Published Sep/Oct 2006

For romantic getaways,
the Gulf coast offers resorts, spas and cabins.
By Fred W. Wright Jr.

The Gulf of Mexico has a love affair with the sun as it gently rises each morning and seductively slips into dusk each evening. And couples have always migrated to Gulf Coast states to find a rich array of options for romantic getaways.

From pampering spas in Florida and Mississippi to the rustic privacy of an Alabama state park, from the quick action of a re-opened casino to the soft sand of a Gulf beach in Texas, this collection of quick getaways will heat up your fall travel plans.

Having it all

The first stop on a couple’s getaway might be the Portofino Island Resort and Spa at Pensacola Beach, Fla. There are five towers of suite condos, each with water views. The Gulf of Mexico spills out in one direction, Santa Rosa Sound in the other, with 100 yards of nature-preserved land in between.

Each condo, whether two or three bedrooms, comes fully equipped with arched ceilings and balconies providing view and privacy. There’s an enclosed courtyard, hot tub and pool in each of the five towers. The property offers a variety of water sports, from kayaking to jetski rentals.

In season, a private tram shuttles guests around the property, and an amphibious watercraft takes golfers from the property to nearby Tiger Point golf course. If more indoor activities are desired, there are yoga classes, a health center and a spa which offers massages. Guests also can choose a relaxing couples massage in the privacy of their own suite, one of the services offered by the resort’s Spa-To-YouTM service.

For a special touch, guests can order a catered meal prepared in the suite’s luxury kitchen by chefs from the Portofino’s Terracotta restaurant.

Although sleeping in is enticing on vacation, the sunrises are worth getting up for, whether viewed from the privacy of your eastward balcony or from the sands of the private beaches a few yards away.
If you decide to drive to the nearby beach, be alert when parking alongside the roadway’s soft, sandy shoulders. And the beaches are great for shell collecting; look for the spiraling nautilus shaped shells.

Hardly rustic

After the heights of luxury in Pensacola Beach, couples may seek a different sort of privacy, the more isolated but no less inviting coastline of Alabama near Gulf Shores.

In Gulf State Park off state Road 182, Lake Shelby beckons. The park’s 6,000 acres still bare some shoreline scars from recent hurricanes, but there is a smell of new wood and the sight of fresh architecture.

Couples who want to get away to nature without sacrificing comfort can check out 11 luxury cabins near Lake Shelby. The cabins are complete with air conditioning, queen-size beds, full kitchens, satellite TV–everything a couple might want, except fireplaces. The cabins rent for about $200 a night. Older restored cabins dating to the 1940s rent for less but are a bit more rustic.

Lake Shelby is a large freshwater lake and is available for boating, swimming and fishing. It has been restocked since the storms, so anglers should bring fishing gear and bait.

The recovering dunes of the Gulf beaches are a bit of a walk away, about two miles, but well worth it. A new pavilion with an unexpected S-shaped roof offers shelter, picnic tables, grills and restrooms in the park.

The community of Gulf Shores offers a wide range of activities, from the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail to sailing and saltwater fishing charter boats. For history buffs, Fort Morgan off state Highway 180 West and its museum are worth exploring. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children. Ride the ferry across the bay to Dauphin Island and tour Fort Gaines.

It’s no gamble

Perhaps the most romantic of the Mississippi Gulf Coast casino resorts, the AAA four diamond Beau Rivage Casino & Resort in Biloxi, Miss., at press time was set to reopen Aug. 29, one year to the date Hurricane Katrina came ashore. Beau Rivage (875 Beach Blvd.) had extensive storm damage to its kitchens, casino, shops and hotel lobby. At the reopening, guests will see the same architectural design as the celebrated Bellagio in Las Vegas, which also is owned by MGM Mirage.

Inside, rooms have full marble bathrooms, each with a stand-alone shower and a soaking tub, great amenities for a romantic weekend. Couples also will enjoy the resort’s public areas, including the casino’s signature lounge, EIGHT75 (for the resort’s street address), which was drawing international acclaim before the hurricane. It has returned in full force. The ground floor focal point is a suspended four-tier almond-shaped glass bar.

The brightly lit bar is complemented by a room of oversized ottomans, winding booths, streamlined lounge chairs and inviting couches. Four private booths, each with its own LCD screen, allow couples to enjoy the lounge and a bit of privacy.

New gourmet restaurants, shops, bars and a redesigned gaming floor are also available.

Guests may want to try the “Twice as Nice Couples Massage” or the European stone massage with smooth, heated stones gently gliding over the body. The spa has a full menu of treatments, from massages to body scrubs, wraps or facials.

Trot on

Tropical South Padre Island off the southeast tip of Texas has been praised for having some of the best beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, MSN.com this year named South Padre’s beaches among the top 10 in the United States. The white sand and blue waters are virtually undisturbed by nature’s fury or man’s interference.

The east side of the island is well-populated with condos and hotels, giving guests a chance to live for a night or two on the water. The west side of the island has many of the island’s adventures. Restaurants also dominate this side of the island. One of the most popular is Louie’s Backyard (2305 Laguna Blvd.). At night, guests dine on the deck with the waters of Laguna Madre Bay lapping underneath and the lights of the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge–which links the island to the mainland–sparkling in the distance.
he island’s Dolphins and Nature Research Center (5009 Padre Blvd.) provides a fascinating hands-on encounter with the gulf’s inhabitants, while the Laguna Madre Natural Trail located next to the convention center offers a 1,500-foot boardwalk across four acres of natural wetlands.

But for couples, the best way to wind down from romancing the Gulf is to rent a pair of horses and ride the sand and surf. Guided horseback rides, lasting about 90 minutes, are available most days, weather permitting. There’s nothing quite like trotting through surf to have a sense of timelessness, a feeling of being part of nature on an island edging into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico–an idyllic moment for any couple’s memory book.

Fred. W. Wright Jr. is a new contributor from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Above, title: At the Portofino Island Resort and Spa at Pensacola Beach, guests can enjoy a variety of watersports, including kayaking. Portofino Island Resort photo

Above and below: South Padre Island off the southeast coast of Texas has some of the Gulf Coast’s best beaches, which couples can explore by horseback. South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau photos

Before You Go
For more information, contact:
• Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), 1-800-874-1234, www.visitpensacola.com;
• Alabama state parks, 1-800-ALAPARK (800-252-7275), www.alapark.com;
• Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB, (228) 575-4297, www.gulfcoast.org;
• South Padre Island CVB, 1-800-SOPADRE (1-800-767-2373), or click on www.sopadre.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.

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