Skirt spectacular waters on this rambling drive to pretty towns, pristine beaches, and everything imaginable fried-in-a-basket.
Southerners own the Gulf of Mexico, or at least we like to think we do. Here in the U.S., it washes only Southern shores, which makes us more than a little possessive of its waters–and irresistibly drawn to them.
Related: Florida's Best Beaches
Drive from Apalachicola, Florida, to Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, and your view constantly changes as white dunes morph into marsh grasses and then back again. You might tunnel for miles through pines or palms, then round a bend and find yourself suddenly soaring over blue water on a giant steel rainbow of a bridge. The water can curl into foamy breakers or lie flat, placid, and serene, depending on the time, the tides, and the barrier islands.
There are vestiges of Old Florida here, like the two remaining cotton warehouses in Apalachicola, once a bustling port city for the South's king crop. And you'll see the new Mississippi, whose entire beachfront was virtually erased by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Anchored by Biloxi and Gulfport, this coastline—which has some of the longest unbroken views of the Gulf has not only rebuilt but also reinvented itself since that horrific storm. On Florida's enormously popular County Highway 30A, vacationers continue flocking to some of the most jaw-dropping communities ever dreamed up by a design team and to quirky, authentic Grayton Beach just up the road.
You can't beat Gulf Coast towns for interesting, locally owned shops and galleries. As for food and drink? Salty-sweet oysters and golden-fried shrimp; snapper, grouper, flounder, and crab; burgers and muffalettas; piña coladas and (welcome) hurricanes; ice in the cooler and salt in the air... It's summertime. The Gulf is calling.
When in Rome, rent a condo. Beyond the major chains and mom-and-pop lodging, hotels on the Gulf are steep during the peak summer season (but you can get a deal by booking weeknights or planning ahead for a fall getaway). Families and other groups often go for a condo to help contain costs.
Cape San Blas, St. Joe Beach, and Mexico Beach, Florida:
Forgotten Coast Rental: 888/648-1012; forgottencoastrental.com
Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama:
Brett/Robinson Vacations: 800/211-7892, brett-robinson.com
Mississippi Gulf Coast:
Biloxi Beach Resort Rentals: 877/524-5694; biloxibeachcondorentals.com; vrbo.com.
Note: Many Mississippi condos are separated from the water by the heavily traveled Beach Boulevard–so when you book, be specific about what you want.
HOTELS & INNS
Water Street Hotel & Marina (Apalachicola), with screened porches that overlook a channel into the Apalachicola River, combines the at-home conveniences of a condo with hotel amenities. Rates from $179; 850/653-3700; waterstreethotel.com
The Gibson Inn (Apalachicola), a downtown property built in 1907, has 30 rooms–some with period antiques–and wraparound porches. The Gibson hosts several “Murder Mystery Weekends" each year. (In 2016, the schedule is August 5-7; September 23-25; October 28-30; and December 2-4.) Year-round rates from $120; 850/653-2191; gibsoninn.com
St. Joe Club & Resorts operates two stunning boutique hotels, WaterColor Inn & Resort (rates from $425/night; 888/991-8878; watercolorresort.com) and The Pearl (rates from $407/night; 850/588-2881; thepearlrb.com). Budget-friendly they're not, but they are splurge-worthy.
