Solo Road Trip: Ten Best Stops on the Gulf Emerald Coast

The Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico

View of the Emerald Coast of the Gulf of Mexico from Panhandle Helicopter

I moved from New England to South Carolina a few years ago to escape the snow. Like many other parts of the country, it was an unseasonably cold winter, even in the South. So when we got that half-inch of snow in February, I jumped in my car and headed even further south!

Snow in South Carolina?  I'm outta here!

Snow in South Carolina? I’m outta here!

Emerald Coast beaches, here I come! Here are the ten best stops on the Gulf Emerald Coast.

1.  Panama City Beach, Florida

Panama City Beach sunset

Panama City Beach sunset

With 27 miles of palm-lined emerald green beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast, Panama City Beach offers lot of fun activities in the water, under the water, or even in the air. The best snorkeling is in the crystal waters of St. Andrews State Park or on nearby Shell Island, an amazingly pristine, uninhabited island. This is definitely the “tourist spot” on the Emerald Coast, sure to please families with myriad of attractions such as Wonderworks, Race City, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a slew of amusement parks. It’s also a great place to catch a brilliant beach sunset.

Flying over the beach with pilot Katie!

Flying over the beach with pilot Katie!

The best adventure in Panama City Beach is with Panhandle Helicopter where you can get a stunning birds-eye view of the coast, and if you’re lucky, catch a glimpse of sharks swimming in the nearby sea.

2.  Mexico Beach, Florida

The pier at Mexico Beach

The pier at Mexico Beach

In contrast to Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach, about 20 miles east on the “Undiscovered Gulf Coast” is the place to get away from it all. Brimming with small town, relaxed atmosphere – and no traffic lights – you won’t find any high-rise hotels here. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway.

3.  Destin, Florida

Seaspray blows over the jetty rocks at Destin, Florida.

Seaspray blows over the jetty rocks at Destin, Florida.

It is said that the Emerald Coast was named for this strip of beautiful white sugar-sand beach. The “jewel of the Emerald Coast,” this area is the most upscale of the Florida Emerald Coast, and filled with luxury accommodations, award-winning golf courses, open-air and upscale shopping, and fine dining prepared by master chefs. For a truly unique experience, rent a jet ski and ride out to where dolphins play. If you love fishing, try your luck here – it’s been named “world’s luckiest fishing village.”

4.  Oklaloosa Island, Florida

Kitesurfers in Okaloosa

Kitesurfers in Okaloosa

This barrier island is surrounded by Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The main attraction is the water sports – particularly watching the skilled and acrobatic kitesusrfers at Gulf Islands National Seashore or fishing from the 1,261-foot-long fishing pier. The beach boardwalk claims fame to an annual “biggest and best bull-riding show in the Southeast” where tourists can watch bull riders and fighters, listen to an outdoor concert, and other family-oriented festivities.

5. Pensacola, Florida

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola Beach was recently selected as one of TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Beaches in the U.S., offering visitors both fun and relaxation. Pensacola (1559) predates St. Augustine (1565) and Jamestown, VA (1607), but was abandoned shortly after being established due to a hurricane disaster. When you tire of swimming, fishing, snorkeling, diving, and sailing, landlubber activities include exploring the grounds of the historic Fort Pickins and see where its most famous Apache prisoner, Geronimo, was kept.

6.  Orange Beach, Alabama

A pirate-led treasure hunt at family-friendly Orange Beach

A pirate-led treasure hunt at family-friendly Orange Beach

Orange Beach is a lesser-known vacation destination than some of the neighboring beaches in Florida and Mississippi, but the 32 miles of sparkling water and powdery sand beaches are attracting families with kid-friendly activities, like pirate-led treasure hunts sponsored by popular budget hotels. The area also offers zip lines, golfing, deep sea fishing, dolphin cruises, and water sports.

7.  Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Just a few miles from Orange Beach is Gulf Shores. In fact, the two are so closely tied that they share a tourism site. Coastal Living lists Gulf Shores as one of the 21 Best Beaches in the United States. From the über-soft sugar-white beach sand to the bathtub-warm surf, and gentle waves, the beach is a popular choice for families with nearby attractions like the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and Waterville USA. Deep sea fishing and golfing are also prevalent in Gulf Shores.

8.  Biloxi, Mississippi

Beauvoir, the post-war home of the only Confederate President, Jefferson Davis

Beauvoir, the post-war home of the only Confederate President, Jefferson Davis

Biloxi is 62 miles of scenic shoreline, much of which also provides you with a picturesque view of historic architecture and mansions on the opposite side of the highway. There are areas to pull over for beach access as well as photo opportunities. Nature-enthusiasts will find activities such as eco-tours, endangered bird viewing, kayaking on the bayous, biking and hiking. In contrast, Biloxi is known for its many casinos. Not to be missed is the tour of Beauvoir, the post-war home and library of the only Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, much of which was destroyed (and some parts subsequently renovated) by Hurricane Katrina.

