NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The Gulf Coast is more than a hot spring break destination; it is a cool place to visit anytime of the year.
A full two years after the BP oil spill, which led President Obama to encourage Americans to come to the Gulf during summer travel to support its residents, the southern stretch of sand, sea, gator and dolphin is still a great place to visit. Mainstreet has compiled a list of 5 unexpected Gulf Coast destinations and ways to make the most of the underexplored, time-traveling charms of this region:
Magnolia Springs, Alabama
What to do: This is a different kind of Gulf Coast town as there aren’t white sandy beaches -- though those aren’t far away -- but this quaint southern town is sure to help you rest and relax. You can begin your day in this “Mayberry” like town slow and easy, taking a walk down the main road lined with magnificent oaks. If it is spring or summer, the smell of magnolias fill the air.
This is an especially great place for Civil War buffs as the town permeates with history of the War Between the States. If you’re into railroad history, take a short drive to Foley and visit the Foley Alabama Railroad Museum and L&N Train Depot. The huge model train display set in a small town delights young and old alike.
Beaches, museums, golf, shopping and just about anything you want to do can be found within a short driving distance.
Where to eat: "Take out" is a dining option too often overlooked on vacation. Take a short walk to Moore’s Grocery, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, and feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the neighborhood grocery of yesteryear.
Where to stay: The Magnolia Springs Bed and Breakfast makes for a wonderful romantic inn getaway and one of the best parts about this B&B is that breakfast is served at your convenience during specified hours in the morning and you can sit at a table just for two. Rates at the B&B range from $149 per night. Special packages are available. Spend an afternoon with a good sweet tea on the wrap around porch at the B&B and enjoy a good book.
What to do: If you have kids, they most likely want to see dolphins when you head down to the Gulf Coast and truth be known, you probably do too. Clearwater is home to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where Winter, the star of the movie “Dolphin Tales” resides. Although Clearwater beach has been recognized as one of the most family friendly beaches, it is also recognized as one of the best singles beaches in the country.
The area boasts a myriad of activities from water sports to shopping. The free Sunset on Pier 60 Festival takes place nightly on the beach and features street performers, music and kid’s entertainment.
Where to eat: The Clear Sky Beachside Café serves a Chef's Papillote of herbs, vegetables, and a fresh seafood selection cooked in parchment paper with a choice of rice or redskin potatoes. Diners at Rusty’s Bistro can enjoy live jazz piano, prime rib buffet, and a complex main dish of shrimp and crab stuffed salmon paired with a blood orange hollandaise over a basmati quinoa blend.
Where to stay: The Sandpearl Resort runs from $370 per night.
What to do: Like Alabama, there are so many great places to visit along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast that it is hard to choose just one town. One of the best things about Mississippi is if you didn’t stop you could cruise along the entire Gulf Coast of the state in less than two hours.
We like Pascagoula because one of the things you should do on a coastal vacation in this region is see an alligator and Gulf Coast Gator Ranch is a fabulous place to do that safely. From an airboat, you will see alligators, birds and marine life in their natural habitat, as you tour 105 acres which border the Grand Bay Estuary in Pascagoula/Moss Point.
Where to eat: Scranton’s Restaurant, located in the town’s original city hall/fire station/jail. Where else could you eat traditional southern red beans and rice and fried pickles in the “mayor’s office?”
Where to stay: Since you can travel the entire Mississippi coast in two hours, you might be bidding Pascagoula adieu by nightfall, but for those taking it slow the Grand Magnolia Bed and Breakfast runs from $125 per night.
Anna Maria Island, Florida
What to do: Many Florida Gulf Coast towns are known for their wonderful beaches and this one is no exception. If you’re looking for a vacation that has both beaches, as well as art galleries and shopping, Anna Maria Island might be the place you’re seeking. Anna Maria Island is also home to Historical Green Village, which is a net-zero compound and just became LEED platinum certified.
Where to eat: If you’re looking for a good grouper sandwich, the Sandbar is the place.
Where to stay: Rent an apartment at the Tortuga Inn, which starts at $180 per night.
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama
What to do: We’re combining these two gems on Alabama’s Gulf Coast as they are so close together you really don’t know when you leave one and enter the other. There are plenty of things to do and see in this area. If you want a non-invasive dolphin cruise and see dolphins swimming without fear of a boat in their natural pods, book an afternoon on Cetacean Cruises in Orange Beach. If you would like to see shrimping, crabbing and oyster catching demonstrated, Capt. Skip with Sailaway Charters is a good cruise.
Where to eat: Don’t be put off by the looks of King Neptune’s Restaurant, which may remind you of a dairy freeze in any town across America. The food is awesome and offers some of the best deep sea shrimp found in the Gulf.
Where to stay: Rent a condo at the Gulf Shores Plantation and have access to the beach and ocean or a freshwater pool.