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Best of Alabama 2019: The votes are in!

By Allison Law

Alabama Gulf State Park and Lodge

We asked, you answered! For the sixth consecutive year, Alabama Living asked you, our readers, to tell us your favorite people, places and things about our great state as part of our annual Best of Alabama feature. 

Hundreds of you responded to the ballots we printed in the September and October issues, which asked you to vote for your favorites in ten different categories. We accepted your responses via the mail and online, and one lucky respondent was randomly drawn to win a $350 prize! (See story, Page 16.)

It gets harder each year to come up with different categories for the contest, but it’s not hard to find the things we like about Alabama. From venues for live music to shopping to museums to restaurants, Alabama has it all. Read on to find out more about the winners.


Best new tourist destination:

Alabama Gulf State Park and Lodge

Hurricane Ivan destroyed the old hotel at Gulf State Park in 2004, but the area will once again be a convention destination with the new Lodge at Gulf State Park, which officially opened in November to much fanfare. Gov. Kay Ivey called it a “world-class place to visit, and it will be the crown jewel of tourism.” The Hilton-branded hotel, new interpretive center, learning campus and state-of-the-art convention facilities will no doubt continue to boost state tourism.

Learn more at lodgeatgulfstatepark.com


Best museum dedicated to a famous Alabamian:

Ivy Green, birthplace of Helen Keller, Tuscumbia

Helen Keller (1880-1968) remains one of Alabama’s most admired native daughters. Keller became deaf and blind as an infant, but learned sign language from teacher Anne Sullivan at the water pump in the backyard of Ivy Green, her family’s home in Tuscumbia. She characterized Ivy Green and its garden as “the paradise of my childhood,” and the home and grounds today are dedicated to preserving her legacy of activism and literary accomplishment.

The home, at 300 North Commons St. West in Tuscumbia, is open to the public; learn more at helenkellerbirthplace.org


Best zoo/wildlife park:

Birmingham Zoo

From Trails of Africa to the Children’s Zoo and everything in between, the Birmingham Zoo features animals from all over the world. Signage throughout the park highlights their care, conservation initiatives, and species survival plans. With approximately 700 animals of 200 species from six continents, the 122-acre site is a great family destination any time of year.

The non-profit Zoo, at 2630 Cahaba Road in Birmingham, is open daily; learn more at birminghamzoo.com


Best music venue:

Flora-Bama, Orange Beach

Considered by locals and visitors alike to be the most famous beach bar in the country, the Flora-Bama lounge features live music every day of the year. This longtime honky-tonk straddles the state line between Orange Beach, Ala., and Perdido Key, Fla., and features good times and good music in five different entertainment areas. From country to rock to dance to beach music, there’s something for everyone at the Flora-Bama.

Learn more and see the musical lineup at florabama.com


The Wharf – Orange Beach, Alabama.
Courtland W. Richards – Photographer. Daphne, AL 36526, 251-379-8935
Best open-air amphitheater:

The Wharf, Orange Beach

Baldwin County boasts another winner in our poll this year. The Wharf Amphitheater opened in 2006 with a sold-out Hank Williams Jr. concert, and has continued to draw some of the biggest names in contemporary and classic music: Taylor Swift, Kid Rock, Jason Aldean, John Mayer, Eric Church and more have entertained audiences; this year, some of the big-name acts set to perform include Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Chesney and Hootie and the Blowfish.

For more information, visit alwharf.com


Best lake to spend the weekend:

Guntersville

Lake Guntersville Resort State Park, located along the banks of the Tennessee River in northeast Alabama, features golf, a beach complex, an outdoor nature center, fishing in Alabama’s largest lake, hiking and biking trails and weekly guided hikes. But one of its main attractions soars above the others: Eagle awareness programs both entertain and educate visitors about our national symbol (see story, Page 18).

For more information, visit alapark.com and click “find a park,” then “Lake Guntersville.”


Best Heisman Trophy winner from an Alabama school:

Bo Jackson, Auburn

Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson of Bessemer is widely considered one of the greatest athletes of all time. At Auburn, he won the 1985 Heisman Trophy, annually awarded to the best collegiate football player in the country. His popularity in his home state continues, helped in part by his Bo Bikes Bama cycling ride, which he created to support victims of the 2011 tornado outbreak. (Jackson also won in our 2017 contest for “best football player to play in Alabama.”)

Learn more at bojacksonenterprises.com


The Tanger Outlet Mall for the GCCVB.
Courtland W. Richards – Photographer.
Daphne, AL 36526, 251-379-8935
Best shopping attraction:

Tanger Outlets, Foley

For many families, a visit to the Alabama beaches isn’t complete without a stop at the Tanger Outlets in Foley. These stores are owned and operated by brand-name manufacturers; the idea is that because you’re buying directly from the manufacturer, you’ll get big savings. The stores feature fashions and accessories for the whole family, jewelry, housewares, home décor, luggage, toys, food specialties and more.

Learn more at tangeroutlet.com


Best hometown restaurant or diner:

The Bullpen, formerly Kilpatrick Family Restaurant

This family-owned restaurant, located in the rural Kilpatrick community in DeKalb County, changed in both ownership and name just in the last several months. But one thing hasn’t changed: The community’s support.

“I’m just amazed how people have taken to us, and wrapped their arms around us, and are so supportive of us,” says Lori Magoon, who bought the restaurant in 2018 with her husband, Jason. Both work there, as do several family members, including a teenage daughter.

That support is no doubt why it won this category in the Best of Alabama poll. The restaurant, which is a member of Marshall-DeKalb Electric Cooperative, posted the ballot on its Facebook page and asked its customers to vote for it – and they did!

The restaurant serves up three meals a day, six days a week, and Lori says they’re probably best known for the “Big Momma’s Cheeseburger,” a hefty 10-ounce burger that was a holdover from the previous owner. But the Bullpen has added homemade biscuits as well as ribeye steaks on Friday and Saturday nights; they also remodeled the interior, which Lori says made it feel more homey.

The lunch service is mostly a meat-and-three selection, though customers can order off the menu. They do homemade desserts everyday and have added hand-dipped ice cream.

The restaurant’s address is 18657 Highway 68, Crossville, AL 35962; find their page, “The Bullpen Restaurant,” on Facebook. The phone number is 256-561-2170.


Best small college town:

Auburn

“The loveliest village on the Plains” is of course best known for its namesake university, which is central to its economy. But a low cost of living, low unemployment and a variety of cultural and culinary opportunities continue to fuel the growth of the Lee County city. It ranks No. 25 on Forbes magazine’s list of the Best Small Places for Business and Careers.

Coming in a close second in this category was the city of Troy, home of the Trojans.