Coastal Cruising

the relatively short stretch of coastline from Alabama into northwest Florida is filled with a long list of beaches, festivals and attractions.
By Elaine Warner

It’s less than 150 miles from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., but the short drive offers a banquet of delights for the traveler–great beaches, fun festivals, super state parks and a variety of accommodations.

Alabama has a tiny coastline (32 miles), but don’t sell it short. Headquarter at Gulf Shores or Orange Beach and you’ll not only find seaside activities, but access to some handy mainland spots worth a visit.

Snowbirds love the area in winter, while birds of the biological kind, from hummers to herons, can be spotted here, too. The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail runs through the area. Shore birds and water birds are year-round residents, and fall and spring are prime migratory times. In October and April, the Hummer/Bird Study Group holds a two-week banding, allowing the public to see some of these birds up close.

Of course, the ocean is the biggest attraction. Wading, swimming and fishing in the surf, off the pier or by charter boat, are popular pursuits. Parasailing is available for those who want their water fun with an edge.

Sailaway Charters offers a great tour of the inland waterway. You’ll learn about the wildlife and water life, how oysters are grown and harvested, how shrimp are caught and what a crab trap looks like. If you’re lucky, you’ll be trailed by bottle-nosed dolphins on the track of an easy snack as first mate Janet tosses back little fish that got caught in the shrimp net.

Chowin’ down, Southern style

Other activities in the vicinity include golf, a water park and non-stop shopping at Tanger Outlet Centre in nearby Foley. AAA members receive discounts for shopping. In that neck of the woods, there are two notable eateries that couldn’t be more different. First is Lambert’s, “home of the throwed rolls.” An offshoot of the original Lambert’s in southern Missouri, the fare tastes like grandma’s best. Waiters come around with big pots of sides, like fried okra and black-eyed peas and, yes, they lob the baseball-sized rolls to diners from across the room.

For a more elegant meal, try Jesse’s Restaurant in Magnolia Springs. The setting, under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, is delightful. The lunch menu offers sandwiches, po’ boys and a signature salad–Jesse’s Famous Caesar Salad–with pecan-encrusted catfish or chicken atop the romaine lettuce. For dinner, try the stuffed flounder–a whole gulf flounder filled with sautéed shrimp, sweet peppers, onions and andouille sausage–topped with a rich cream sauce and served with wild rice.

Back in Gulf Shores, don’t miss King Neptune’s Seafood Restaurant. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it looks like a fast-food place. To paraphrase a quote you’ll hear at Fort Morgan, “Damn the décor, full seafood ahead!” You can’t go wrong with anything here, but if you don’t try the royal reds–jumbo, deep-sea shrimp with a sweet lobster taste–you’re missing a treat.

Places to stay on the beach aren’t hard to find, but you’d better book early if you plan your visit during a special event. Choose from hotel chains like Courtyard by Marriott or Best Western, resorts like the AAA-rated Gulf Shores Plantation or Perdido Beach Resort. Rent a condo or beach house from Kaiser Realty or Brett/Robinson Realty Vacation Rentals. For information on AAA discounts, call the Lodging Hotline at 1-866-AAA-SAVE (1-866-222-7283).

Far West Florida

It’s a short drive into Florida. The first big town is Pensacola. Visit Historic Pensacola Village where you’ll get a crash course in the history, commerce and architecture of the region. Components of the village include 10 buildings that are open to the public and located in an area of the Seville Square Historic District. The Pensacola Historical Museum (AAA admission discount) also is located in the district.

The National Museum of Naval Aviation at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola has been designated a AAA GEM (Great Experience for Members) for its extensive collection tracing the history of aviation. You’ll also find lots of information on the role of aviation in the military and more than 170 aircraft.

Pensacola Beach has lots of places to stay and more of that beautiful white sand. Like the other beach areas, you’ll find a whole range of activities both on the water and on the beach. Try biking or skating on the generous beach-side trails.

A charming community

In northwest Florida, Rosemary Beach is one of the newest of the planned communities springing up at water’s edge. An important component of this beautiful place is that the ecological concern is as important as the architectural aesthetics.

Only a small percentage of the home owners in Rosemary Beach are permanent residents, so many homes and carriage houses are available for rent. There’s also a small bed-and-breakfast inn, the Pensione, in the community and a larger inn under construction. Overnight stays are not for thin wallets, but the town is well worth a stop, if only for the day.

The city center has interesting shops, boutiques and charming cafés. Nothing is more than a five-minute walk from the heart of town. Four swimming pools, tennis courts, playgrounds and a butterfly garden are among the town’s attractions. The architecture ranges from New Orleans-style or Dutch West Indies to Mediterranean and Asian, but compatible color palettes and plantings make everything harmonious.

Next stop is Panama City Beach. This is a tourist hot spot due to the number of activities available, the beautiful beach, the wide variety of accommodations and the major renovation that has been done in the area. A beach renourishment program im-proved the shoreline, while new facilities have been built for visitors to St. Andrews State Park on the beach. Take a boat shuttle over to uninhabited Shell Island for snorkeling or shelling. Enjoy excellent fishing either from the huge pier that extends 1,600 feet into the gulf, or take a charter and try for one of the big billfish, tuna or dolphin (the fish, not Flipper).

Get off that interstate and take a ramble along the coastlines of Alabama and Florida. You can’t miss with this smorgasbord of scenery, food, festivals and activities. •

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.

Above: The Alabama Coastal Birding Trail offers plenty of opportunities to see herons, hummers and more. Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Below: Fishing is popular along the Gulf Coast, and the catch can be large. Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Before You Go

• Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), 1-800-745-SAND (800-745-7263) or

• Pensacola Bay Area CVB, 1-800-874-1234 or

• Rosemary Beach, 1-888-855-1551 or

• Panama City Beach CVB, 1-800-722-3224 or

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.

Gulf Coast Celebrations
By Elaine Warner

The Alabama Gulf Coast goes crazy over shrimp each October during the Shrimp Festival. The 33rd annual celebration takes place this year Oct. 7–10. Food, entertainment, art, crafts, jewelry, clothing–you name it, they’ve got it. The big Saturday sandcastle contest is always a favorite.

If you’ve timed your visit just right, you can catch another of the coast’s best loved festivals–the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival, Oct. 15–17 in Niceville, Fla. Niceville has great respect for the jumping fish that saved the town’s economy during the Depression. They also have great recipes. Try the mullet smoked or fried, but don’t miss alligator on a stick or one of the other great food offerings you’ll find at this fun festival.

In Destin, Fla., a 52-year tradition holds fast with the annual Fishing Rodeo in October. Destin attracts thousands of anglers from around the world to comb inshore, offshore, bays and bayous for a month-long fishing frenzy. The tourney offers more than 450 awards and giant dock parties with thrills for first-time fishermen, as well as seasoned old salts.

To kick off the Fishing Rodeo, more than 50,000 seafood aficionados savor every deep-water dish imaginable, from shark-kabobs and barbecued shrimp to fried alligator and crawfish cheese bread, at the Destin Seafood Festival, Oct. 1–3. Music, crafts and curiosities fill the playful weekend.

The Shrimp Festival is among the Gulf Coast’s most popular events, featuring crafts, entertainment and a sandcastle contest, as well as succulent shrimp. Alabama Gulf Coast Conven-tion and Visitors Bureau photo

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