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Land of Southern comforts; How good is Sweet Home Alabama? It's just grrrreat, says RICHARD MCCOMB.

Byline: RICHARD MCCOMB

IT'S counter-intuitive to put on heavy jeans, thick socks and a pair of Doc Martens when the clawing humidity is already turning my head into a slipway.

After all, we're only going to play with a couple of little kitties. What's the fuss about? As it turns out, I am grateful for the clothing advice - and the tip not to wear zebra-print fashion - when we enter a shaded pen at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.

Our playmates for the next half hour are a trio of Bengal tiger cubs. Nina and Price, both 15 weeks old, are sparked out on cushions with their gnawed soft toys. Boris, aged 13 weeks, flops on the grass by a fan, his head propped against a giant block of ice, one cool cat.

He appears to be oblivious as I tentatively stroke his head and administer a tickle behind his ears. But do not be deceived by Boris in Zen mode. Minutes later, he is clambering over my legs, nibbling my toecaps, pushing me into a fence with his gigantic paws and making a crazy squeal that is just weeks away from becoming a mighty roar.

I lose six pounds in sweat in two minutes.

It is time for lunch and if there is one thing I pick up quickly it is this: you don't come between tiger cubs and their lunch.

The trio glug from milk bottles held by their keepers. Before you know it, our 30 minutes with these beautiful creatures is over.

So is this the best part of our trip to Alabama's Gulf Coast, where the beaches as sugar-icing white? Maybe.

Or is it kayaking in the delta alongside dolphins? Hmm. Maybe eating the best shrimp ever in a shack on a tiny sandbar of an island? Well, that was really good.

And so the list goes on... Here is a North American state that, to my mind, is bafflingly overlooked by British holidaymakers. There is just so much to love about Alabama's coastal region - and I haven't even mentioned barbecue yet.

I was fortunate to visit this Deep Southern state and was bowled over by many things, not least the friendliness of the people, the cultural and musical heritage, and a fascinating history riven by tragedy and triumph.

But from a purely "kick your shoes off and feel the sand between your toes" perspective, it was thoughts of the 60-mile shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico that lingered.

I thought the beaches, made of zillions of dazzling quartz grains, would make the perfect playground for a family holiday. I wasn't wrong. We fly into Mobile from Heathrow, via Charlotte, and banish jetlag in the best way possible: eating.

Our guide, Verna Gates, actually reads my mind so within a hour of landing we are at The Brick Pit in Old Shell Road picking our way through plates of pulled pork, slabs of ribs and chicken, all smoked over pecan and hickory. Like OMG.

Breakfast the next morning is at A Spot of Tea and that means Eggs Cathedral, a signature dish so named because the restaurant overlooks the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Mobile. The dish is a holy combination of crab cakes, scrambled eggs, grouper, crawfish and seafood sauce.

Try the Bananas Foster, the egg-battered French toast piled with hot banana sauce, bananas and cream, and you are twice blessed.

It is about an hour's drive from Mobile to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, twin resorts that act as our base for our 'Bama Beach Bums experience.

Our lodgings aren't so much a holiday let as a palace. We have a huge three-bedroom millionaire's condo on the 22nd floor of Turquoise Place.

The master bedroom leads to the balcony where there are stunning views of the glorious gulf at sunrise, sunset and all points in between. If it all gets too much, there's a private hot tub to sit back in with a cool beer.

There is, by the way, zero trace of the BP oil spill that devastated the coastline in 2010. Baby turtles hatch on the beach and flip down to the sea while we are in town. In fact, the natural world around here is spectacular.

It is a bona fide adventure to explore the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, the USA's second largest river delta, in a kayak under the watchful eye of Wild Native Tours.This stunning wetland is home to alligators, red-bellied turtles and more than 300 species of birds including ospreys, eagles, pelicans and egrets.

There are a lot of fish out there, too - 126 species of them, in fact - which explains why we are accompanied for part of our trip in two-berth kayaks by dolphins.

For a more sedate, but no less fascinating, water-borne exploration, take a tour with Five Rivers Delta Safaris. The guides are excellent.

Before you leave Gulf Shores, make sure you fill your boots at Bimini Bobs at Orange Beach (oh, my, the fresh tuna) and Lulu's at Gulf Shores, which has the best food-allergy service - and most potent margaritas - I have ever come across.

Idyllic Magnolia Springs is a short drive from the bustle of the beach but it's a world away. Check in to innkeeper David Worthington's fabulous rusticchic bed and breakfast, a state landmark, and watch your heartrate plummet to "super chilled" as waves of Old Southern charm wash over you.

Forrest Gump writer Winston Groom lived at Magnolia Spring and life is like a box of chocolate here; it's just that each one turns out to be your favourite.

Fannie Flagg, who wrote Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe also lived here and over dinner at Jesse's we meet Glenn Mannich (aka Stick) from her book A Redbird Christmas.

So-called because he looks NEED TO KNOW | RICHARD MCCOMB was hosted by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (www.gulfshores.com) and the Alabama Tourism Department (www.alabama.travel). | | | He flew with American Airlines, who have services to Mobile, Alabama from Heathrow (via Dallas/Fort Worth/Charlotte Douglas International). For more information see eww.aa.co.uk or call 0844 369 9899.

like one, Stick is a handwriting analyst whose opinion is valued by judges and the Sheriff 's Office. From a quick study of the slope of your letters, the spacing, the loops and sharpness of your script he can tell you things you may not want your family to know.

Magnolia Springs is so sleepy they deliver the post by riverboat and the pretty town of Fairhope, just north in Mobile Bay, is great for shopping. Lunch at Windmill Market, a model enterprise in showcasing local produce, is obligatory courtesy of Mister John's BBQ.

For total beach bliss, head to Dauphin Island, reached by ferry or a three-mile bridge. Just 14 miles long and 13/4 miles wide at its thickest, this barrier island offers rich pickings for bird-watchers, fishing enthusiasts and beach bums. All you need to do is set your watch to "I Don't Care What Time It Is." The water here is crazy warm for swimming, like a bath. With a plate of Red Royal shrimp and a bottle of all-American IPA at Jt's Sunset Grill, you won't want to leave.

Martin Luther King Jr's church and the Rosa Parks Museum can both be found in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama

CAPTION(S):

| Richard's furry tiger friends at Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo. Right, sunset at Fairhope

| Alabama is famous for its fantastic food. Try shrimp, above left, or classic Bananas Foster, left at one of the state's many restaurants such as Moe's, above, in the port of Mobile

| Dauphin Island, Alabama
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:1U6AL
Date:Dec 27, 2015
Words:1277
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