Andrea's birthday was one week ago. When talking about what she wanted for her birthday, she gave me one statement, "I'd love to just watch the kids play on the beach."
My first reaction was, "Does she have any idea how far the nearest beach is?"
Luckily, I didn't let that thought escape my head.
After what she had been through in the days leading up to her birthday, I told her that was exactly what we'd do. I even decided that we'd just drive down there and drive back in the same day if that's what it took for her to see our three children playing on the beach.
That one-day trip wasn't necessary thanks to some of the kindest folks in the world.
I scheduled a couple of days off from work and we reserved a hotel room in Foley.
On our way to the beach, I really didn't know what to expect. For the entire summer, all we've heard about is the terrible oil spill that had threatened the entire Gulf Coast area. I was afraid Andrea's perfect picture of the little ones dancing on the beach might have a bunch of tar balls in the background.
Once we made it to Gulf Shores, we headed straight for the beach, and it was beautiful.
Stone didn't even waste time changing into his swimming trunks. He ripped his shirt off and headed for the water, wearing his cargo shorts. His little sisters were a little more beach prepared as Breeze hit the sand in her bikini and Daisy sported her Little Mermaid one-piece.
As we strolled along the beach, signs of a catastrophic oil spill were almost no where to be found. We did find a couple of shells that had a little oil inside them, and there were a few gravel size tar balls that had washed up on the beach. Other than that, you would have never known anything had happened.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon told me that is how the beach has been for most of the summer.
"With the exception of just a couple of weeks, we haven't had any real issues with oil," he said. "For the most part, people would never know there had been an oil spill if they were visiting our beaches."
With the summer season over, visitors to Alabama's section of the Gulf Coast are now treated to almost empty beaches. At one point during our trip, I was noticing how gorgeous and deserted the area was and commented to Andrea, "It almost feels like God made this place for us."
The hospitality in the area is also at an all time high. Kennon said merchants and cities near the coast are very appreciative of any visitors at this time.
"With the devastating reduction of visitors this summer, anyone coming right now is greatly appreciated," he said. "The dollars that people are spending here now are helping area businesses to get through a time of great uncertainty."
Unlike in years past, business in the area didn't have strong revenue during the summer months. A few have already closed or left town. Kennon said the money made in the summer usually allows businesses to survive in the offseason.
"That didn't happen this summer," he said. "Now business owners are having to decide if they can afford to stay in business. They are deciding if they should borrow money, if they can. Some are deciding if they should wait and see if the government can do what BP didn't do. Everybody has decisions to make."
Kennon said everyone along Alabama's Gulf Coast is prepared to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and continue to work hard to provide a great destination for tourists.
"We are praying hard that next summer we will have our biggest year ever and people will forget about the oil spill," he said.
Our coast is one of the greatest resources that God has blessed our state with, and I urge anyone who has the time and money to not wait until next summer to visit the Foley, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area. Even if you just take a couple of days, you will never know how much those few dollars will help the people and businesses of that area.
James Phillips can be reached at 221-2840 or firstname.lastname@example.org.