Story and photos by Colette Boehm
The newest lodge in Alabama’s state parks system is open on the Gulf Coast. With summer approaching, the Lodge at Gulf State Park aims to introduce guests to new facilities and provide family-friendly beachfront lodging delivered with sustainable practices at the forefront.
The 350-room lodge, which operates under the Hilton brand, opened to much fanfare in late 2018 and has been a welcome addition on Alabama’s beachfront. The November ribbon cutting was billed as the opening of the “reimagined” Gulf State Park Lodge, a nod to the previous facility that served as a centerpiece for both tourism and community activities until it was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
As Gulf Shores and Orange Beach dive into their most popular season, the lodge is welcoming guests and offering a few surprises. In both look and operations, this is not a typical Hilton property. It sits on 16 of the park’s 6,150 acres, and overlooks a restored dunes system, beautiful beaches and blue Gulf of Mexico waters.
The lodge was designed and positioned to be both ecologically friendly and energy efficient, as part of the vision for the park to become “an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability, demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education and hospitable accommodations,” according to the park’s master plan.
“It was designed to be as least impactful as possible,” says lodge general manager Bill Bennett, of Valor Hospitality. “They didn’t want to build a big, giant building.” The design of the lodge was just one of five elements of the park’s masterplan. Elements included dune restoration, trail enhancements and the building of an interpretive gateway to the park, a learning campus and the rebuilding of the lodge.
Bennett says the lodge was built to support three pillars of sustainability: environmentally friendly operations and facilities, support for the protection of cultural and natural heritage and direct and tangible social and economic benefits to local people.
“You look at environmental sustainability, you look at economic sustainability, they go hand in hand,” he says. “We need to be responsible. We need to be responsible to the environment, to the waters, to the people of this great community.”
A sustainable environment
Ensuring the lodge lives up to that responsibility is a big part of Chandra Wright’s job. She is the director of environmental and educational initiatives and is coordinating the lodge’s sustainability efforts, from sourcing of materials to eliminate single-use plastics to designing tours that inform guests of the strides the property is making. And those strides are many. Among them are green building and resilience certifications for the lodge and the other new facilities.
Upon opening, the lodge earned the distinction of being the second (second only to the park’s new Interpretive Center) FORTIFIED Commercial building in the world. The designation of the Institute for Business and Home Safety and is based upon a building’s resilience to severe winds and weather.
In addition, the lodge is pursuing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification and SITES certification for the property’s landscape design. SITES-certified landscapes are designed to reduce water demand, filter and reduce stormwater runoff, provide wildlife habitat and more. The aim is to be the first hotel in the world to achieve SITES Platinum certification. Attaining these benchmark certifications means implementing sustainable practices that may be surprising to some.
“You don’t see manicured green lawns here at the lodge,” Wright says. “We’re built into a dune environment, so we’ve respected that by using native species that belong here and don’t need a lot of watering or chemicals to grow. We also try not to use harmful chemicals in building materials or cleaning products,” she continued, “and we are a 100 percent non-smoking property. We don’t want all the chemicals in cigarette smoke to harm the people who are here.”
Wright also noted other sustainability practices. “We try not to use any single-use plastics. So, in our guest rooms, you won’t find the little plastic containers of shampoo and conditioner. Instead, we have very nice bulk dispensers. We don’t use plastic water bottles.” Instead, they offer a plant-based, refillable bottle.
In the cultural sustainability arena, the lodge supports the local arts community by displaying myriad works by Alabama artists throughout the lodge and conference buildings. In its restaurants, they focus on locally inspired and sourced food and drinks.
Value to tourism
In addition, the combination of environmental and sustainability designations has the potential to draw world-wide attention. Locally, the tourism industry is thrilled to welcome the new facilities, with leaders recognizing its year-round value.
“The lodge’s beachfront location and easy access to family-friendly activities within Gulf State Park are huge selling points for spring and summer family business,” says Beth Gendler, vice president of sales for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “The park is a destination within a destination showcasing coastal Alabama’s diverse flora and fauna, and the lodge does a great job of expanding the family experience.
“Adding the lodge to our destination’s existing full-service meetings facilities allows us to pursue new groups,” Gendler says. “Now, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach can compete for more meetings, conventions and corporate retreats, particularly outside of summer.”
Beyond the lodge, Gulf State Park is home to 2.5 miles of beachfront and 28 miles of trails through its nine ecosystems. On the beachfront, visitors can enjoy the interpretive center, beach pavilion and 1,540-foot fishing pier. Inland, they will find freshwater Lake Shelby, a Learning Campus, Nature Center, cabins, cottages and a 496-site campground. Bicycle and kayak rentals are available as are Segway tours and a slate of Nature Center programs.
While the master plan may have called for The Lodge at Gulf State Park to be designed with low impact to the environment in mind, it seems a positive impact is growing for the park, as a whole. If winter and spring visitation are any indication, the amenities and facilities of Gulf State Park are becoming more popular than ever.