Alabama, USA: Home Exchange
“That sinuous southern life, that oblique and slow and complicated old beauty, that warm thick air and blood warm sea, that place of mists and languor and fragrant richness...” Anne Rivers Siddons, Colony
Being a fan of travelling off the beaten track, I joined a home exchange website in search of a cost effective holiday somewhere I might not otherwise go. I focused my search on the US southern states, my favourite part of the US and in my humble opinion, the heart and soul of America
Within days I’d agreed an exchange to a beach resort in Alabama, and not only experienced a holiday well above my expectations, but I gained friends for life in the form of my wonderful hosts. More on the home exchange experience is below, but first, my destination…
My love affair with the south started over 20 years ago. While the north is frenetic and seemingly everyone claims a link to European heritage, the south is far more laid back with an easy warmth. Those wonderful accents and colloquialisms give the south a specific identity that I find as fascinating as welcoming.
So I was delighted to secure a home exchange in Alabama, a state I’d previously only driven through. Moreover, it was on the beach so I could combine a city and beach holiday, all wrapped up in southern charm.
The Beach Club is a large resort of condos and villas right on an enormous stretch of beach. While I usually shy away from large resorts, the photos I’d seen of sunsets on that beach were undeniable, and I wasn’t disappointed. The resort had excellent facilities, the surrounding area was modestly undeveloped and, and the beach twice as good as I expected, not to mention the relaxed southern vibe of the nearby towns.
On my first night I headed to the resort restaurant and sat on the deck overlooking fire pits with the sound of the sea beyond. I indulged in delightfully stereotypical fried green tomatoes and coconut shrimp for dinner while the live band played Sweet Home Alabama, I couldn’t have loved it more!
Gulf Shores is a strip of land in the south west corner of Alabama bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and a lagoon on the other. It’s a holiday resort serviced by a small town offering supermarkets, beachy restaurants and the obligatory outlet strip mall. Just enough to get by without becoming a metropolis.
The weather was especially hot for Easter so I was treated to beach weather every day, and soon fell in to the most wonderful daily routine. I’d start with yoga in the lounge overlooking the sea (thanks to my hosts’ DVD collection), a bit of sunbathing before the midday heat, then I’d head out to explore for the day.
Each evening I’d walk the beach as the setting sun turned the sugar soft sand orange and then pink, passing fishermen and families finishing up their day at the beach, sandcastles and piles of shells, and wooden beach houses on stilts I dreamed of living in. Looking at my photos it seems improbable that the beach sunsets were that colour, but they really were, no filter required!
As always with the US, the roads are big and many, so the surrounding areas were easily accessible. From Gulf Shores I took a day trip on the car ferry over to Mississippi, driving through country roads to reach Biloxi, not a great city but a great journey there. I passed by old men in rocking chairs on porches and small towns with characteristic old southern stores.
Back in Alabama, Fairhope city is a delightful cooperative community on the water overlooking Mobile Bay. With plenty of history, independent shops and cafes, the town is lined with mature trees displaying the ever stunning hanging moss. Well worth a visit and again, the drive there gave me a glimpse into small town southern life away from the tourist areas.
Overall I loved the ease of staying in the resort with so many facilities on the doorstep, mixed with days out exploring. As I was travelling alone I thought ten days would be enough but in the end I wish I’d had longer, the pace of life is slower in Gulf Shores and I relaxed right along with it, so my holiday passed by in a flash.
Gulf Shores isn’t easy to get to from the UK, the nearest direct flight is to Atlanta, a 5 hour drive away. Indirect flights arrive a 2 hour drive away, but it’s absolutely worth it. I’ve always loved the south and Gulf Shores is but another jewel in the crown for me.
The Home Exchange experience
I listed my little 1 bed apartment in the sought after location of Eton, Windsor, UK and within a week received offers for exchanges from Vancouver, California, Brisbane, New Zealand, Sydney and Spain. The houses I was offered included luxury riverside homes with pools, beautiful wooden houses in beach communities and city centre apartments, all much grander than mine. I was tempted to take them all!
Focused on a holiday in the US southern states, I approached several exchangers and finally got a bite from a couple offering their second home in a beach resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Seymour and Mary-Jo are real estate agents from Birmingham, Alabama and had been looking for an exchange in Europe for some time, but most Europeans wanted to visit California or Florida so they had struggled to find a match. In fact if you look at a map, most of Alabama’s coastline was claimed by Florida some time ago, so by dismissing Alabama, tourists are missing a trick.
Within an hour Seymour, Mary-Jo and I had spoken on the phone and agreed a tentative two week exchange for the following Easter. I enjoyed talking to them so much I was excited not only to exchange with them but to meet them in person, which we subsequently arranged. Over the following months we refined our plan to include a car swap and helped each other plan our respective stays, sharing local knowledge and recommendations.
My hosts/guests preferred a two week stay while ten days was enough for me, so we arranged for me to meet them at Heathrow airport, drive to my apartment 20 minutes away and settle them in. I’d then fly to Atlanta – the closest direct flight to my destination – collect their car from the airport and drive down to their beach apartment. We’d do the same in reverse with me arriving back in the UK in time for us to have a quick lunch together before I would drive them to the airport.
A couple of my friends questioned what I’d do if I arrived in the US to find it was a scam with no apartment available, but my instincts rarely let me down and I trusted Seymour and Mary-Jo were genuine. As it turns out they are two of the most genuine people I’ve met – meeting them at the airport was a great move, they were such lovely people I wished we’d had more time to chat.
On arrival in Gulf Shores I found their apartment was very real and immediately felt like Kate Winslet from the movie The Holiday (based around a home exchange). I squealed as I ran around the apartment – the photos hadn’t done it justice at all, it was incredible! Beautifully fitted out and decorated with high quality furnishings, and the most amazing view! The balcony overlooked miles of pink sugary sand dotted with wooden boardwalks. I fell in love with it immediately.
During our exchange Seymour, Mary-Jo and I were in touch every day, not out of necessity or obligation, but because we each cared about the other’s experiences and wanted to share our own. I loved hearing how much they were enjoying their stay, experiencing some of the things I’d recommended and others I’d never done myself. Equally I loved telling them how much I was enjoying their holiday home.
Seymour, Mary Jo and I are still in contact throughout the year and look forward to the next time we meet. I feel so fortunate to have met them, and as much as I had the most amazing time at their holiday home, gaining their friendship was the true highlight for me.
Seymour and Mary Jo talk about their real estate business with such passion and care I’m tempted to retire there just so I can purchase one of the lovely properties they represent. They specialise in the Birmingham, Alabama area. You can find them and the properties they represent here.