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Published May/Jun 2005



Left: This inviting spot waits for you on Sanibel Island.

Above: Water and children simply go together. Florida Tourism photos

Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), 1-800-5-MOBILE (800-566-2453), www.mobile.org;

• Alabama Gulf Coast CVB, 1-800-745-SAND(800-745-7283), www.gulfshores.com;

• Pensacola Bay Area CVB, 1-800-874-1234, www.visitpensacola.com;

• Emerald Coast CVB, 1-800-322-3319, www.destin-fwb.com;

• Citrus County Tourism (Crystal River),1-800-587-6667, www.visitcitrus.com;

• Tampa Bay CVB, 1-800-826-8358, www.visittampabay.com;

• Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, 1-800-237-6444, www.fortmyerssanibel.com.
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.

For a memorable family vacation, head to these Gulf Coast beaches and dig your toes in the sand.
By Janna Graber

Ask anyone to name a memorable childhood vacation and chances are they will mention a trip to the seashore. There is something unforgettable about a beach vacation–the salty smell of the sea, the squish of sand between toes and long, sunny days spent playing in the water.

The Gulf of Mexico is known for its wide beaches and warm, crystal waters. Although hurricanes struck the region last year, Gulf Coast communities are cleaning up, rebuilding and making improvements. The region is open for business and eager to welcome families back to its scenic shorelines.

Where on the Gulf should you go? With more than 3,000 miles of shoreline, there is plenty to choose from. Here are just a few suggestions.

Mobile

Mobile, Ala., is all about the sea. Located on lovely Mobile Bay, this Southern city offers guests an experience that is rich in history and fun. Water lovers can explore the lush Mobile Tensaw River Delta by airboat. These wetlands are covered in swamp hibiscus, bulrush reeds and water lilies and are home to egrets, Moore Hens and even a gator or two.

The USS Alabama Battleship and Memorial Park allows children and adults to get a thrill out of exploring the ship. If your children would rather don a lab coat and try a chemistry experiment, then head to the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center and Imax Theater. This downtown center offers hands-on educational fun.

Gulf Shores

If white sugar sand and uncrowded beaches are to your liking, then Gulf Shores, Ala.–an unpretentious and family friendly seaside community–is the place.

Although Hurricane Ivan came ashore last summer, Gulf Shores is rebuilding better than ever. Many hiking trails have re-opened, with the popular Pine Beach Trail slated to open this summer. Golf courses are perfectly trimmed and new condos have been built. Fishing boats are ready and waiting. In fact, charter captains are reporting exceptional catches, which is often the case after a hurricane.

There are many types of accommodations to choose from, but why not rent your own cottage along the beach where the kids can take part in a favorite Gulf Shores pastime: netting sand crabs. Armed with $3 nets and flashlights from local stores, children scour the beaches after dark looking for the biggest and best catch. All netted crabs are duly exclaimed over and then released.

Pensacola

Pensacola, Fla., has a rich naval history. It's home to the National Museum of Naval Aviation and Imax Theater, one of the largest aviation museums in the world. Little ones can climb into the cockpit while parents take in more than 170 vintage aircraft. Best of all, admission is free.

This seaside community has dozens of beaches. Check the beach safety flags before swimming as some shores have strong undertow. You might consider a day on the sand at Quietwater Beach on Santa Rosa Island, a long barrier island where the water is shallow and safe for little ones.

Hurricane Ivan rebuilding updates are available on www.visitpensacola.com. Road updates are included on the site. To date, Interstate 10 over Escambia Bay in both directions is open, and Fort Pickens Road is expected to be open this summer, with the fort and campgrounds opening late summer or early fall.

Destin and Fort Walton Beach

Less than 10 miles apart, these two Florida coastal towns cater to different crowds.

Destin is a growing, upscale destination in northwest Florida. It's filled with lively nightclubs, golf courses and more high-energy attractions than you'll ever be able to visit. The large and luxurious Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is just eight miles outside of Destin.

Fort Walton Beach is Destin’s down-to-earth neighbor. This unpretentious community has a charming Southern style all its own. Visitors and locals are drawn to nearby Okaloosa Island for its pristine beaches. The island is also home to the Boardwalk, an entertaining lineup of arcades, restaurants and even a saloon for the grownups.

Crystal River, Fla.

Crystal River’s most famous residents weigh more than 1,200 pounds and are 10 feet long. Home to the largest herd of manatees in the country, these gentle giants populate the clear Crystal and Homosassa rivers. Although the best place to view them is the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, which has a manatee rescue program, these “sea cows” can easily be seen from the riverbanks. If you’d rather view them in their own habitat, hop aboard one of the guided boat tours.

Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay, Fla., is one of the larger cities on the Gulf, which means it has a wealth of attractions, top resorts and outdoor activities. Busch Gardens, Dinosaur World and The Florida Aquarium are just a few of the top draws for families.

Head for one of the town beaches or charter a sunset cruise. Those in search of a workout can take the family paddling on the scenic Hillsborough River with Canoe Escape, the river’s only outfitter.

The Museum of Science and Industry will open “Kids in Charge,” a $13 million children’s science center, in June.

If you’d rather explore Tampa’s culinary side, head to Ybor City, the city’s Latin quarter.

Fort Myers and Sanibel Island

This kid-friendly town is a Florida playground for lovers of sand and sea. Just one look at Fort Myers Beach and it’s easy to see why. There are parents buying ice cream near the boardwalk at Times Square, youngsters on their boogie boards in tide pools and preschoolers digging holes in the sugary sand.

In addition to the city’s beaches, the region boasts some 100 barrier and coastal islands. One of the most popular islands is Sanibel, where bike paths crisscross the isle and there are no traffic lights.

One of Sanibel’s best offerings is the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to manatees, alligators, otters and other creatures. Try a family kayaking trip through the refuge or go shelling along one of Sanibel’s quiet shores.

Such family experiences are treasured memories in the making. And that, after all, is any parent’s goal.

Janna Graber is a contributor from Golden, Colo.

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