Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn
Forming an imperfect arch, this coastline boasts the alligator-friendly Everglades (southern Florida), pristine beaches (the Florida Panhandle), bustling bays (Mississippi), swampy lagoons (Louisiana), and bird-friendly, if industrial, shores (Texas).
Florida's Gulf Coast has as many personalities as it has transplants. The Keys comprise four major communities: Key Largo, the island closest to the mainland; Islamorada, scattered across four islands in the Middle Keys; Marathon, in the Middle Keys; and of course Key West, at the end of the road. Though some parts are highly developed and Key West's Duval Street fills with happy partyers, natural beauty prevails.
Central Florida appeals to urbanites who enjoy cosmopolitan offerings (museums, major sports teams, theme parks, restaurants, and the importation of corporate travelers and cash). Wide stretches of white sand draw folks―and much development―between Marco Island and Tarpon Springs. North of Tarpon Springs, the beaches disappear and riverbeds, mangroves, and fishing villages take over. Here, tourism is scarce and the population low.
Beaches in Northwest Florida (the Panhandle) range from overdeveloped (Destin, Panama City) to curiously overlooked (Mexico Beach) to developed yet still charming (Rosemary Beach, Seaside).
Alabama's stars―Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, and Mobile Bay―shine with the help of beguiling little communities alongside bigger ones. Small-town Fairhope, Josephine, and Point Clear supply ample Southern charm. They mirror the best of Mississippi's coast, where Ocean Springs and Pass Christian have retained their character. Bay St. Louis, in west Mississippi, attracts throngs of beach-seekers from New Orleans. Small Cajun towns and fishing villages dot Louisiana's coastline, where swamps are eroding rapidly.
Texas' 367-mile coastline is quite industrial (Port Arthur, Freeport, Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi). Nevertheless, many rare bird species migrate here during winter months in considerable numbers. Boaters enjoy the bounty of moorings around Galveston Bay. Perhaps the most scenic and activity-filled stretch belongs to South Padre Island.
With the excellent fishing and gorgeous water of the Keys and the unparalleled beauty of such beaches as Sarasota, Destin, and Pensacola, the Sunshine State draws snowbirds from across the Midwest and East Coast. The Keys remain one of the last spots in this country where people can truly get away from it all. That same laid-back mentality pops up in Sarasota and Naples―only with more cultural opportunities.
The Panhandle's beaches and scores of tourist attractions remain its top draws. Fall and spring here are optimal―perfect weather and smaller crowds. Another Florida bonus: There's no state income tax for individuals.
The Alabama coast reels in beach blanket aficionados and watersports lovers. An impressive amount of culture exists here, and ecotourism is growing along Mobile Bay, where the scenery can be as eye-catching as on the Gulf.
Mississippi's shores are decorated with casinos, such as Beau Rivage in Biloxi. Bay St. Louis and other small towns have managed to dodge the flashing neon signs. Here, boating, birding, and beachcombing rule. The hundreds of bays and inlets that skirt Louisiana create 40 percent of the continental United States' wetlands.
Texas' long coastline is home to some of the most affordable, if under-appreciated, coastal property in the country. Developments around Galveston have been popular among boaters. A lively arts scene draws inlanders to such places as Rockport, where a slow pace appeals to those fed up with Houston and Dallas. And Texas has no state income tax.
The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes June through November, and these states experience extreme heat in summer. Many of the smaller, more affordable coastal towns lack industry, nightlife, and culture.
Newcomers to the Keys may find the atmosphere a little aloof―perhaps a symptom of some residents' wishes to get away from, well, people. From Marco Island to Tarpon Springs, locals must deal with hordes of tourists and terrible traffic.
Isolation and a dearth of beaches make the Big Bend area of Florida less appealing. Rambunctious teens and college students who inundate the Panhandle during spring break send some locals running.
The Alabama and Mississippi coasts have been subject to much development in recent years, a downside for those who prefer unobstructed beach beauty. Along the Louisiana coast, jobs are limited and beaches are all but nonexistent.
In Texas, industrial plants take up much of the prime real estate.