9.   Gulfport, Mississippi

One of the many piers along the highway in Gulfport, Mississippi

One of the many piers along the highway in Gulfport, Mississippi

Gulfport is the second largest city in Mississippi after the state capital Jackson. With less than 7 miles of white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, Gulfport is more well-known as a casino destination of the Gulf Coast. Because of its close proximity to Biloxi, vacationers often combine activities of the two destinations.

10.  New Orleans, Louisiana

The fun way to tour the French Quarter - by Segway!

The fun way to tour the French Quarter – by Segway!

What better way to end a road trip than the fabulous NOLA! New Orleans is a fascinating city and you could spend another week here and not run out of things to do and see. For a short trip, I would recommend staying right in the French Quarter. This frenetic area of NOLA is jammed with history, architecture, culture, foodie finds, shopping and jazz music.

If you only have one day, here’s my suggestion for cramming the most in:

  • Start the day with one (or three!) of the famous beignets and a cup of coffee from Café DuMonde down near the Mississippi River. I have declared their beignets to be the best thing I’ve ever eaten…. narrowly beating out baklava.
  • Stroll around the area, including Jackson Square and brows at the French Market and boutique shops along Decatur Street.
  • Go on a Segway Tour of the French Quarter with City Segway. This is the quickest and most fun way to see a lot of the area, including the architecture of the French Quarter, Louis Armstrong Park, the Treme neighborhood, Jackson Square and the Mississippi waterfront.
  • Gorge yourself with the savory charbroiled oysters, swimming in butter and parmesan cheese at the Royal House.
  • Stop in for a Hurricane at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, rumored to be haunted, and frequented in the past by writers like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner.
  • Have dinner at one of a number of exquisite fine dining establishments, depending on your tastes and preferences.
  • Stroll around Bourbon Street, popping in and out of clubs along the way as wafting live bands’ music draw you in.
The addictive beignets at Café DuMonde

The addictive beignets at Café DuMonde

 

Charbroiled oysters stuffed with butter and parmesan cheese

Charbroiled oysters stuffed with butter and parmesan cheese

Couldn't resist buying a Mardi Gras mask at the end of the French Market!

Couldn’t resist buying a Mardi Gras mask at the end of the French Market!

 

If you go:

Holiday Inn Resort Panama Beach

Embassy Suites by Hilton – Miramar Beach

Holiday Inn, Orange Beach

Bourbon Orleans Hotel

 

Comments

  1. A lovely tour through an area we visited at the end of 2006, still in the aftermath of ‘Katrina” – we were especially shocked by Biloxi (you can see some of our photos from that time here: http://www.dare2go.com/usa4/usapic47.shtml)
    I am happy to read your report of how beautiful this place is again.
    Yasha Langford recently posted…We’re stuck, but there’s no better place to be!My Profile

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      Beauvoir has done a great job restoring after Katrina. It’s a shame some of the treasures from our history that were lost and not replaceable.

  2. So any great places to choose from to escape the cold! It would be very hard to choose one over the other though New Orleans has always been on my wish list!

    • luggageandlipstick says:

      NOLO was so different than all the previous stops. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and can’t wait to go back!

  3. I love beaches and food, so the Emerald Coast looks like the perfect place for me! That photo of the charbroiled oysters makes me want to head south right NOW!
    Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel) recently posted…Mango Smoothie PieMy Profile

  4. We have rellies who make this area their winter home, and with good reason! (My dad used to call parts of it the Redneck Riviera!) It is so nice to see the comback – and it was a long time coming – after Katrina.
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru recently posted…Become Location Independent: Ultimate GuideMy Profile

  5. What a nice beachy trip! I’m not familiar with most of them so enjoyed the introductory ride.

  6. You had me counting along. And you had me stopped–salivating over the beignets!
    Kristin Henning recently posted…Discovering European Capitals of CultureMy Profile

  7. Great idea for a road trip, the beignets look delicious!

  8. Gosh! You’ve introduced me to a part of the U.S. I’ve never visited and know little about~
    Irene S Levine recently posted…What is it like to fly United BusinessFirst?My Profile

  9. It sure does look tempting down there along the Emerald Coast. I’ve only had brief visits to some spots along the coast (and most of them were quite a while back) but hubby and I were recently talking about the beautiful beaches there. I can see why it would make one think about relocation.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted…A Taste of Burgundy in California Wine CountryMy Profile

  10. Wow – those beach pics!!! We have only been away from the beach for a few weeks, and it is already calling me back! Some great writing and photography here!
    The Adventure Ahead recently posted…CariBeans and the Chocolate Forest: Puerto ViejoMy Profile

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