Our Guide to the Coast's Top Beach Destinations
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
You have heard of the red snapper and orange roughy; now in Pensacola they’re talking about the blue wahoo.
While most fish migrate to different waters as the seasons change, the blue wahoos hope to make it upstream to Cincinnati to become reds. Doing that, however, will depend on timely hitting and fielding.
On this morning, breakfast was with two folks from the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Valeria Lento and Kristen Wilmer. Tourism promoters along the Gulf Coast have had quite the challenge over the last few summers trying to convince people that their beaches show no damage from the BP oil spill and that they are once again a great place to visit.
There was a real downturn in visitors during that first summer after the disaster, Lento concedes, but now the numbers are rising. She adds that, in a backhanded sort of way, the attention from the disaster increased recognition of the area, and now that’s helping.
Lento and Wimer recite some of the positive bounces that are now happening, including a recent event at the James Beard House in Manhattan touting some of the area’s top chefs, a new National Flight Academy at the legendary Pensacola Naval Station (home of the Blue Angels) and now, the other “Blue” in the area – the Double-A minor league baseball team – will begin playing this summer as a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds. (The tourism office even staged an event in Cincinnati where fans there could buy a beach travel package that included seeing their farm club.)
After our visit we were set to return to New Orleans, but Wimer insisted that first I had to see Joe Patti’s Seafood Company. The tone in her voice was more of a command than a suggestion. “I will,” I promised, and I’m glad I did. More on that later, but first some comments on the major site I had come to see: the beaches.
Neighboring Mississippi’s beaches have their own character and enjoy the advantage of proximity to Louisiana, but for the purposes of this survey I was exploring the green water and white sand shores of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. I have divided them into four geographic areas because, while the water and sand are the same, they differ in context. They are presented in geographic order from New Orleans.
ALABAMA COAST - Gulf Shores to Orange Beach.
My theory of the modern Gulf Coast’s evolution (Don’t you dare challenge it!) credits two historically recent events: the completion of Interstate 10 and the concept of the condominium. Once those two merged, formerly obscure fishing villages such as Gulf Shores and Orange Beach began to blossom as important vacation destinations. Vacation home rentals define the character of the Alabama coast but condo high-rises and resorts have added zigzags to the skyline. Some picks:
Mobile Bay, where Union admiral David Farragut yelled “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” and Fort Morgan, which was eventually captured by Union forces.
Though away from the beach, the Tanger Outlet shopping center in the town of Foley tempts those shunning a tan.
• Lulu’s, a sprawling seafood restaurant located on the edge of the inner-harbor canal, which is famously owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister.
• Tacky Jack’s is a traditional beach motif seafood restaurant with several locations including Orange Beach and Fort Morgan.
• Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Near Fort Morgan. Great for birding.
• Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, which received global attention mostly because the Animal Planet Network told the heroic story of the efforts to save the animals in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
• Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, near Fort Morgan, is great for birding.
Places to Stay
• Real estate rental companies have the keys to the many vacation homes and condos along the beaches.
• Caribe is a sprawling beach and comprehensive resort near the Perdido Pass Bridge and the Florida state line.
My favorite things
• The zoo – small but excellent.
• Seeing Mobile Bay at Fort Morgan.
FIRST OF FLORIDA - Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach
There have been two military forces that have shaped the cultural history of this area: the Spanish Conquistadors and the United States Navy. Both still reflect many of the local place names. Then there’s the one mighty natural force that gave the area its geography: the Gulf of Mexico. Key to that geography, at least as far as beaches are concerned, is Santa Rosa Island, a 40-mile stretch of barrier island that includes two popular sea-and-sand communities: Pensacola Beach and Navarre Beach. A bridge connects to the mainland, linking shoreline solitude to the buzz of historic Pensacola. As beach places go, there’s much to experience along this stretch, including certain days when the gulls and the pelicans have to share the sky with the Blue Angels.
• Pensacola is so historic that it boasts having been under five flags. (OK, close your eyes and see if you can name them.) Native tribes existed in the area predating, as they always do, European history. The first recorded settlement was in 1698, a year before Iberville and his gang arrived in Louisiana. Seville Square downtown is the center point of the historic area. (About the five flags: Spain, France, Great Britain, Confederate States and United States.)
• Fort Pickens is located at the western end of Santa Rosa Island. To military buffs it’s an architecturally important fort. Geronimo was once imprisoned there.
