In our final travel blog entry from the Gulf Shores, I wanted to discuss our hotel: The Lodge at Gulf Shores. There are a great variety of hotels and rental properties the area. However, the Lodge is one of the most interesting properties that you can choose. The $140 million, 350-room Hilton Hotel was built with money from the BP settlement after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which devastated the area. It was the first hotel to receive a “Cat 5” designation, built to withstand a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 160 mph and the accompanying storm surge. It is a unique design with restored dunes and other ecological elements right on the beach in the park area.
Much of the dunes and the prior hotel were wiped away by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. That was a Cat 3 with 120 mph winds and much of the old lodge laid in ruins and was used as an artificial reef in 2007.
Shortly before our visit, the area was hit by Hurricane Sally and suffered no damage.
A before-and-after view of the pier:
The area around the hotel is not your typical Hilton property with manicured lawns. They restored the traditional beach and natural dune vegetation. The hotel also has a nature center and programs on the environmental and ecological elements of the area. All of the wood and art in the hotel are from Alabama.
One cool feature (literally) is the HVAC system. The hotel wanted to use the sea air throughout the hotel but this is a very humid location. The system therefore pulls the moisture out of the air and then transfers that water to fill and maintain the swimming pool. Guests often want to leave their doors open to go to sleep to the sound of the surf. However, they also want their AC running which is a terrible waste for the environment. Accordingly, the system has sensors to shut off if the balcony door is left open.
I was shown around the property by Chandra Wright, the Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives. Chandra is a lawyer who graduated from the University of Alabama and practiced law before joining the Lodge. She is not only highly knowledgeable but deeply committed to the environmental mission of the property.
While the hotel is a bit pricey, the money helps support other parks. Alabama parks are not supported by general revenue. They rely on the revenue of these parks and properties.
The plan of sustainable tourism is now a model for the state and National Geographic has listed the Eagle Cottages as some of the most unique lodges in the world for their protection of natural and cultural heritage.
The hotel monitors and maintains the dunes. It also dims lights at night to protect the sea turtles. (Baby sea turtles can die if they mistake lights for the moon and head in the wrong direction). Visitors are given stickers to put over their phone lights at night as dimmers and the pier uses “turtle lights” at night.
The dune restoration was quite elaborate. Each hurricane has been wiping out the dunes. They sought to increase protection with an engineered berm installed near the primary dune to prevent wind-borne movement of sand. There are three elements: A cut to allow and direct sand movement; a “sand plug” to protect against storm surges; and the placement of recycled Christmas trees to capture wind borne sand. This system allows for natural dunes to build up over time and the progress is evident with new vegetation throughout the area.
The Lodge also used solar panels designed to allow 100% of energy to be consumed and used on site. As noted earlier, it is also designed to recycle and be self-reliant for water consumptions. The heart of the water conservation effort is a 11,000 gallon tank on the property that stores and reuses water.
In all, it is very impressive and shows what can be done in sustainable tourism. This hotel has unique features of conservation but it is also a fully functioning hotel with all of the usual amenities from pools to workout rooms to restaurants. It is a strikingly beautiful location and speaks of the power of this natural system, including the regular hurricanes off of the Gulf.
I loved the stay at the Lodge and felt that we only scratched the surface of the Gulf Shore with our short visit. However, that gives us an excuse to come back to the jewel of Alabama.