Break

Trace the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Texas to find some of the best beaches in the country with great views and Southern hospitality.

By Karen Gibson

Vacation time is here, and if you’re like many Americans, you’re thinking about a trip to the beach. The beaches of California, Hawaii and the Caribbean immediately come to mind, but don’t neglect some of the very best beaches that are here in the southern United States.

Kayak

A couple getting ready to kayak off the southwest Florida coast. Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau photo

Thousands of miles of beaches lie at the northern boundary of the Gulf of Mexico, uniting with Florida, Alabama and Texas. You’ll find the same gentle waves and gorgeous ocean views found at other beaches, all within a day’s drive or less, coupled with that famed Southern hospitality.

Florida’s fun in the sun

It’s no secret that some of the world’s greatest beaches are located on the Florida peninsula. Sun seekers will find one great beach after another, but Sanibel and Captiva Islands get a special nod of approval.

These southwest Florida barrier islands 126 miles south of Tampa link to the mainland by a three-mile causeway. Fifteen miles of beaches score high among families, with Sanibel Island’s Bowman’s Beach recently voted as one of the top 10 family beaches on the Web site TripAdvisor. Captiva Island, west of Sanibel and connected by road, scores high for a romantic getaway.

Since Ponce de Leon discovered the islands off Florida in 1513, visitors have flocked to these shores and made another discovery: amazing shells. The unusual boomerang shape of the islands allows shells to reach the Sanibel and Captiva shores in one piece. Shell collectors make it to the beaches an hour before low tide for first pick.

Late risers can see shells on one of the charters found at the resorts or marinas. Shelling charters take tourists out to prime beaches and sandbars on North Captiva or nearby uninhabited islands. Or view hundreds of shells on display at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road on Sanibel.

Take a break from soaking up rays or shelling by shopping at boutiques and art galleries. Explore the 1884 Sanibel lighthouse on Periwinkle Way at the eastern tip of the island.

Sanibel and Captiva offer a variety of accommodations, from camping to resorts. Take advantage of the off-peak season from May through December for lodging discounts up to 60 percent.

While Native Americans and Spanish explorers knew about another Florida beach up the coast from Sanibel and Captiva, it was a New England fisherman who gave Destin the name we know it by today. Fisherman Leonard Destin found the fishing to be good and settled here in the 1840s. Others with a desire to make their living at fishing followed, giving the name of “world’s luckiest fishing village” to this Panhandle paradise.

Charter boats are readily available for a variety of fishing trips, including Destin’s specialty of deep-sea fishing. While the fishing is good, beaches surrounding the emerald green waters also make Destin a worthwhile destination. AAA gives Destin’s Tops’l Beach & Racquet Resort at 9011 U.S. Highway 98 West a three Diamond rating.

In the evenings, head to Destin Commons for free concerts held on the first Friday of every month. Restaurants here satisfy different palettes, from the Bluepoint Fish Club to the elegant Grape. Enjoy breakfast at Another Broken Egg Café. Order the Bananas Foster French Toast, and then take off the pounds with vigorous shopping at the Silver Sands Factory Stores, featuring more than 100 shops, on Emerald Coast Parkway.

Sugary beaches

The sugar-white beaches of Alabama truly look like sparkly grains of sugar. It’s one of many surprises when you land on Orange Beach and the larger neighboring Gulf Shores.

Long ago, locals tried to grow orange trees on the Alabama shore. The effort failed, but the name of Orange Beach stuck. At the tip of Alabama, Orange Beach relaxes in the sunshine with summer temperatures settling in the 80s. Like other beach destinations, the accommodations vary, but repeat visitors like the ease of renting a condo, most with views of the water.

Visitors in August will hear the rumble of the powerboats. Each year, people gather for the Thunder on the Gulf powerboat races to be held Aug. 14–17. You’ll see some breathtaking moves and races as drivers battle for speed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Go offshore to Alabama’s popular Dauphin Island. Located about 35 miles from Mobile on state Highway 193, Dauphin Island provides nature and history in a wonderful package. Water sports like sailing are a relaxing way to spend the day, but so is hiking to the lighthouse. Or sit back and let Dauphin Island Cruises show you around.

Nice and easy in the Lone Star State

The large Texas coastline includes many beaches, like popular Galveston and South Padre Island. But a great, less-crowded beach is on Mustang Island just 30 minutes from downtown Corpus Christi.

Travel the JFK Causeway or board the Port Aransas Ferry System, which provides free ferry service 24/7. Port Aransas, located on the northern tip of the island, is the only town on 18-mile-long Mustang.

Mustang Island State Park offers camping along its five miles of sandy beach. It’s also a great site for bird watching because Mustang Island is part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

Nearby, Rockport and Fulton may be two towns, but people often talk of them together. Both have a “village by the sea” feeling that draws many artists. Here, the public Rockport Beach Park has the first Blue Wave beach in Texas. The Blue Wave is an environmental certification from the Clean Beaches Council.

The Houston-Bay area gives a nod to the past with Kemah Boardwalk, 215 Kipp Ave. The timeless boardwalk is part carnival and part seaside resort. Strains of “Run Around Sue” are heard behind the clickety-clack of the 96-foot-tall wooden Board Bullet roller coaster and the game vendors hawking their games of chance.

Stand on the boardwalk and watch seagulls and yachts travel through the bay. Nearby signs warn against feeding the seagulls, but the birds linger anyway just in case you forget. And who could blame them as delightful aromas from cotton candy sidewalk carts or the Kemah Crab House mingle with the sea breezes.