Henderson Park Inn (Destin) is an all-inclusive (except dinner) bed-and-breakfast that serves adults only. Its beautiful private beach is adjacent to still more protected sands at Henderson State Park. Gulf-view rates from $429; 888/836-1105; hendersonparkinn.com
Hilton Pensacola Beach offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom suites; indoor and outdoor food and beverages; modern interiors; a 24-hour fitness center; and two Gulf-front pools with a hot tub. Rates from $279; 850/916-2999; www3.hilton.com
Beau Rivage Resort & Casino (Biloxi) has an elegant spa; a shopping promenade; in-house restaurants with atmosphere; arguably the best pool on the Mississippi Coast; live performances in its own theater; and MGM Park, home of a minor league baseball team, across the street. Weekend rates from $249, but you may save $100 or more a night by booking during the week; 888/750-7111; beaurivage.com
White House Hotel (Biloxi), a historic beachfront property, looks like Tara on the outside and a sleek penthouse on the inside. Cora’s restaurant serves lunch, dinner, and a weekend brunch, with fresh Gulf fare, creative cocktails, 40 wines, and 16 craft beers on tap. Rates from $169; 228/233-1230; whitehousebiloxi.com
Bay Town Inn (Bay Saint Louis) has 10 roomy bed-and-breakfast suites that frame a pool, right across from the new marina. Walk to all the attractions on Main and Second Streets. Bonus: It’s just an hour or so from New Orleans. Rates from $169; 504/421-0960; baytowninn.com
APALACHICOLA TO THE ALABAMA LINE:
Shipwrecked Raw Bar: Serves raw oysters, along with baked ones named for local beaches, like the “Mexico Beached,” with pico de gallo, lime, butter, Mexican cheese, and panko breadcrumbs. 7008 West Highway 98, St. Joe Beach; 850/647-5050; shipwreckrawbar.com
Owl Café: Follow locals here for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. Avenue D, Apalachicola; 850/653-9888; owlcafeflorida.com
Lynn’s Quality Oysters: Apalachicola’s bivalves are famous, and this roadside raw bar across the causeway serves the freshest in the area. (“You can swim to where these came from,” the bartender explains.) 402 U.S. 98, Eastpoint, Florida; 850/670-8796; lynnsqualityoysters.com
Alchemy Tavern: Worth a detour to Mobile, this is a cocktail drinker’s dream disguised as a dive bar that wouldn’t be out of place in the French Quarter. 7 South Joachim Street, Mobile; 251/441-7741
La Crema Tapas & Chocolate: Sample and share innovative tapas—Serrano Wrapped Figs, Lamb Lollipops with Rosemary—without breaking the bank. And then there’s the chocolate menu, including the OMG Espresso Cookie—two warm triple-chocolate cookies with a whipped espresso-cream center, drizzled with chocolate sauce. 38 Main Street, Rosemary Beach; 850/624-8272; lacrematapas.com
Louis Louis: The same family who brought Grayton Beach the Red Bar created this hot spot, and the kinship shows in great food, drinks, service, and atmosphere. 35 Mussett Bayou Road, Santa Rosa Beach; 850/267-1500; louislouis.net
30A Pop Stop: Creamy and fruity handcrafted, locally sourced frozen pops. 4042 East County Highway 30A, Seagrove Beach; 877/483-5616; 2421 West County Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach; 30apopstop.com
Perfect Pig: Now with two locations on Santa Rosa Beach, this bistro describes itself as a “perfect blend of exquisite local cuisine and foodie fantasy land.” Its breakfast fans are passionate about the brown sugar bacon. Seagrove: 4281 East County Highway 30A, #30A; 850/213-0701; Gulf Place: 7 Town Center Loop; 850/660-1591; theperfectpig.com
Red Bar: If you can get to Grayton Beach, you can get to Red Bar. Just head toward the center of town and follow the crowd. Fortunately, this place lives up to its hype, with good food and drinks, friendly staff, and kitschy-beachy decor. 70 Hotz Ave. Grayton Beach; 850/231-1008; theredbar.com
Flora-Bama Lounge & Oyster Bar: How many beach joints have two area codes? It’s a bar, it’s a restaurant—and it’s straddling the Alabama-Florida line. 17401 Perdido Key Drive, Perdido Key; Florida: 850/492-0611; Alabama: 251/980-5118; florabama.com
Original Oyster House: A popular family-friendly spot for traditional Gulf favorites. Get there early or shop the boardwalk while you wait for a table. 701 Gulf Shores Parkway; 251/948-2445; originaloysterhouse.com
