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Published Sept/Oct 2005



Above: On the Biloxi Shrimping Trip, passengers learn all about the fishing industry. Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Below: Visitors exploring the Steinhatchee River near the Florida Panhandle. Steinhatchee Landing Resort photo


Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-SO-PADRE (800-767-2373), www.sopadre.com;

• Southwest Louisiana/Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-456-7952, www.visitlakecharles.org;

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

• Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-745-SAND (800-745-7263), www.gulfshores.com;

• Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention &
Visitors Bureau, 1-888-467-4853, www.gulf coast.org.

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.

There’s more to the Gulf Coast than swimming and sandcastles. Seek out these hidden trails, wildlife sanctuaries, hotels and new attractions.
By Theresa Russell

rom the shores of Texas to the tip of Florida, the Gulf of Mexico beckons water lovers to enjoy its bounties. While fishing, swimming, dolphin watching and beachcombing are popular pursuits of this watery playground, the hidden gems along the coastal area deserve further exploration.

So, when the rain sets in or you’ve had too much sun, spend some time being a landlubber and enjoy the following special places.
Time out in Texas

The Travel Channel recently selected South Padre Island as having the third-best beach in the country. Beyond its beaches, however, there are remarkable spots on the island, like the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, a 1,500-foot-long boardwalk with interpretative signs about the ecosystem and birds found in this four-acre wetland. Just before the approach to the boardwalk, Whaling Wall by environmental artist, Wyland, brings the walls of the convention center to life with its pods of life-sized orcas.

Indigenous architecture from the Southwest and Mexico areas fuses with Anglo style to achieve an authentic old Southwest feel at the Casa de Siesta (4610 Padre Blvd.). Talavera tile, arched doorways, rosette windows, beamed ceilings and saltillo (clay) floor tiles create aesthetic diversions that stimulate the senses. Established in 2000 with relaxation in mind, this inn allows children 12 and older when accompanied by adults.

After a day of exploring the island, make an appointment at the Unum Day Spa (5009 Padre Blvd.). Indulge yourself in one of a variety of treatments in rooms that inspire relaxation and restoration. The experience here is golden.

Louisiana lagniappe

Martin Beach, quiet, yet easily accessible, hosts dragonflies and butterflies that feast on the coreopsis, morning glory and other wildflowers that flourish in this habitat.

Nearby Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary provides a respite from stormy weather for birds migrating in each direction. Fluttering flashes of color and melodious song combine to form a natural sound and light show. The best birding months coincide with migration–March to May and August to October. Majestic Monarch and Gulf Fritallary butterflies enjoy the sanctuary as well, likely due to the vast array of wildflowers that provide nourishment for them.

The dashing, pink Roseate Spoonbill frequents the Gulf Coast marshes and mingles with larger fowl like the White Ibis, Common Loon, Pied Billed Grebe and Virginia Rail.

The winter brings other birds to the area including a large variety of ducks. Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary and Rutherford Beach are both included on the Louisiana Gulf Coast Birding Trail.

Don’t forget the great shelling along the beaches, and try some of the local cooking at the family run restaurants in the area. If time permits, explore the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road that winds from Lake Charles to Sulphur. Visitors can pick up a free driving tour on CD or cassette from the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1205 North Lakeshore Drive in Lake Charles.

Crowns and gowns in Alabama

A new sparkle in Mobile comes in the way of a glitzy museum that showcases the history of carnival in this original Mardi Gras city. In fact, the first Mardi Gras took place here in 1703, and it continues to be a family celebration, geared to fun seekers of all ages. Exhibits at the William and Emily Hearin Mobile Carnival Museum (355 Government St.) include floats, robes, crowns, gowns and other memorabilia associated with Mardi Gras. There is even a chance to get on a float and have a photograph taken.

At the Three Georges (528 S. Broad St.) in downtown Mobile, feed your chocolate and sweet cravings with tastes of pralines, chocolate candy, pies and cakes. Watch candy being made or sign up for a class to create tempting treats.

For the ultimate in fine dining, head to The Pillars (1757 Government St.), where chef R. Matt Shipp combines his Culinary Institute of America training with his culinary experience at Loyola University in New Orleans. He deftly prepares hand-cut steaks and the freshest of seafood with a New Orleans twist. The architectural details of the historic building complement Shipp’s artistic flair.

Gulf Shores in Alabama received devastating damage from Hurricane Ivan last year, but has rebounded. The nearby village of Magnolia Springs–a quiet, picturesque community–boasts a special bed-and-breakfast.

The Magnolia Springs Bed-and-Breakfast (14469 Oak St.) is an historic home featuring heart pine floors and traditional craftsmanship throughout. Owner and host David Worthington extends a warm hospitality that adds to the ambience of this historic home, which has been featured on Bob Vila’s “Restore America” show.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan peninsula and Little Dauphin Island is protected because of its unique coastal ecosystems. This is home to endangered Alabama beach mice, three species of turtles, migratory birds and more. The Pine Beach trailhead is easily accessible and this path leads to sand dunes, a lagoon and forest.

Mississippi moments

Elvis Presley fans may want to stay at the Gulf Hills Hotel (13701 Paso Road), which was the summer home for the king of rock ‘n’ roll from 1951–57. It is perfect for anyone seeking a quiet escape. The king suite definitely takes on a different meaning at this getaway, located in Ocean Springs, a short distance from Biloxi and casinos.

Less glamorous but no less interesting is the life of a shrimper. Climb aboard the “Sailfish” with the Biloxi Shrimping Trip folks to learn about the fishing industry and more. The net catches all sorts of marine life and might include a flounder, stingray, squid, blue crabs and shrimp. To avoid seasickness, the boat travels in the calm waters near the coast. The Sailfish is docked at the Biloxi small craft harbor on U.S. Highway 90 East. Visit www.gcww.com/sailfish online for more information.

Florida finds

Near the Florida Panhandle is Steinhatchee Landing (228 NE Highway 51, 1-800-584-1709), a wonderful family resort that caters to any stage of family life. There’s even a wedding chapel, as well as exquisite honeymoon cottages for a romantic getaway. Some of the family cottages allow pets.

The 36 Victorian and Florida Cracker-style cottages set amongst the oak trees remind guests of the old Florida. These fully equipped houses make a weeklong vacation convenient for families and couples.
With a little sleuthing, you may discover your own hidden vacation gems along the Gulf Coast.

Theresa Russell is a contributor from Round Lake, N.Y.

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