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Visit Alabama's Gulf Coast for fun in the sun

If you can't get enough of the beaches in the Southeast, start planning a trip Alabama's Gulf Coast.

The Gulf Coast, home to the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, offers 32 miles of beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. It's an ideal destination for swimming, fishing and boating.

Best of all, it won't take too long to get there. Gulf Shores is only 370 miles from Atlanta and about 50 miles southeast of Mobile, Ala.

We surfed the Web to find five of the best bets for Alabama Gulf Coast itineraries.

Gulf State Park

Alabama's Gulf Coast is known for its beaches, where turquoise water laps at soft white sand. At Gulf State Park, the beach is a natural area of sand dunes and sea oats. The park's 6,000 acres include 2.5 miles of beaches.

Those who love freshwater should be sure to visit the park's Lake Shelby, a 900-acre body of water where fishing, boating and water skiing are popular. An 18-hole golf course is located near Lake Shelby.

Park visitors can stay overnight at one of 20 cabins or 11 cottages. The cabins and cottages book up quickly, so make reservations early. Reservations are accepted up to a year in advance. Spots for tent and RV camping are also available. Call 251-948-7275 or visit www.alapark.com.

Animal attractions

Animal lovers will have plenty to see in Gulf Shores. The Alabama Gulf Shores Zoo houses more than 290 animals, ranging from alligators to wallabies. Lions, tigers and bears also live at the zoo, as do monkeys and macaws.

Though the zoo has been hit by three hurricanes in recent years, it is still going strong.

Admission is $8.80 for adults, $6.60 for seniors and $6 for ages 3 to 12. Children 2 and under are admitted free. Call 251-968-5731 or visit www.alabamagulfcoastzoo.org.

The Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Gulf Shores allows visitors to observe a coastal ecosystem that provides a habitat for migratory birds and nesting sea turtles. The 7,000-acre refuge has six miles of walking trails.

Admission to Bon Secour is free. Call 251-540-7720 or visit bonsecour.fws.gov.

Birdwatching

This area is an ideal spot for birdwatching. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail winds through two counties and include six routes, which are called loops. Dedicated birdwatchers could complete as many as three of the loops in a day. A 27-page brochure, which is available online, details the routes and provide information about the birds typically seen along the way. Visit www.alabamacoastalbirdingtrail.com.

Civil War history

Civil War buffs will want to see two area forts. Fort Morgan was used by the Spanish in the 1500s, then rebuilt in the early 1800s to provide protection from the Indians. Visitors to the fort can also find out more about the 1864 Civil War battle in which the Confederate and Union armies fought for control of Mobile Bay. It was during this fight that Union Admiral David Farragut said, "D--- the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Admission to Fort Morgan, which is open daily, is $3 for adults and $1 for ages 6 to 13. Call 251-540-7127.

A ferry connects Fort Morgan and Dauphin Island, which is located eight miles across Mobile Bay. Ferries usually run every 90 minutes. Pedestrians may ride the ferry for $5, while children under 12 can ride free. Call 251-861-3000 or visit www.mobilebayferry.com.

Fort Gaines is located on Dauphin Island. Construction of the fort was started by the United States and finished by the Confederacy during the Civil War. This fort played an important role in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864.

Admission to Fort Gaines is $5 for adults and $3 for ages 5 to 12. Call 251-861-6992 or visit www.dauphinisland.org.

Blakeley State Park

This park was the site of the last major battle of the Civil War. It was fought just hours after Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia. Today, park guests can visit the preserved battlefield and see remains of earthen forts and old rifle pits.

Activities at the park include hiking, biking or horseback riding. The park features more than 10 miles of walking and bike trails and a boardwalk next to the Tensaw River. A number of Indian mounds are located throughout the park.

Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for senior citizens and $1.50 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under 6 are admitted free. Call 251-626-0798 or visit www.blakeleypark.org.

Source: Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.gulfshores.com