|Follow the shoreline
Trace the Gulf Coast through Alabama and Florida to find Civil War forts, great museums and plenty of things to do, in addition to frolicking in the sand and surf
By Jinny Ravenscroft Danzer
What about those cool, rainy days or when beach boredom sets in? The gulf coast along the Alabama and Florida shoreline is chocked full of fascinating history. Look around and see Civil War forts, a fantastic Naval air museum, historic houses, restaurants and more.
Historic forts and scenic parks in Alabama
Two well-preserved brick forts guard the narrow mouth of Mobile Bay. During the Civil War, Confederate forces strung torpedoes between the two ramparts. On Adm. David Farraguts famous order, Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead, Union ships broke through the line.
From Fort Morgan, take a 30-minute ferry ride across the bay to Fort Gaines (1821-63). Oil rigs mar the scenery, but the fort is worth the trip.
Also a pentagon, Fort Gaines has multiple tunnels, powder magazines, a bakery and other rooms. As at Fort Morgan, stalactites created by water seeping through mortar add atmosphere to the tunnel-like corridors. Costumed interpreters often demonstrate activities such as blacksmithing and baking. The fort hosts Civil War re-enactments and living-history events, like Colonial Isle Dauphine Oct. 1214.
Between Fort Morgan and Gulf Shores on state Route 180 is a replica of the Betsy Ross house. Here, the Betsy Ross Flag Company sells historic flags, as well as flags of every state and most nations.
Just east of Gulf Shores on state Route182 are the white sand beaches of Gulf State Park. The site was begun in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and became one of Alabamas first state parks. Men constructed barracks for workers, a sawmill, maids quarters, and 21 cabins along Lake Shelby. The park today offers visitors a campground, additional cabins, a motel and restaurant, an 18-hole golf course, a beach pavilion, and a fishing pier.
Theres a variety of accommodations at Alabamas Gulf Coastcondos, beach houses, hotels and motelsbut for an historic overnight, try the Original Romar House bed-and-breakfast inn. Businessman Spurgen Roach built the house in 1924 before the area was developed. Mules and barges brought in construction materials.
The house offers views of the beach and the gulf.
Cross scenic Alabama Point bridge into Florida and enjoy a meal at Perdido Keys Original Point Restaurant, which has been in business since 1940. Once refreshed, continue east (state Route 292A) to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, located on the U.S Naval Air Station in Pensacola.
The museum chronicles the history of U.S. Naval aviation from its beginning in 1911 to the present. More than 150 restored aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard are on display. Admission is free, and four guided tours are offered daily. Some of the guides are retired pilots, giving a personal touch to the tours. Additional features include an IMAX Theater, restaurant, flight simulator and museum store.
On the opposite side of the Naval air station is a lighthouse dating from 1824, and two forts. These brick forts, the Advanced Redoubt and Fort Barrancas, were constructed after the War of 1812 to protect a Naval yard. The sites are part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, which also offers visitors a small museum, nature trails and guided walks led by rangers.
City of Five Flags
During Pensacolas varied history, governing bodies changed 13 times.
After a failed attempt at settlement in 1559, the Spanish returned in 1698 to establish Fort San Carlos. The French burned this settlement and a hurricane destroyed a second on Santa Rosa Island. The third Spanish settlement, in downtown Pensacola near Seville Square, finally took. Even then, the Spanish, the French, the British, the United States, and the Confederacy squabbled over the town, passing it back and forththus the motto City of Five Flags.
Historic Pensacola Village preserves archaeological remains from the British and Spanish periods, historic houses in a variety of styles, a lovely fountain, shops and restaurants in historic buildings, Old Christ Church (1830), and several museums. You can take a self-guided tour plus guided tours of several houses. St. Michaels Cemetery nearby contains fascinating monuments, some enveloped by tree trunks, with inscriptions in Spanish, French, English even Greek. Yellow fever epidemics caused many deaths.
Another interesting area is the Palafox Historic District. Extending inland from the Port of Pensacola and the Palafox pier, this early business district contains buildings with interesting architectural details, including the Wentworth Museum and the Saenger Theatre, laid out around pretty Plaza Ferdinand VII.
The third historic district that merits a walk or a drive-through is the North Hill Preservation District, with many homes built between 1870 and 1920. Hopkins Boardinghouse, a Pensacola institution since 1949, serves family-style meals in this neighborhood.
With scuba equipment you can explore the 340-foot hulk of the oldest existing American battleship, the USS Massachusetts (c. 1893), just outside the entrance to Pensacola Bay.
If youre ready for more sparkling white sand beaches, head for Santa Rosa Island. On the way, though, you might want to stop at the Naval Live Oaks section of Gulf Islands National Seashore near Gulf Breeze. Here youll find picnic tables, hiking trails and a visitor center with a good display on the use of native live oaks for shipbuilding.
Crossing over to the island, you will find not only beautiful wild beaches in the national seashore, but a third brick fort built to protect the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Fort Pickens originally had five corner bastions but a fire and explosion blew one up, throwing bricks as much as a mile and a half away. Park rangers give tours and illustrated talks.
Archaeological sites, Southern mansions
On the east end of Santa Rosa Island you will find another good swimming spot, Navarre Beach. Back on the mainland in Fort Walton, you can visit an Indian mound from 1400 AD and an interesting museum of southeastern Native American artifacts at the Indian Temple Mound and Museum. Nearby, Eglin Air Force Base houses the Air Force Armament Museum.
Take a break and get a bite at the Blue Water Bistro and Bar. The eatery, located in a historic house, offers good food and nice lake views. Staffs Seafood Restaurant in a 1913 barrel-shaped warehouse with a pressed-tin ceiling also makes a good stop.
Head southeast on U.S. Highway 98 to state Route 30A to the planned town of Seaside. Built 20 years ago around a central square, it was designed as a traditional Southern town with wood-frame cottages, porch swings and picket fences.
At Eden State Gardens and Mansion at Point Washington, visit a Greek revival home built by lumberman William Wesley in 1897. The grounds, which overlook Choctawatchee Bay, have moss-draped live oaks, azaleas and a newly refurbished rose garden.
Panama City is no upstart on the Emerald Coast: Fort Walton Indians lived here around 1200 A.D; you can visit an archaeological site and the 250-year-old Heritage Oak in Oaks by the Bay Park. In modern times English Tories settled Panama City before the Civil War. During World War II it was a center for shipbuilding.
Several sunken ships, including The Tarpon (1887) and the E.E. Simpson (1877), make for interesting diving. The Museum of Man in the Sea in Panama City Beach traces the history of diving since the 1500s.
In Panama City, Captain Andersons Restaurant has been popular with seafood lovers for more than 30 years.
So, when its time for a break from the beach, dont despair. Whether youre up for sights or time-tested eateries, delve into a little history on the Gulf Coast.
Jinny Danzer is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.