A love letter to the Flora-Bama

The beach bar is unchanging in its good-natured spirit

A love letter to the Flora-Bama

© Gregg Pachkowski – USA TODAY

The first time that I was lured to the Flora-Bama Lounge, I had been casting for speckled trout on a guided fishing trip off the coast of Orange Beach, Alabama. This was a fall evening in the ’90s. Gulls spread rumors overhead. The sun was going to orange. From a distant point came music, pounding yet lighthearted, like a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett. It sounded like dirty dancing. It sounded like a good time.

What I recall of my first visit to the Flora-Bama—and there have been many since—was a loose affiliation of shacks, tents, and stairways crowded with happy people. Every imaginable surface was covered in writing. If you go, follow the tangle of black scribbles and scan the declarations of love and urban legends. “Cheryl loves Bo FOREVER!” and “Raphael’s monkey escaped and ate my cat.” One hopes the monkey was recaptured and sent to a zoo, but who really knows? So many of these scribbles are decades old. I wonder now: Are Cheryl and Bo still together?

Seated eponymously on the coastal Florida-Alabama line, the Flora-Bama is unchanging in its good-natured spirit and, most endearing, has remained low-rise on a real estate row where huge and glassy are the rule.

One thing is certain: Founded in 1964, it is a survivor. Hurricane Frederic blew it apart in 1979, but the bar was rebuilt and came back stronger. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan took its turn; the Flora-Bama’s owners and fans revived it. The disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, the worst in U.S. history, blackened the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, drying up tourism for most of a year. But the establishment—nowadays named the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package, & Oyster Bar—also has a liquor and lotto store and three more restaurants. Business never totally died.

When 2022 came to an end, my husband and I celebrated New Year’s Eve at the Flora-Bama. The bar sold more than 4,000 tickets for admission with a dinner buffet, Champagne, and breakfast buffet. Near our table (also covered in magic marker writing) sat a young woman with shaved eyebrows and her date, a highly pierced shrimper (he was wearing white boots, so I just assumed). Exactly, I’m thinking. At a time when our country is sharply divided, differences evaporate when people sit down to drink or stand up to dance in this place. You get sorority girls in a huddle just a few feet from middle-aged bikers displaying their colors and leathers. I have never seen a fight nor an ugly exchange of words, not even when a young man in a rainbow T-shirt stood feet away from a man in a backwards MAGA cap.

You can put the world on pause at the Flora-Bama with live music on five stages or the annual Frank Brown International Songwriters’ Festival or the bar’s most anticipated and beloved beach event, the Interstate Mullet Toss (this year, it’s April 28–30). Dead fish are flung across the line from Florida to Alabama. Former owner Joe Gilchrist, who passed away last year, piloted the early mullet tosses. He advised people not to be appalled by the Flora-Bama’s less-than-tony activities, famously saying, “I like to tell people, just lower your standards and come on down.”

This article appears in our March 2023 issue.