Wolf Bay Lodge: Stained-concrete floor, long bar, and dollar bills tacked all over the place–it’s a basic coastal hangout, with great food to boot. 26619 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach; 251/965-5129; wolfbaylodge.com
Doc’s Seafood Shack & Oyster Bar: This is a favorite casual spot for fried seafood and raw oysters. (You’ll even find the fixing to make your own cocktail sauce right there on your table.) 26029 Canal Road, Orange Beach; 251/981-6999; Sawgrass Landing Shopping Center, Gulf Shores; 251/967-4800; docsseafoodshack.com
Cobalt: Contemporary coastal cuisine and stone hearth pizzas are just part of the draw at this popular spot in the shadow of the Perdido Bay Bridge, where you can take in terrific views of the Perdido Pass. 28099 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach; 251/923-5300; cobaltrestaurant.net
The Shed: Brad Orrison and his sister Brooke started with a tiny takeout barbecue spot in Ocean Springs. Now it’s a 9,570-square-foot blues and barbecue joint, and the family runs another location in Gulfport. Ocean Springs: 7501 State 57; 228/875-9590; Gulfport: 15094 Mills Road; 228/832-1147; theshedbbq.com
Woody’s Roadside: The extensive burger menu includes the Cajun Burger: a blend of Andouille sausage and freshly ground Angus beef. (It also offers a mean Bloody Mary.) 3008 Bienville Blvd., Ocean Springs; 228/265- 7758; woodysroadside.net
The Government Street Grocery: Sit inside or out. Ponder the menu of burgers and sandwiches, or go straight for the muffaletta. Full bar and live music. 1210 Government Street, Ocean Springs; 228/818-9410.
Leo’s Wood Fired Pizza: Enjoy tunes in the courtyard and such pizzas as the Frank Sinatra and the Elvis Presley. 1107 Government Street, Ocean Springs, 228/872/7283.
Trapani’s Eatery: A favorite in Bay Saint Louis, Trapani’s is back on the Old Town waterfront after a long relocation post-Katrina. 116 North Beach Blvd.; 228/467-8570; trapaniseatery.net
200 North Beach Restaurant & Hurricane Hunter Bar: You’ll find surf, turf, and more, plus an extensive cocktail menu. 200 N. Beach Blvd., Bay Saint Louis; 228/467-9388; 200northbeach.com
Blind Tiger has indoor and outdoor seating. Waterfront staples include a Cheddar Burger, Mahi Tacos, Steamed Shrimp, and Loaded Cheese Fries. 119 N. Beach Blvd., Bay Saint Louis; 228/216-2600; theblindtiger.biz
Take an eco tour with Captain Jimmy Maxwell of Backwater Guide Service and explore the Apalachicola River and its backwaters. A 2 ½-hour tour for up to six people: $200; 850/899-0063; backwaterguideservice.com
Detour: From U.S. 98, head to Eastpoint, Florida, and the bridge to St. George Island, or go west on 98 and pick up State 30A, then 30E onto Cape San Blas and the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. floridastateparks.org/park/St-Joseph
On Panama City’s 1,500-foot Russell Fields Pier—aka City Pier—you can fish all day for $6 or just soak up the view for $3. It’s across the street from Pier Park a shopping/entertainment district with everything from an IMA X theater to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Pier: 16201 Front Beach Road; 850/233-5080; visitpanamacitybeach.com/things-to-do/piers; pcbgov.com. Pier Park: simon.com/mall/pier-park/map
Detour: From 98, between Panama City and Destin, take the most beloved detour in the Florida Panhandle—County Highway 30A—to a string of planned villages, including Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, and Seaside, and the delightfully unplanned Grayton Beach.
Detour: About 23 miles west of Destin, take the Navarre Beach Causeway onto Santa Rosa Island and travel westward on State 399, through the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which you can follow to Pensacola Beach.
Hike two bay-spanning pedestrian bridges on U.S. 90: one from Ocean Springs to Biloxi and another from Pass Christian to Bay Saint Louis. See works by George Ohr and other collections at the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art (386 Beach Blvd., Biloxi; 228/374-5547; georgeohr.org). Make a night of it in Gulfport’s dining and entertainment district, anchored by Half Shell Oyster House (2500 13th Street). The new Fishbone Alley (between 26th and 27th Avenues) channels the fantastic Printer’s Alley in Nashville and brings new life and excitement to this part of town.