Published: Sept/Oct 2003

Before You Go
For more information, contact Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-745-SAND (800-745-7263) or www.gulfshores.com; Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 1-866-602-8177 or www.sandestin.com/pr.asp; Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce Tourism and Convention Bureau, 1-800-45-COAST (1-800-452-6278) or www.portaransas.org.

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Escaping winter
Exchange your galoshes and coats for flip-flops and bathing suits this winter in the coastal areas of Alabama, Texas and Florida

By Lynn Grisard Fullman

A variety of beautiful and challenging golf courses can be found in the Sandestin, Fla., area (above). A beach chair waiting for a lazy occupant (top). /Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort photos
If memories of last winter make you shiver, consider spending this winter in warmer places.
Alabama, Florida and Texas offer winter reprieves where days are mild, activities are plentiful and you likely can keep your flip-flops right by the front door. While warm and sunny places to spend winter days abound, we offer a few suggestions below.

Frolicking in Florida

Imagine spending winter days playing golf or tennis, tasting wine or enjoying spa treatments.

That’s just what some 15,000 winter guests do annually at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which is located on Florida’s Gulf Coast between Pensacola and Panama City Beach.

Sprawling on 2,400 acres, including 7.5 miles of beach and bay front, the resort–which is celebrating its 30th anniversary–has more than 1,000 accommodations. The Grand Sandestin, a 168-unit luxury condominium hotel, is scheduled to open this fall. Free activities include daily use of the Sandestin health club (adults only), use of bicycles, one-hour free use of canoes, kayaks, boogie boards, tennis courts and the property-wide tram service.

There’s never a dull moment at Sandestin, especially with the addition of the Village of Baytowne Wharf, a 28-acre waterfront town center peppered with a collection of shops, charming eateries, lively nightclubs, shell-paved streets and walkways, and year-round special events.

With almost constant sunshine, the resort offers winter rates on themed packages ranging from golf, fishing and tennis to spa pampering, romance and luxury.

Resort guests have access to four championship golf courses, 15 tennis courts, a 98-slip marina, water sports, retail shops, more than a dozen dining options (from casual to gourmet) and miles of hiking and bicycling paths.

Sandestin’s Extended Stay program (with monthly costs beginning at $965 and winter nights at $85) gives guests access to special activities, such as wine tasting, an annual Safety and Health Fair, a Wednesday night concert series, an annual Baytowne Literary Series and a variety of holiday events.

When you remember you could be stoking the fires back home, the pleasures of beach living are utter joy.

Winter migration in Alabama

The Horace Caldwell Fishing Pier at Port Aransas Beach, silhouetted in the sunrise (above). /Odin Clay, Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce photo.
The Alabama Gulf Coast offers 32 miles of white-sand beaches for wiling away the winter (below). /Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo.
Beaches and warm days are the focus across the state line in Alabama, where winter guests play on the 32 miles of white-sand beaches. Tourism officials have discovered that most winter visitors to Alabama’s coast migrate from the Midwest.

Most arrive in their personal cars, make reservations before arriving, stay 63.5 days, arrive without children and journey in twos, just like those who retreated into Noah’s Ark.

Their reasons for landing along Alabama’s coast in the winter are more widely spread: 27.1 percent are drawn by the weather, 20.8 percent by beaches, 16.7 percent by reasonable rates, 15.6 percent by friends/relatives in the area, 14.6 percent by the lack of crowds and commercialism and 13.5 percent by memories of previous visits.

Outdoor activities are enjoyed at the coast. Locals and visitors enjoy wetting their lines from the shore or during full- or half-day charter-fishing trips into the deep blue sea. Some opt for bicycling, mo-ped riding or treks close to nature in undisturbed places such as Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Approximately nine miles west of Gulf Shores, the wildlife oasis is the place to fish both in fresh and saltwater and potentially spot pelicans, bobcats and alligators.

Golfers find weather conducive year-round for playing at more than a dozen courses within a 45-minute drive of Alabama’s coast.
Shoppers visit Riviera Centre, with more than 120 outlet stores, to get a jumpstart on holiday shopping.

Alabama is not the only gulf retreat worth a winter visit. Head a bit west and you’ll tumble into Texas and more warm, winter days.
Tempting Texas temperatures

On the northern tip of Mustang Island and some 30 minutes from Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, Texas may be the best-kept secret along the Gulf Coast.

While much of the nation battens down the hatches against winter’s cold, the folks in Port Aransas savor warm days. Temper- atures range from 82 degrees in September to a low of 56 degrees in January.

Here, winter visitors make themselves at home in accommodations ranging from condominiums and cottages to RV parks and campgrounds.

Winter guests discover miles of beautiful beaches, dolphins frolicking in the channel, gentle gulf breezes, plus bays, jetties and deep-gulf waters with some of the finest fishing found anywhere.

More than 500 species of birds visit annually, making Port Aransas one of the continent’s most popular birding destinations. Of some 800 species of birds in North America, almost 500 are in this Coastal Bend.

The island is the place to savor 18 miles of accessible uncrowded beaches, and fish, bird watch, collect seashells along shorelines or watch dolphins. Outdoor activities include tennis, golf, horseback riding, cycling and boating. Attractions in the area include a birding center and native-plants garden, a free trolley, a boat ride to St. Jo Island, historic Harbor Island Light House, a free vehicular ferry, scenic cruises and the University of Texas Marine Science Institute Visitors Center. Plus there are great restaurants, shops, art galleries and a community theater. Days often end with fine dining, sunsets and lively nightlife.

Legend has it that somewhere on the island a Spanish dagger with a silver spike driven through the hilt marks the spot where Jean Lafitte buried a chest of gold and jewels. No one yet has found the treasure but it doesn’t mean that treasures do not abound in these havens, where winter days pass more quickly.

Maybe the sought-after pirate’s treasure is not gold after all. Maybe the prize is what visitors discover in these warm and inviting winter retreats.

Preparing for an extended vacation

Florida’s Gulf Coast offers inviting white-sand beaches. /Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort photo
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in northwest Florida offers the following tips for those planning an extended stay:

  • Begin by deciding how long you will stay;
  • Research various property types and accommodations;
  • Choose your accommodation preference. Decide how many bedrooms, how many stories do you want the building to be, what view do you want;
  • Before leaving home, prepare your house. Lock windows and doors. Unplug appliances. Turn off the water heater. (You may need to drain the water.) Lower the thermostat. Set lights on timers. Put valuables in a safe. Arrange for lawn care or snow removal;
  • Notify neighbors and family that you will be away. Give at least one neighbor your temporary telephone number, cell phone number or the number of a relative who can reach you in case of an emergency;
  • Make plans to stop or forward the daily mail and subscriptions;
  • Take important medical information with you, including medical and dental records, prescription information and birth certificate;
  • Pack bank records and checkbook, investment and insurance papers, and important contact information for your banks and financial managers;
  • Take your address book on vacation so you can keep in touch with friends and family;
  • Take essential clothing and sports equipment.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.

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