East of the Pearl

Quick trips from Louisiana to the Gulf Coast

Certainly, one might think, the Gulf Coast exists to serve Louisiana, especially because our part of the coast has left us (not that we’re complaining) more with swamps and estuaries than with sandy beaches. Depending on where you start and your destination, drive time to various coastal destinations can vary from one to eight hours and the beaches themselves can differ in sand colors, reaching an almost sugar-like white to complement the water, which at its best appears to be emerald-green.

What we collectively call the Gulf Coast represents many different locations with lots of stories to tell, all of which are suitable for a quick trip or an extended stay. Begin by heading toward Bay St. Louis.

Mississippi
Right before you get to the Bay Bridge, turn right onto Beach Drive to reach the historic old town area of Bay St. Louis. The town, concentrated along the western crescent of its namesake bay, was once home to large hotels and summer homes for New Orleanians during the 1800s and 1900s. The hotels were destroyed by fire or hurricanes long ago. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina seemingly took away much of the rest.

There are two tenses in writing about the Mississippi coast, the past and the future. The present, however, is more difficult to define. Katrina was a catastrophe for the Mississippi coast, but it is coming back. What is still being rebuilt today might be open tomorrow. Clearly open, and in many ways the heartbeat of the emerging Gulf Coast, is Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, which reopened exactly a year after the hurricane and has been an important source of jobs and things to do during the recovery.

There are rebuilt or new places to stay and to eat along the Mississippi coast. It is worth the drive. Through it all, the Gulf itself remains unchanged. Pelicans still soar over the water, and searching for shells is better here than anywhere along the entire coast.

Visit the Mississippi coast. It needs you, and you may discover that you need it.For toll-free Mississippi tourism information call 1-800-927- 6378.

Alabama
About 40 miles from Mobile is Dauphin Island, reportedly called Massacre Island by the first French settlers because of the mountains of human bones found there. It was later renamed Isle Dauphine after an heir of Louis XIV. This mostly residential island is home to the Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a hands-on educational facility featuring large aquariums with local marine life.

Also on Dauphin Island is the Fort Gaines Historical Site, where you can explore the original tunnels, bastions, blacksmith, bakery and kitchens once graced by Adm. Daniel “Damn the torpedoes!” Farragut during the Confederacy.

Although Dauphin Island is rich in history, its water and beach aren’t exactly the places to plop your raft and lawn chair. The water is the same Mississippi brown, and the sand is rather grainy. It’s hard to believe crystal-clear blue-green waters are only a few miles away on the Alabama coast.

Vacationers would be making a mistake to overlook Alabama beaches. These beaches, including Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the beach along Fort Morgan Road, are clean and –– at some points –– rather deserted. The stretch along Fort Morgan Road, for example, is almost all residential, and many of the cottages and homes
can be rented.

The Gulf waters undergo a metamorphosis once the barrier islands are no longer there to hold in debris. The water is remarkably cleaner, and the surf pounds night and day. It’s a great place to get back in touch with nature.

Just 6 miles west of Gulf Shores is Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, which spans 7,000 acres and is home to animals including bobcats, opossums and armadillos. Guests can hike through the grounds or go fishing on 40-acre freshwater Gator Lake. From August to October, monarch butterflies make their migration.

 For toll-free Alabama tourism information, call 1-800-252-2262.

Florida
Including spring break, honeymoons and yearly family pilgrimages, the Florida coast is a popular vacation spot.

Many of its beach towns claim the title “world’s most beautiful beaches,” and really, it’s easy to see that they all deserve it.

If you’re traveling to Florida via Interstate 10, you’ll notice a change in foliage as the tall pines get mixed with more oak trees and what seems to be the state’s signature plant, the fan palmetto. The Florida Visitors Information Center offers loads of information about what the panhandle has to offer, plus complimentary orange and grapefruit juices.

Taking the Highway 90 exit off the interstate, you’ll first hit Pensacola, which takes its name from the Pensacola Indians who met the first Spanish explorers in 1559. The city has several historical attractions, though it is perhaps best-known for its beaches, the first, heading east from Louisiana, of Florida’s beautiful beaches.

Before you reach them, though, you’ll pass through Gulf Breeze, Fla., which lies just over the Pensacola Bay Bridge.

Past Gulf Breeze, you’ll see the exit signs to Pensacola Beach. At this point you can take either Highway 98 or Scenic Highway, a narrow road that traverses Santa Rosa Island. It is here on the island, the area known as Pensacola Beach, that you’ll find miles of white sand, blue-green water, beachfront hotels, beach cottages and restaurants.

To the west of Santa Rosa is another narrow barrier island called Perdido Key, which also has a mix of lodging, restaurants, shops and golf courses. On this stretch of beach is the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package store at the Alabama-Florida state line. Popular with college students, the large wooden building has a honky-tonk feel and offers a deck and pier where you can enjoy steamed crabs, poor boys and beer.

Back on Highway 98, before you hit the town of Mary Esther, you’ll see a brown sign for the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Center. This is a pleasant place to stop off; use the restroom; and take a stroll on the center’s massive wooden observation deck, which allows you to look through lush woodlands teeming with birds out onto the sparkling blue water beyond. This site also offers a nature trail, which leads to the beach at the edge
of the woods.

Just down the road from Fort Walton Beach is Destin, which offers water sports such as snorkeling and sport-fishing, fine dining, golf and even bungee jumping. Silver Sands Factory Stores on Highway 98 East, just west of Sandestin Beach & Golf Resort, is a massive mall with more than 100 stores.

It might be hard to rip yourself away from Destin’s beaches, however, which are downright breathtaking, with their dunes overgrown with sea oats and the wonderful bonsai-like “scrub” pines and oak trees. The pièce de résistance is the water, though, here more deeper and dramatic shades of blue and green than perhaps anywhere else in Florida.
East of Destin is the sprawling San Destin resort, which is developed not only on the beach side but on the bay side, too. The latest is Baytowne Wharf, a new town with the charm of an old Southern fishing village but with amenities for the leisure tourist. An entire vacation can be spent just in the village itself, which overlooks Choctawhatchee Bay and its estuary system. A hotel and towers, plus condos and rentals, are within walking distance. In the past the attraction along the entire Gulf Coast has always been on the south side of the highways. Baytowne Wharf is expanding the activity to the other side of the road.

About 20 to 30 minutes east of Destin are the communities of Grayton Beach and Seaside, which are as different as Mayberry and Beverly Hills. While Grayton Beach is rather rustic, with simple, humble cottages scattered among the brand-new ones, the planned community of Seaside is almost eerily perfect. It is, after all, where the movie The Truman Show was filmed in which Jim Carrey played a man trapped since birth on the set of a TV show about his life.

The town, with its perfectly landscaped lawns, tin-roofed cottages, brick streets and white picket fences, seems like a nice place to visit. With more than 50 shops, galleries and restaurants, Seaside is a popular honeymoon and vacation spot. Around 250 cottages are available for rental. Nearby are newer beach communities, including WaterColor; Rosemary Beach with its closer proximity to the beach; and Carillon Beach on the edge of Panama City, an elegant planned community.

Dwarfing Grayton and Seaside is Panama City Beach, a favorite spring break destination for years. The Bay Town Trolley offers rides along the beach to many destinations. A new airport is expected to bring a spike of business to the eastern end of the coast.

After Panama City the eastward stretch of the coast ends. From there Louisianians can turn and start heading back.

But take your time; there are lots of attractions on the trip home, too. For toll-free Florida tourism information, call
1-888-735-2872.
 

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