Gulf Coast Tourism reinvented itself since the pandemic began, luring visitors to its emerald waters and white sandy beaches while promoting strict safety measures. New hotels and restaurants continue to spring up, attractions such as the new Mississippi Aquarium and the relaunched Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo opened in 2020 and sites hurt by last summer’s hurricanes are rebounding for spring break. Plus, with all the great outdoors for exploration, there’s plenty of ways to enjoy the Gulf Coast this spring and summer while maintaining social distancing.
Here’s our compilation of new Gulf Coast accommodations, great ways to enjoy the outdoors, beaches and otherwise, along with special events and new attractions. The Gulf Coast is open for business, y’all, so make your way east.
Rest your head
Portofino Resort, Pensacola
Check in and do nothing but relax at Portofino Resort in Pensacola, where everything is at the visitor’s fingertips – restaurants, shopping, spa, entertainment and, of course, the water. Located on 28 acres of Santa Rosa Island, the world’s largest barrier island, the only thing visitors have to think about is whether to face the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the peaceful Santa Rosa Sound.
What’s New: The Adventures package combine accommodations with discounted resort activities such as cruises aboard the Portofino I luxury catamaran, fishing the Gulf, sports such as tennis or golf or any of the weekly resort activities.
Hotel Beatnik, a throwback to simpler times, opened this past summer in Ocean Springs, part of the larger Ocean Springs Creative District. These four “cabins” hark back to the motor court days but offer lots of modern amenities such as wet bars and luxury linens. Private outdoor showers, outdoor seating areas and native plants made up this unique property in the heart of one of the most charming towns in Mississippi.
What’s New: Hotel Legends boutique property also opened in Biloxi, close to the casino action, downtown and beaches. The 132-room hotel overlooks the Mississippi Sound and offers hip guest rooms with unique amenities, live entertainment and dining options.
Coming soon is the boutique Pearl Hotel in Bay St. Louis with 59 luxury suites and the music-themed luxury Biloxi UMUSIC Hotel, part of the Universal Music Group.
Point Clear’s Grand Hotel
Demystify the magic of bourbon this month as part of the Grand Hotel’s 2021 culinary weekends. Monthly classes of the “Beverage Academy” are geared to expand a visitor’s knowledge of mixology and each one-hour class includes a beverage demonstration, recipes and beverage sampling. March’s “Bourbon Demystified” discusses the history of this American spirit and how it’s produced along with enjoying an Old Fashioned and a mint julep.
What’s New: Paintings of Alabama artist Nall can be found throughout the resort and now a gallery showcasing his work has been installed on the second floor of the resort’s main building. In addition, guests may stay at the uniquely designed Nall Suite.
“He (Nall) pretty much designed it,” said Bill Lang, public relations director for the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and Resort Collection, which owns and operates The Grand. “Amazing antique doors from the main room to bedroom, stained glass church window between those spaces, as well. Designed tile work in bathroom. Not like any other of our rooms.”
Scheduled to open its door this year is Hotel Effie Sandestin, named for the grandmother to owner and developer Tom Becnel. The elegant property that resembles old Florida luxury will include 250 guest rooms and suites, dining options by Chef Hugh Acheson, spa and fitness center and the only rooftop pool on the Emerald Coast, according to owners. The hotel overlooks Choctawhatchee Bay and rests inside Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
What’s New: Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport out of Panama City is the region’s newest airport with Delta, Southwest, United and Silver offering flights to the Panhandle.
Gulf State Park
There’s so much to love about Gulf State Park, which is why it recently was awarded the 2020 Phoenix Award from the Society of American Travel Writers, given annually to destinations that “showcase responsible, sustainable tourism, including conservation, preservation, beautification and anti-pollution efforts.” It’s a nature lover’s paradise with campground, cabins, lagoons, an award-winning lodge right on the beach and 28 miles of trails.
What’s New: Visitors can pick up bikes throughout the park and ride free for a limited time through the Bloom Bike Share App. After downloading the app, visitors can scan the QR code on the bike and take off, then return the bike to any of the bicycle stations.
