Immediately upon arriving, do not pass Go, do not bring belongings up to the condo, but head directly to the beach. You will not be sorry.

first-look-at-beach

Don’t forget that the change to Central time will result, for the first few days, in hangry kids who think you’re eating meals far too late but who want Central time when it comes to staying up later.

Immediately on the morning of the first full day, let the kids get in the pool while you and your spouse tag-team on getting ready. The result: giddy kids and a peaceful morning in a quiet condo and out by the pool, where you admire the gorgeous oleander shrubs and wish they’d grow in clay soil.

pool-morning
If you’re by the ocean, splurge on fresh-caught local fish, and grill it for dinner. By the pool. Ignore your oldest child who doesn’t want to eat the fresh fish because she had to dissect a flounder in science this year.

fresh-fish

Fair-skinned people should leave the beach before they think they’re sunburned, because they most certainly are already burned and don’t yet know it. Upon hitting the condo, slather self in aloe vera. Feel sorry for the lobster-red frat boys next to you on the beach.

Pack an entire suitcase of books. Because books. Feel your heart skip a beat when your five-year-old announces he’s packed chapter books, which he’s graduated to post-Kindergarten.

books
Save and invest your parents’ Christmas money in amazing experiences like a dolphin cruise through the lagoons and holding baby alligators and staring down big ones at Alligator Alley.

dolphin-cruise

alligator-alley
Eat grouper tacos at The Beach House, barbecue with white sauce at Hog Wild, and drink local beer.

bbq

But also cook dinners by the pool because there’s nothing better than your own hand-grilled meals, by the pool. (Ask Kate: her favorite dinner was chicken marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, grilled with sweet potatoes. For some reason she didn’t like the blue cheese-pear salad so much.)

Go to the beach at different times of the day. The ocean changes constantly.

beach
Do free stuff like hiking at Bon Secour and visiting the Naval museum. Get the Blue Angels’ autographs.

bon-secour

blue-angels

Relax. Have fun. Hold hands.

hold-hands

Or pull out the dance moves. Either way.

dance

Attend church at St. Jude’s by the Sea. Be happy with straight-up Divine Service I and holy communion. Cap that off with an amazing brunch at Kitty’s Kafe (spelling notwithstanding, the pancakes, mimosas, and fried green tomato eggs benedict were wonderful).

st-judes

Get coffee at a coffee shop so cute, you and Kate immediately snap pictures of it for inspiration for when you build and decorate your beach house.

coffee-shop

Eat fresh pineapple on the beach. Ignore the birds who think they’re fruitarians, because they don’t actually like pineapple. And don’t throw it to them to find out. They really don’t like it, and now you’ve just littered.

One morning, get up at 5:30 AM and go see the sunrise on the beach. It’s worth it.

sunrise-beach

Your last night, go on a beach walk, and stay so late that it gets dark and you can’t even see your kids.

Stop for barbecue in Chattanooga on the way home. Eat barbecue tacos, try all the sauces, and wonder why a barbecue joint in Chattanooga, which is basically in Tennessee and next door to Alabama and Georgia, uses North Carolina vinegar-based sauce. Then shrug it off because the sauce is really, really good.

sugars-ribs

Try not to stop six times before lunch on the drive home, or by the time you arrive at 10 p.m., your five-year-old will be clutching his stuffed alligator and sobbing, “Gulf Shores! Guuulllfff Shhooorrreesss!” out of sheer exhaustion which he’s confused with sadness. (And be real, because you’re also consumed with sadness, not to mention the instant return of an itchy nose and eyes, drainage, and swollen tonsils the second you hit the Tennessee state line. Oh, East Tennessee: harshly beautiful, beautifully harsh.)

Always leave before you’re ready to, so you take the amazing memories home instead of the “Will this trip ever end?” ones.

Gulf Shores, we’ll be back. We’re already making our to-do list.