Beachside Attractions: Vacationing Along the Gulf Coast
By: Apryl Chapman Thomas
What Southerners have always known, and others are quickly finding out, is there is something special about the Southeastern Gulf Coast. Maybe it is the natural beauty, beautiful beaches, great food, and the abundance of activities that draw millions of vacationers to its area each year. What ever the reason is, there is something for everyone along the Gulf Coast.
There is not another part of the Gulf Coast has experienced more growth in tourism over the years than Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Known as the 'Playground of the South', people tend to come this area for one of the three reasons: casinos (twelve), golf (eighteen), and seafood (numerous); and the 26 miles stretch of man made beaches doesn't hurt the area's attractiveness either. What use to be a quiet stretch of Highway 90, meandering through small, quaint beach towns, like Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Ocean Springs, is now bustling with vacationers of all ages. In fact, this area continues to grow, as plans for new casinos and family attractions are in the works.
Your best bet is to stay in Biloxi, the largest and centrally located (a short drive to other beach towns) of the towns. Perhaps the town's largest draw is its casinos. Gaming found a home in Mississippi back in 1992, and while casinos are also found in Tunica, the Gulf Coast is the hub for Mississippi gaming, with over 600,000 square feet of gaming space and 3,500 hotel rooms, Mississippi Coast is second in gaming space only to Las Vegas. You can try your luck at Isle of Capri (www.isleofcapri.com/biloxi; 800-THEISLE), Beau Rivage (www.beaurivage.com; 888-750-7111), and Imperial Palace (www.ipbiloxi.com; 800-WIN-AT-IP). If gambling is not your game, explore the city's rich past. Take a tour of Beauvoir (www.beavoir.org; 800-570-3818), Confederate president Jefferson Davis' last residence. Biloxi was once the seafood capital of the world, and today it is still a main part of commerce. The Shrimp Tour (800-289-7908) is a 70-minute tour of the shrimping industry, where you learn how to catch your dinner. The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum (800-289-7908) details Biloxi rise, fall, and current status in the seafood industry.
Mississippi Gulf Coast has a little bit of everything when it comes to food. You can dine at the large buffets in the casinos, or if you are looking for some of the local seafood, visit McElroy's Harbor House Restaurant (228-435-5001) or Aunt Jenny's on the Beach in Gulfport (www.coastseafood.com; 228-896-2920)
The same can be said for accommodations. Aside from casinos, there are a number of chain hotels/motels, moderately priced. If you are looking for something a little more personal, the area offers quaint bed and breakfasts (www.gulfcoastbnbs.com).
There are three distinctive parts of Alabama's Gulf Coast: Mobile, Eastern Shore, and Gulf Shores. Mobile, at 300 years old, is Alabama's oldest city, and it is said that Mobile hosted the first known Mardi Gras celebration. Home to stately mansions and beautiful gardens, the world famous Bellingrath Gardens (www.bellingrath.org; 251-973-2217) is worth a visit. War buffs will enjoy touring USS Alabama at the Battle Ship USS (www.ussalabama.com; 251-433-2703), a 100-acre park featuring Submarine USS DRUM, among other attractions.
The sugar white beaches along this stretch of 32 miles are different from Florida's, as you will not find amusement parks or other large attraction. The focus here is on the beach itself. Beaches can be found in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, and Fort Morgan. Alabama Coast is also popular for bird watching. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail (www.alabamacoastalbirdingtrail.com) offers some of the best sites in the state for bird watching, including Fort Morgan, Alabama Point, and Gulf State Park.
Feeling hungry? Want to visit where Jimmy Buffett used to hang out at prior to his Key West days? Flora-Bama (www.flora-bama.com; 251-980-5118), America's Last Roadhouse, is home to the annual mullet toss, cold drinks, and great atmosphere; and a pretty decent grill/oyster bar menu. If you have the time, stop at Lulu's at Homepoint Marina (www.lulubuffett.com; 251-967-LULU). Lulu happens to be Buffett's sister and her restaurant is known for "red-neck caviar", a black-eyed pea dip. Interested in where locals eat? Grab a hot dog at Dew Drop Inn (334-473-7872), order an oyster platter at Wintzell's Oyster House (www.wintzellsoysterhouse.com; 251-432-4605), and enjoy a seafood dinner Russos (http://www.roussosrestaurant.com; 334-433-3322) and the Original Oyster House (www.theoysterhouse.com; 251-626-2188).
Accommodations in this area include bed and breakfasts (www.bedandbreakstalabama.com), villa/condos rentals (http://www.gulfshores.com/accommodations/condos_beach.asp), and moderate to luxury priced hotels. For a piece of history, the Radisson Admiral Semmes Hotel (251-432-800), located in downtown Mobile is over 150 years old and is the only historic hotel in the area. If a resort type atmosphere is what you are looking for, stay at the Grand Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa (800-228-9290) in Fairhope, or the Perdido Beach Resort (www.perdidobeachresort.com; 800-634-8001) in Orange Beach.
Perhaps it is a well-known fact that from any point in Florida, a beach is about 60 miles away. Beaches account for 1,000 miles of the state's 1,800 miles of coastline. Sun-kissed beaches and activities are found in abundance along Florida's Gulf Coast. This stretch of Florida is home to 5 of the top 20 beaches in America, as rated by "Dr. Beach."
