge opened in 1955 and today, the population is a little over 1,300. The eastern six miles of the island are inhabited, while the western eight miles are undeveloped and privately owned.
Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina both hit the island and caused sands to shift. Pelican Island is once again connected to Dauphin Island, as it was when the French used Pelican Bay. For now, the 850-foot “fishing” pier is on dry land. After the hurricanes, the BP oil spill and recession further pounded small local businesses. Some closed, but others have taken their place, and all welcome visitors to their now-clean beaches and clear Gulf waters.
Peaceful and romantic pursuits are the order of the day on Dauphin Island. Beachcombing might be as energetic as you care to be; admiring the sunset over aperitifs can evolve into an art form. Walking here is a joy; cars are slow and the main road east to west is just seven miles long. Traffic lights are nonexistent and sightseeing is low-key and unhurried.
On the west side of town, beach houses on stilts seem to wade into the water, dwindling to just a few residences as you continue west toward the uninhabited, sandy tail of the isle. Fort Gaines occupies the eastern tip, and the Isle Dauphine Golf Club sits above the dunes on the south side. The motels, restaurants, pubs and shops are centrally located near the beach. The water tower at the “T” intersection formed by Bienville Boulevard and Dauphin Island Parkway is a handy central reference point.
Serious beach cravings can be satisfied at Dauphin Island Beach, a few hundred yards west on Bienville Boulevard. A park beside the beach has covered picnic tables and restrooms. Après sun and sand, the “watering holes” are conveniently just across the road, and the ice cream parlor is a little farther west. Beaches are open year round; during spring and summer 8 a.m.–6 p.m., there is a walk-in fee of $2 or $5 for a car.
At the east end of the island, you will find Fort Gaines, the primary historic attraction. Gazing out over the sparkling bay from this five-sided fort, you can imagine blockade-runners desperately ferrying supplies to a beleaguered Confederacy holed up in the fort. During World War I, an artillery unit was stationed here. It was operated as a U.S. Coast Guard base in World War II and remained in use until 1946. Full-costume events are held throughout the year, complete with drills and cannon fire. You’ll find a blacksmith shop, kitchens, a museum, gift shop, and tunnels. Admission $4–$8, open daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., 51 Bienville Blvd., 251-861-6992.
The Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab is just a five-minute walk from Fort Gaines. Housed in a former radar station, this marine research laboratory works to preserve the delicate ecosystem of the fourth largest estuary in the country. Referring to a tank with marine animals, frogs, and soft-shell turtles that share the Delta and canals with 25,000 alligators, Estuarium manager Robert Dixon said, “Amphibians are the canaries of the planet,” alluding to the proverbial bird in a coal mine. Entering via a boardwalk over the salt marsh, you can learn how barrier islands are formed, admission $6–$10, open Mon–Sat 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun 1–5 p.m. (Sep–Feb); open Mon–Sat 9 a.m.–6 p.m., Sun noon–6 p.m. (Mar–Aug), 101 Bienville Blvd., 251-861-2141.
Action Outdoors can take you on a boat cruise on The Duke, a 44-foot Bonner that can carry 42 passengers. Bay/inshore fishing trips include license, rod, reel, and bait; bring a cooler and ice for your fish. Fishing cruises operate 8 a.m.–noon, $30–$45. Lighthouse/shrimping/dolphin tours run 1–4 p.m., $25–$35. Sunset cruises are 5–8 p.m., $25–$35, under 5 free on all cruises, which depart from the Dauphin Island Marina, 650 LeMoyne Dr., 251-861-2201.
Dauphin Island is a bird-watcher’s paradise, especially during the migration times of mid-April and October. At these times, the birds are less wary of humans and more interested in feeding since it is the first land they reach after flying up to 20 hours from South America. About 420 bird species have been observed on the island. The Audubon Bird Sanctuary comprises 137 acres of forest, sand dunes, swamp, lake, and beach in the eastern hinterlands and makes for a romantic walk. Take Bienville Boulevard west from Fort Gaines; at the “Audubon Trails” sign, go south on a sandy track to a small parking area. Near the wooden boardwalk, you will find a box holding free maps and bird lists. There are three miles of trails to roam, including a 1 1/2-mile loop. Look closely into the waterways to glimpse an alligator’s nose and eye bumps protruding from the water.