And sea breezes, sunny skies and sandy beaches are indigenous to a Southern summer in these coastal communities.

Karen Gibson is a contributor from Norman, Okla.

Jul/Aug 2008 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO
For more information, contact:
• Sanibel and Captiva Islands, 800-237-6444 or www.fortmyers-sanibel.com;
• Destin, (800) 322-3319 or www.destin-fwb.com;
• Orange Beach, (800) 745-SAND (7263) or www.orangebeach.com;
• Rockport-Fulton, (800) 242-0071 or www.rockport-fulton.org;
• Port Aransas and Mustang Island, (800) 45-COAST (452-6278) or www.portaransas.org;
• Kemah Boardwalk, (877) AT-KEMAH (285-3624) or www.kemahboardwalk.com.

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

Order free information through the Reader Service Card, online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.
Idyllic

The Florida of days long past, with unspoiled white sand beaches, exotic wildlife and lush subtropical foliage, still can be found on Sanibel and Captiva Islands in the state’s southwestern area.

Known as Florida’s Tropical Island Getaway, this subtropical paradise is a favorite vacation spot for visitors from around the world. Here, visitors escape the more congested areas of the state for a feel of old Florida that no longer exists. This area is proving to be the perfect sanctuary for families to reconnect in a quiet, natural setting. With surroundings conducive to refocusing on what’s really important in life, visitors are finding a sense of inner peace as they submerse themselves in alluring natural wilderness.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands offer a variety of accommodations to fit any budget and great year-round weather for an abundance of recreational activities for every member of the family, including nature- and history-based tours and activities, golfing, biking, tennis, incredible fishing, shopping and much more.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are connected to the mainland by a three-mile-long causeway and, to each other, by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bridge at Blind Pass. Sanibel is known worldwide for its shelling and the associated posture referred to as the “Sanibel Stoop.” Some fanatics attach flashlights to their heads, in an effort to be first in the daily search for some of the more than 200 varieties of shells found littering the beaches, particularly after an especially high or low tide.

For most visitors, however, shelling is merely a delightful excuse to enjoy hours of sun-worshipping along the shoreline. Shell-lovers can further satisfy their passions at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, dedicated to showcasing exotic shells from Sanibel and Captiva Islands, and throughout the world (888-679-6450; www.shellmuseum.org).

Sanibel’s main thoroughfare, Periwinkle Way, is Sunday-drive picturesque and lush with jungle. Interesting shops and restaurants dot the road from the Sanibel Lighthouse to Tarpon Bay Road, making it difficult to complete the distance without many sightseeing stops at the boutiques and art galleries.

On the way to Captiva Island, located toward Sanibel’s northern tip, the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to many exotic species of birds and plants. With 250 species of birds, the refuge has been ranked by USA Today as one of the top birdwatching locations in North America. A four-mile drive, as well as walking and canoe trails, offers abundant opportunities for naturalists to witness a raccoon washing up before breakfast, an alligator snatching a quick bite or long-legged wading birds stalking their prey. In all, the refuge occupies more than half of the island (239-472-1100, www.dingdarlingsociety.org).

The main attraction on Captiva is that there is none, and many people wile away the hours in one outdoor endeavor or another. It was here that Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator, wrote her best-selling book, “Gift from the Sea.”

Much of southwest Florida’s earliest, most colorful history can be found on and around the barrier islands that dot its coastline. They also have long been a mecca for explorers, including Ponce de Leon, who discovered Sanibel and Captiva in 1513. It is believed that Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar lived in Pine Island Sound during the early 1800s. Legend has it that the central location enabled him to establish headquarters on Sanibel Island (Santa Isybella Island) and bury his ill-gotten gains on Gasparilla Island. Further, it’s been said that Captiva Island (translated from Isle de los Captivas) was no named because Gaspar kept his ransomed female prisoners there.

By 1900, sea captains and farmers were homesteading the islands, and 1925, inventor Clarence Chadwick converted Captiva into a key lime plantation. Today, Chadwick’s plantation is the 330-acre South Seas Island Resort. The tropical resort paradise is a popular vacation destination, complete with a marina, golf course and upscale restaurants (239-472-5111).

Additional insights to old-time island life can be found at the Sanibel Lighthouse. Built in 1884 on the island’s southern tip, the lighthouse has been a wildlife refuge since 1950. In recent years, a boardwalk was built to provide visitors easy access to the lighthouse and surrounding cottages. An additional boardwalk has since been completed, connecting the beachfront landmark to the fishing pier.

The Sanibel Historical Village and Museum showcase exhibits and displays that tell the island’s history beginning with the Calusa Indians. A quaint village dedicated to the pioneer families of Sanibel and Captiva include “Uncle” Clarence Rutland’s home, Bailey’s General Store, the 1926 post office, Miss Charlotta’s Tea Room, and the Burnap Cottage. Connected by a handicapped-accessible boardwalk, all are furnished with genuine antique items. Other displays include a pioneer garden, an antique Model-T truck and a replica packing house (239-472-4648).

Sanibel and Captiva islands are part of The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel, which includes history Fort Myers, Fort Myers Beach, Pine Island, Bonita Springs and Estero, Cape Coral, North Fort Myers, Boca Grande and Lehigh Acres.

For details on accommodations, attractions and more, call (239) 338-3500 or visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com.

–Karen Gibson



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