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, for a fun Gulf Coast road trip!
Emerald Coast beaches, here I come! Here are the ten best stops on the Gulf Emerald Coast.
1. Panama City Beach, Florida
With 27 miles of palm-lined emerald green beaches on the Florida Gulf Coast, Panama City Beach offers a 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 a 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.
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
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 charm and 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
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. Okaloosa Island, Florida
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 kitesurfers 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 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 Pickens and see where its most famous Apache prisoner, Geronimo, was kept.
6. Orange Beach, Alabama
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. For a delicious breakfast, try BuzzCatz Coffee and Sweets.
7. 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
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
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
What better way to end a Gulf Coast 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 browse 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.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.