Decades ago, goats roamed on the island and slept in trees to escape night-marauding alligators. A stand of ancient Spanish moss-draped oaks where they would hide is in Cadillac Square Park and is appropriately named “Goat Trees.” The park is a good place for a picnic or to access the bike path that goes the length of the island, Bienville Blvd. east of the water tower.
Shell middens, or mounds, left behind by ancient Native American oyster connoisseurs can be seen at Shell Mound Park. Strolling among the groves, you’ll be fascinated that some of the immense oaks, unique to this island, are 800 years old, and were mature when the Spaniards arrived in 1519.
Although Alabama occupies only 4% of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coastline, much of the red snapper caught in the Gulf is hooked along its coast. That said, red snapper is not as plentiful as it once was. To try and catch one, take your rod down to a deserted stretch of beach and wet a line, or try the jetties around the fort. You can’t fish off the Dauphin Island Fishing Pier anymore, as it currently sits on dry land. The structure has therefore been modified to provide sightseeing and picknicking. Steps at the end of the pier give quick access to the Gulf shoreline. There are no fees, but the pier closes at sundown.
Seven-day fishing licenses are available at the Marine Resources Division office in Shell Mound Park for $9.50–$26.85, 2 N. Iberville St., north of Bienville Blvd., open Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–5 p.m., 251-861-2882, or in advance online.
Head offshore for deep-sea fishing with Captain Mike’s Deep Sea Fishing on three 40–65-foot boats. The main hooks are mahi-mahi, amberjack, tuna, wahoo, grouper, marlin, and red snapper; you may also troll for king mackerel. Trips run from five hours to several days, $130–$575 per person. All fishing necessities, including licenses, are supplied; bring food and drink in your cooler, Dauphin Island Marina, Highway 193 near the Dauphin Island Bridge, 251-861-5302.
Renting a sea kayak is an ideal way to see Little Dauphin Island, which is part of the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge where pelicans and sea turtles nest. A three-mile paddle carries you to Sand Island, home of an 1873 lighthouse. Lynn Irving of Dauphin Island Kayak & Bike Rental rents single and tandem kayaks. She can deliver to the airport or your hotel. Rentals are two hours to full day, $25–$60. Lynn also has basic beach bikes for adults and kids, including a three-wheeler and a trailer, $10–$15 full day, 251-422-5285 or 251-861-2222. For more information on the wildlife refuge, contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 251-540-7720.
The Isle Dauphine Golf Club has fairways bordering the beach and putting greens overlooking the Gulf. Players remark that the par 72 course is challenging, boasting 6,620 yards and slope rating of 123. Jeffrey Collier, mayor of Dauphin Island, says celebrities play here because it is secluded. Non-golfers can play tennis, swim in the pool, relax at the bar, or stroll a long boardwalk to the water’s edge. Greens fees are $25 for 18 holes, and $13 for 9 holes, 100 Orleans Dr., south of Bienville Blvd. and west of the water tower, 251-861-2433.
Short-term accommodations include a Bed and Breakfast, a few motels, and a campground. Condominiums and houses are also available for longer stays.
George Clark is the host of the Dauphin House Bed & Breakfast, overlooking Dauphin Bay. The heart of the B&B is a cozy stone fireplace where guests gather in the evenings. Your home-style Alabama breakfast includes sausage, grits, hash browns, muffins, pancakes, and if you’re lucky, George’s stupendous biscuits that his Mammy taught him to bake as a boy. Choose either a bedroom in the main house or a room with a private entrance facing the courtyard. Some rooms have a view of the bay and each has its own bathroom, along with WiFi. They will pick you up from the airport so long as someone is available, rooms $98–$142, 730 Cadillac Ave., 251-391-4073.
The modest Gulf Breeze Motel, owned by Mike and Karen Tafra, has 31 rooms with queen-size beds. Two suites have two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room with a futon; all rooms have WiFi, $69–$129. The motel is one block from the public beach with access to a dock where you can fish or go crabbing. Pets are allowed for $20 per pet per night, courtesy transportation provided if someone is available, 1512 Cadillac Ave., 251-861-7344 or 800-286-0296.