Naval Air Station Pensacola calls itself, justifiably, the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” The home of the Blue Angles also houses a major Naval Aviation Museum. Do not be in a hurry. There’s a lot to see.
There isn’t much that is quirkier than the Florabama, a bar located right at the Florida/Alabama state line. (See Inside, Pg. 6).
• Windsurfers at Navarre Beach
• Downtown Pensacola
• Pensacola Beach Boardwalk dining and retail area.
Places to Stay
• There is a cluster of hotels on Pensacola Beach.
• The Hilton, which has resort amenities plus high-rise tower balcony views of the Gulf.
• Portofino Island Resort & Spa is a picturesque gated facility located east of the hotels.
My favorite things
• Flounder’s Chowder House, part of a seriously good chain that even has its own oyster farm near Apalachicola, grows its own produce and brews a house-brand beer.
• Wine tasting at The Wine Bar located on the Boardwalk. What makes this place different is that it’s connected with Chan’s Wine World, a company that has the marketing power to gather many different wines and serve them at a reasonable price.
• Visiting Joe Patti’s Seafood Company. This is an amazing place that proves that a fish market doesn’t have to be stinky but can still be very complete. We have heard of big fish in small ponds, but this place is a reminder that there are lots of fish in really big ponds, like the Gulf, and there are bigger ponds throughout the world. The catch is global. One worker held up a crab for my inspection. I settled for two pounds of native flounder, and I was told that that was about the size of a full flounder, which was sent to the back to be cleaned and packed as fillets (my choice) with the skin remaining on one side. (Better for grilling. All I need now is a grill.) Since I was driving home, a worker at the cash register packed the fish with four hours worth of ice. In my own way, I had made the catch of the day.
• Experiencing the H2O Cajun Asian Grill & Bonsai Sushi Bar. That name is a mouthful, but so is the concept. Located on the ground floor of the Pensacola Beach Hilton this place, as the name suggests, combines Cajun and Asian cuisines. The two food cultures, with their emphases on seafood and seasonings, go well together – in the right hands. The kitchen here makes the fusion flawless.
• Walking along the beach. Well, that’s why we were here in the first place.
FARTHER FLORIDA - Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Sandestin
Traveling east along Highway 98 from New Orleans there was a time when Fort Walton Beach was the last significant stop before Panama City, which is nearly 75 miles away. That has changed over recent decades as Interstate 10 gave rise to seldom-heard-of villages, such as Destin. That, in return, touched off condominium construction and the emergence of Sandestin, a sprawling resort that’s still growing. There are Gulf beaches, but the bayside has also become an attraction. Rather than a destination, Fort Walton Beach has become a gateway.
Parts of downtown Fort Walton Beach have a 1950s look, a throwback to the old days of beach towns.
• Hurlburt Field – just as the Pensacola area is Navy country, this is Air Force territory. Hurlburt Field is where Air Force Special Operations units train, including the guys positioned on land in a war zone, directing jets where to deliver their loads. During World War II, Jimmy Doolittle’s group practiced takeoffs and landings there in preparation for raiding Tokyo.
• Eglin Air Force base is where the Air Force tests most of its armaments.
• Mary Esther, located west of Fort Walton Beach on U.U. Highway 98, is a little town that’s pretty in an old South sort of way. The tree-lined shady streets provide a mental switch from the beach scene.
• Destin along Highway 90 is totally opposite form Mary Esther in style and abounds with shopping, seaside stuff, stores and miniature golf courses, where creatures and contraptions challenge putters.
• Harbor Walk Village, located at the western entrance to Destin, just across the bridge, is an impressive structure that visually can’t be missed. Combined with the Emerald Grand Resort Harbor Walk, it’s a community in itself with shops and restaurants and its own beach. It is great for browsing and dining.
• Sandestin was one of the pioneering developments along this area. Located along Highway 98 there is (heading east) a Gulf side to one’s right and a bay side to one’s left. The latter is now the site of Baytowne Village, a picturesque condo and shopping community with the look of an old southern inlet town. There is plenty to see, even if you are just stopping by.
Places to Stay
Both Sandestin and Harbor Walk Village have hotels and condos, but other places are not hard to find. There are condo towers all along the beaches.
My Favorite Things
• Finz. This is a nostalgic thing: Located on the beachside at Sandestin, this is the site that once housed Elephant Walk, one of the first fine-dining restaurants to open during the era of the Coast’s revival. While “Elephant Walk” survives only as part of coastal lore, Finz is admittedly a more appropriate name for a restaurant situated on a Florida Beach.