The Northwest Panhandle is a Mecca for families on vacation, and a beach lover's dream, with its sun-kissed, soft white sands and emerald green water. From Pensacola to Panama City are countless attractions, putt-putt, outdoor adventures, and family friendly restaurants.
Older than New Orleans, LA., and Mobile, AL., Pensacola is home the Seville Historic District, said to have more hauntings per capita than any city in America. If ghosts are what are you are looking for, there is the National Museum of Naval Aviation (http://naval.aviation.museum; 800-327-5002), with over 140 restored aircraft representing the armed forces. Adventure lovers should visit Blackwater River (800-967-6789), the only pristine sand river left in America, known for its 31-mile canoe trail. Hungry for a quick bite stop in Tiffany's on the Beach (850-932-3663) while you are relaxing on Pensacola Beach.
From Navarre Beach, known for its surfing, to Seaside, site of Jim Carrey's movie, The Truman Show, is known as the "Emerald Coast". This area offers the best in swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. Panama City and the Ft. Walton Beach area is also a popular destination for families and young adults during the summer; in the fall and winter, the beach towns welcome a more mature crowd. Destin/Ft. Walton Beach is known for its fishing and shelling. You can choose among chain hotels or resort hotels, such as Sheraton Four Points Ft. Walton Beach (www.sheraton4pts.com) or While in the area, take in a dolphin cruise either through Emerald Magic (850-837-1923) or Southern Star (850 -837-7741). Gulfarium (www.gulfarium.coml 800247-8575) in Ft. Walton Beach is America's second oldest marine park, and features dolphins, sea lion, and penguins.
Panama City Beach, with it's famous 27-mile Miracle Strip of hotels, amusement parks, and restaurants, has more than 18,000 hotel, motel, and condominium units (www.800pcbeach.com), in the middle of it all, to suit any budget minded traveler. Families will enjoy the Holiday Inn Sunspree (www.holidayinnsunspree.com), with its extensive children's program and for those interested in a little golf action should check out Marriott Bay Point Resort and Golf Villas (www.mariottbaypoint.com), complete with a championship 18-hole course. For condo/villa
Restaurants and eateries are plentiful, and your best bets are going to be the places that have stood the test of time, such as Captain Anderson's (www.captinaderson.com; 800-US-TOP-50) and Angelo's (www.angelos-steakpit.com; 850-234-2531) in Panama City or another local establishment, AJ's Seafood & Oyster Bar (www.ajs-destin.com; 850-837- 1913).
The north central area of Florida's Gulf Coast, known as the "Big Bend" region, is a nature lover's paradise. Here you will find small coastal villages, such as Apalachicola, the center of Florida's oyster industry. The barrier island, St. George Island is a 28 mile stretch of uncrowded beaches perfect for sunning, swimming, fishing, and shelling. Another 30 miles is Tallahassee, Florida's capital since 1824. Along its oak-lined roads are the city's 145 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, including the restored Old Capitol (850-487-1902), with its candy strip awning and stained glass dome. The current Capitol (850-488-6167) is one of five tower capitals in America. Be sure to head to the 22nd floor for a panoramic view of the city. The Museum of Florida History (850-245-6400) documents the state from the very beginning.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge protects most of the coastline south of Tallahassee and is home to the St. Marks Lighthouse (ca. 1830), the only lighthouse in Florida with wooden stairs. Perhaps the best known coastal destination in North Central Florida is Cedar Key. A 19th century fishing village, its remoteness and rustic-ness is its appeal. Cedar Key, a combination of a fishing village and artists community, represents Old Florida.
In this area, you will find your moderately priced hotel chains, and bed and breakfasts in the historic part of Tallahassee.
If you are in the central west portion of Florida's Gulf Coast, you are probably visiting any of the world famous attractions, but don't forget the beaches, which are in a class of their own. St. Petersburg was once featured in The Guinness Book of World Records as having the most consecutive sunny days - 768 days to be exact - during February 9, 1967 to March 17, 1969. Today a guaranteed 361 days of sunshine awaits you. With 35 miles of white sand beaches, barrier islands and inlets, you might ask yourself where you should begin. If you are looking for a beach to take your family or just to have fun, there are plenty of choices: Indian Rock Beach, a frequent top rated beach; Madeira Beach, home to John's Pass Boardwalk and Village; St. Pete Beach, home to the historic Don Cesar Hotel; Clearwater Beach, where you can find Pier 60 Park.
St. Petersburg/Clearwater area has a plethora of accommodations, sure to please any wallet. From world class resorts, such as Don Cesar Hotel (www.doncesar.com; 866-728-2206) or Bilmar Beach Resort (www.bilmanbeachresort.com; 727-360-5531) to moderately priced hotels (www.floridassl.com), this area is a great escape for couples and families. With around 2, 276 restaurants, seafood is the main fare in the area. Some of more popular restaurants include The Hurricane (727-360-9558, x 50), in St. Pete Beach; Frenchy's Rockaway Grill (727-449-2729) in Clearwater; and Guppy's & EE Stakeout Grill (727-593-2032), in Indian Rock Beach.
With so many choices awaiting you on the Gulf Coast, wherever you choose to vacation, you won’t make the wrong decision.
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