Dauphin Island Real Estate arranges rentals of condominiums and beach houses. Seven day rentals can be made online; daily rentals (four-day minimum) are made by phone. Condominiums run $500–$2,000 per week; houses run $600–$3,200 per week, 251-861-8042 or 888-707-6444.
Close to the bird sanctuary, Fort Gaines, and the Estuarium, the Dauphin Island Campground has 15 tent sites, a bathhouse with hot showers, washing machines and dryers, and a boardwalk leading to a secluded beach. Other amenities include a campground store, games, and bicycle rentals, $15 per day. Campsites are $25.52 per night per tent, including water and electricity, 109 Bienville Blvd., 251-861-2742.
Dauphin Island restaurants are casual, serving fresh Gulf seafood prepared Southern style with French and Caribbean undertones. JT’s Sunset Grill is just half a mile east of the runway. Seafood delights, especially shellfish, are served on paper plates with Styrofoam cups, but the fresh flavors are what matter most here. Blackened fish, gumbo, crab cakes, crab and shrimp bisque, po’ boys, fish tacos, and hush puppies are popular selections, entrées $9–$18, open daily 11 a.m.–9 p.m., 1102 DeSoto Ave., 251-861-2829.
Skinner’s Seafood was ranked No. 1 by all the locals we interviewed. Absolutely the freshest seafood you can get; most of what you order was swimming or crawling scant hours ago. It’s all to go, but picnic tables are scattered all around the island; just ask for recommendations. You might consider bringing a good cooler and filling it with seafood and ice before you fly home. They’re best known for their shrimp, steamed and served with corn and potatoes. Other favorites include raw or steamed oysters and fresh fish of the day, market prices vary, open Mon & Wed–Sat 8 a.m.–6 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–5 p.m. (Mar–Labor Day); open Wed–Sat 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–2 p.m. (Labor Day–Feb); 1012 Bienville Blvd., 251-861-4221. After your meal, you can unwind upstairs with a drink at The Pelican Pub, which is open from 1 p.m. until the wee hours, 251-861-7180.
At breakfast, the locals gather at the Lighthouse Bakery for fresh goodies like cinnamon pecan rolls, bacon bread “Piggie Doodles,” cream cheese and fruit Danishes, and cappuccino. Sunday mornings are crowded, but worth the wait for the specialty omelets, including the fresh crab. Omelets are served Sun 9 a.m.–1 p.m., entrées $5–$15, free airport pickup (the owner is a pilot), open Wed–Fri 6 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat 6 a.m.–4 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–3 p.m., 919 Chaumont Ave., 251-861-2253.
Near the golf course, Pirates’ Pleasure offers waterfront indoor/outdoor and poolside dining. Customer favorites include the surf and turf or the seafood platter with fish, oysters, shrimp, and crab cakes or soft-shelled crab; entrées $10–$20, open daily 7 a.m.–9 p.m. (Mar–Labor Day); open daily 8 a.m.–7 p.m. (Labor Day–Feb). Pirates’ Pleasure claims to be the only restaurant on the island that serves breakfast. Start your day with steak and eggs or any of a large selection of omelets, including crab. Sides include hash browns and hush puppies, 100-A Orleans Dr., 251-861-2969.
The city operates a shuttle during the tourist season; fares run 50¢–$1. The shuttle operates 9 a.m.–4 p.m., weekends only during April and daily May–Labor Day. The shuttle’s fixed route does not include the airport, but you can call for a pickup. On weekdays, call Town Hall at 251-861-5525 x222; on weekends call the Police Department dispatch at 251-861-5523 and they will send the shuttle your way.
Most motel and restaurant proprietors will gladly pick you up at the airstrip; call to arrange when you reserve, and then call again when you land.
If you land at Mobile Downtown Airport (BFM) on the mainland, you can rent a car and drive the 20 miles to the island via Highway 163, Dauphin Island Parkway, and bridge. The FBO, Signature Flight Support, offers rental cars, a midsize vehicle starts at $55 per day with unlimited free miles, 251-433-2800.
The delicate strip of white sand that is Dauphin Island is understandably downplayed and well protected by its residents who value a simpler, slower-paced life. Would-be developers petition to build modern recreational facilities, but more often than not these are rebuffed as too disturbing to the peace. Flyers will be glad they dropped in to enjoy this tranquil, understated haven.