“It’s a great connector between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach,” said Colette Boehm, a travel writer who calls Gulf Shores home. “That’s a new amenity for us because they have them stationed at the Lodge and other places in the park.”
While the park sustained only minor damage from 2020’s Hurricane Sally, the storm took a bite out of the Gulf State Park Pier — and after a $2 million renovation. The pier’s front section reopens this spring
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo
The nonprofit zoological park grew by leaps and bounds when it moved four miles inland. And it has plenty of room to expand. It’s only six miles from the beach but far enough away from crowds to feel as if you’re in a wildlife safari.
Like in its previous location, Gulf Coast Zoo still allows visitors to get up close and personal with kangaroos and sloths with its “Animal Encounters.” There’s also a reptile house, butterfly exhibit and petting zoo.
What’s New: The Safari Club Gulf Shores restaurant, located next to the gift ship and with a separate entrance, serves up seafood, handmade artisan wood-fired pizzas, items children will love, and vegan and vegetarian options.
Love the beach but wish to let someone else do the legwork?
Endless Rentals in Panama City Beach will set up a beach bonfire for guests, perfect for a cozy accompaniment to a Gulf sunset or a chance to roast s’mores with family. The company also provides tents, chairs, coolers, beach toys and hammocks.
Choose your preferred picnic style and let Coastal Picnic & Co. set up a picnic pop-up on a Mississippi Gulf Coast beach. Standard packages include set up and clean up, items such as beach umbrella, blankets and pillows and a polaroid camera with 10 exposures, among many others. Eat Drink Love Catering provides the food.
What’s New: Food, Booze & Hiccups in Ocean Springs creates pop-up, private in-home or business dinners and pre-made meals but recently collaborated with Belly Up Beach Chairs to produce beach bonfires on Ocean Springs Beach.
Discover St. Andrews
There’s Panama City Beach and Panama City to the east, the latter home to two historic neighborhoods, one of which is St. Andrews. A 1.25-mile guided tour of St. Andrews, which includes historic homes, the marina and the 1877 Governor Stone schooner, are offered Wednesdays and Fridays from the Panama City Publishing Museum. The Market at St. Andrews, a farmer’s market and more, happens every Saturday year-round and Little Village offers live music and shopping.
In between the two cities lies St. Andrews State Park, containing five ecological landscapes between the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrews Bay. The park offers snorkeling, camping, swimming, beachcombing and surfing — and so much more. Birders love to hike the trails, discovering migratory species on their life list. In spring and summer, boats bring visitors to Shell Island to enjoy the pristine barrier island. Raccoons, deer and other wildlife are routinely spotted.
Things to see and do
On last year’s anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the $100 million Mississippi Aquarium opened in Gulfport. The new Mississippi Coast attraction features more than a million gallons of freshwater and saltwater exhibits, with a wide variety of habitats and 200 species.
What’s New: The SeaTREK experience allows guests ages 10 and older to don a helmet and immerse into the Aquarium’s Oceans Habitat to get up close and personal with fish, sharks, rays and more. Participants do not need to know how to swim to enjoy SeaTREK, for they walk underwater on a guided tour, hair and face staying completely dry. Guests can even wear prescription glasses or contact lenses.
Hot Air Balloon Festival
More than 40 balloon participants are scheduled to soar when the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival takes flight May 7-9 at OWA amusement park in Foley. Balloons will lift off at dawn and dusk each day, depending on wind and weather.
What’s New: The festival has moved to OWA and will now extend over three days. As in years past, the festival includes children’s activities, tethered balloon rides, artisan and food vendors, live music and balloon glows, but guests may also enjoy the amenities of the park, including restaurants, shopping and OWA entertainment.
Sandestin Wine Festival
The annual event that’s routinely on Panhandle “best of” lists, the Sandestin Wine Festival turns 34 this year, a four-day event of wine and fun at the Village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin. The weekend of wine dinners, cool retail, a wine cruise, specialty brunch and, of course wine tastings, among other events, takes place April 16-19.
What’s New: The relatively newcomer Bubbly & Booze tent returns this year to the Grand Sandestin Lawn for live music, specialty liquors and desserts.