• Tennis at Sandestin. While there are many golf courses in the vicinity, including Sandestin, the resort has the region’s best tennis facility, including hard and clay courts.
• Saying “Choctawhatchee” – the bay that borders Destin.
FARTHEST FLORIDA - South Walton, Grayton Beach, 30-A
Several years ago when the marketing term “Beaches of South Walton” was first created, I thought to myself, “that should be easy to find. The beaches are obviously south of Fort Walton.” Wrong. Fort Walton Beach is in Okaloosa County, part of an area collectively marketed as “The Emerald Coast.” Walton is the adjacent county to the east. It includes Sandestin, but what’s most notable is what has happened along a once-obscure state highway that dips at both ends from Highway 98, forming a half-circle that plunges toward the Gulf. The highway is called 30-A. This thoroughfare, where fishing shacks once stood, has become an architectural wonderland.
Seaside: There were no Civil War battles fought here and no Spanish explorers. Its history traces back to the early 1980s, when a developer named Robert Davis envisioned a planned community with strict guidelines for creative homes set in natural environments and enlivened with pastel colors. Through the years a community has developed within Seaside, and it has influenced much else to be developed along the highway.
Panama City and Panama City Beach are around the bend and across the bridge from the western terminus of Highway 30-A.
Grayton Beach is a small town next to the beach by that name. I would like to report to you about experiencing the Red Bar, but whenever I have been there it was so crowded that I could not get close to the front door. The crowd hanging outside seems to be a mixture of snowbirds, day-trippers, geeks and bikers. There is also a restaurant and shops on the strip that tend to keep changing names. Some of the homes in the area reflect coastal old-school classic vernacular “cracker” architecture.
• Grayton Beach, the beach, considered one of the nation’s best and protected by the state as a natural site.
• Highway 30-A is worth the drive just to see the architecturally important beach communities that have developed, each with a different style. Beginning at Grayton Beach and heading west they include: WaterColor, Seaside, Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach. More are on the way.
Places to Stay
All of the above offer condo rentals, and most also have inns or hotels. West of Grayton Beach there are the shore communities of Dune Allen and Blue Mountain Beach, where Redfish Village (which has its own natural boardwalk trail) is an up-and-comer.
My Favorite Things
• Visiting Grayton Beach – maybe I’ll get into the Red Bar one day.
• Walking the grounds at Seaside and browsing at the Sundog bookstore there. Marveling at the home design in all the above-mentioned places.
• Trite yet still magical: Sunset on the beach.
During high tide at Grayton Beach water comes rushing onto the shore, channeling into long-established streambeds and providing nurture for the surrounding countryside’s aquatic life. On a recent visit I saw a little girl, aided by her mom, looking for sand crabs in the instant streams. Once found, the crabs were put in her bucket, only to be returned splashing to the water after the adventure. Life changes, but the allure between people and beaches continues.
SPINNING THE WHEEL IN MISSISSIPPI
Quick now, where along the gulf coast is the water darker, Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida?
Never mind, this is a trick question. The water is equally clear in all three places; it’s what’s on the bottom that changes the hue. In Alabama and Florida the same white sand that’s on the beach (carried through time downstream from the Appalachian range) creates a blue-green color when reflected by the sun through the water. In Mississippi, the soil brought down by the Mississippi River and deposited in what’s known as the Mississippi Sound makes the water look darker.
And about the sand? Sure, the sand is whiter east of Mississippi, but that’s because of the sandbars that siphon much of the aquatic and shell life. In Mississippi there are fewer obstructions, hence more sea particles. So the beaches there are better for shell collecting.
Time was when folks from Louisiana talked about going to “The Coast” they meant Bay St. Louis, Gulfport or Biloxi, Miss. The emergence of quick access to the Alabama and Florida coasts, and the lure of green water, enhanced competition. Because of that, though Mississippi doesn’t have the coveted sand and sea colors, it has what the other states do not have: casino gambling.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coast hard, very hard, and the recovery is still in progress. Gambling, particularly at Beau Rivage in Biloxi, provided an economic engine. The complex reopened exactly a year to the day after Katrina hit. Say what you want about gambling, but it created jobs and drew visitors just when the coast needed it most.
Many of the Mississippi coast’s treasured landmarks, including the grand homes on the Gulfport bluff and old town Bay St. Louis, were either compromised or totally destroyed by the storm with its wicked surges.
Nevertheless, the coast is coming back, bit by bit. And if you’re going to Beau Rivage, you can bet on that.