Dauphin Island, a worthy detour. If you are traveling along the Mississippi-Alabama Gulf Coast Scenic Drive (Hwy 90), take a detour off the main highway to experience the unique, low key, friendly community of Dauphin Island. No Casinos, No high-rise hotels, very light traffic, but lots of interesting places to visit and things to do for anyone who wants a break from the fast pace and busyness many of us experience. We loved the Nature Conservancy, uncrowded beaches, the terrific bike path, and in general the easy-going ambience of the place. Reminded us a bit of visiting Cedar Key but not quite as artsy.
What to see and do on Dauphin Island?
From the mainland, Dauphin Island Parkway crosses the bridge to the island. Upon arrival you are greeted by the water tower and Veteran’s Memorial park on Bienville Blvd which runs the length of the island. Nearby you’ll find a few cafes, grills, the town offices, and one block west will be the Dauphin Island Welcome Center.
Dauphin Island Welcome & Visitor Center
If you are planning to spend some time on Dauphin Island, your first stop should be at the Island Welcome Center located in an Old Red Schoolhouse. The staff and volunteers in the center are quite welcoming. The ladies who helped me were enthusiastic ambassadors for their Island and the easy going pace of their island life.
In addition to brochures and maps of interesting things to see and do, the friendly staff will make some recommendations and pass along some discount coupons. The welcome center also houses an interesting museum on history of the island and the region plus the town library. The Welcome Center also offers Free Wi-Fi and computers for your use.
There’s a sprinkling of art galleries, gift shops, and island boutiques near the center of town within walking distance of the Welcome Center.
Best Dauphin Island Attractions
Uncrowded White Sand Beaches on the Gulf.
A main Dauphin Island attraction is its’ uncrowded public beaches on the Gulf of Mexico with plenty of free parking. The beach at the East end is located next to Fort Gaines and is bordered by the Bird and Nature Sanctuary. A second public beach is near the middle of the island and is the most popular beach due to nearby pubs and restaurants and its picnic shelters and long boardwalk. A third public beach is located near the West end of the island with beaches on both the gulf and mainland sides of the island. Dauphin Island’s beaches are ideal for swimming, sunbathing, just relaxing in the fresh salt air or doing some surf fishing.
No High-Rise Condos or Hotels and Retail Tourist Traps.
Like we found in the island community of Cedar Key there are no high-rise condos or glitzy beach-themed entertainment and retail establishments. No water parks, outlet malls, city traffic congestion (not even a traffic light), etc. There’s a few places where you could score some tourist merchandise, but on the whole pretty low key. Dauphin Island is a very neat, well-kept small town that happens to have some decent beaches, an Audubon Bird Sanctuary, a smattering of nice places to eat or have a brew, some top quality deep sea fishing, and some interesting museum, historical and marine attractions (And a great bike path).
So Where Can You Stay on Dauphin Island?
While there aren’t huge resort hotels, there are some comfortable inns, nice motels, some B&Bs, and cottages and vacation rentals. And for RV travelers, there’s a decent campground with RV hookups at the Eastern end of the island. (See our Dauphin Island Campground Review here.)
Island Bike and Walk Trail.
One island amenity we most enjoyed was the bike trail that runs adjacent to Bienville Boulevard between the public beach on the East end of the island and the beach near the West end. That feature, combined with the fact of very lightly traveled city streets allowed us to safely bike anywhere on the Island we wanted to go from the Dauphin Island Campground where we stayed during our visit.
Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary & Nature Trails
In addition to biking around the town, another favorite attraction of ours was just West of the campground. The Audubon Society maintains the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuary, a 164 acre wilderness area of forest, marshes, a fresh water pond, and protected dunes area along the gulf coast. Included in the sanctuary is an interesting network of hiking and nature trails, including a 1000 foot boardwalk, that run through the reserve annotated with exhibits on flora and fauna. (My bad hip limited our exploration of these trails; I hope to do some more hiking and exploring on our next visit.)
Dauphin Island RV Campground
We loved the campground’s convenient location, services, and cleanliness of the washrooms and other facilities. Top Notch. Areas for both tents and RVs. See our Dauphin Island RV Campground Review
Dauphin Island Restaurants & Pubs
There’s a number of island bars, restaurants, and cafes. But most of what we sampled were more “understated” in atmosphere, more like your neighborhood bar than a glitzy island emporium you find at many places along the gulf coast.
We had a decent lunch of fish tacos in the Sunset Grill below the Pelican Pub where outside, as if on cue, stood a Pelican . . . perhaps waiting for a handout.
The classiest place to eat or have a brew on the island is the Pirate’s Bar & Grill overlooking the gulf near the mid-island public beach. The structure was built in the 1960s and shows a distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright architectural influence with curves and extensive glass windows, and overhangs. Food service was also distinctive; we had a Mahi-Mahi dinner and it measured up to the best we’ve had along the gulf.
More What to Do on Dauphin Island
Historic Fort Gaines.
Military history buffs will enjoy visiting Fort Gaines at the eastern end of the island. The fort is staffed by re-enactors who demonstrate crafts and what life was like in the days the fort was operational. The fort was one of three that guarded the Port of Mobile from invasion by sea. It played an important role in the Civil War as Mobile was “considered to be the best fortified city in the Confederacy.” The Battle for Fort Gaines (August 4 – 9, 1864) was a critical victory for the Federal troops.
Sea Lab Estuarium.
Also on the eastern end of the island is the Estuarium, an aquarium and marine history museum associated with the University of Alabama Sea Lab.
Isle Dauphine Golf Club.
The once-popular golf course closed in 2012 and was vacant and became overgrown but was purchased by new owners in 2016 who embarked on a renovation to re-open the course. We didn’t get a chance to play it during our stay, but it looks like an attractive, walkable course. The fairways are tree-lined but open beneath the trees so most shots missing the fairway have a chance of being found. Hope to play it on our next visit and provide a review.
Fishing and Dauphin Island Marina.
We’ve been told the waters around the island offer an exceptional variety of sea life, providing a top-notch fishing experience. The marina offers charter fishing and shrimping cruises as well as pontoon boat rental.
Dauphin Island Visitor Attraction Links
We thoroughly enjoyed our two day stay on the island and will likely make the Dauphin Island detour a regular route choice along the Gulf Islands Scenic drive.
If you need a little more convincing that Dauphin Island is a place you ought to visit, check out this article by Jennifer Walker.
Here’s a selection of links to some of the visitor attractions and things to see and do on Dauphin Island:
- Dauphin Island Campground Review
- Dauphin Island Visitor Information
- Dauphin Island Estuarium
- Dauphin Island Mobile Bay Ferry
- Historic Fort Gaines
- Dauphin Island Marina
- Audubon Bird Sanctuary
- Restaurant Guide
Your Scenic Travel Guide: Ross Reinhold