In the Keys, condos and houses on the ocean carry slightly higher price tags than those on the canals. Apartment options are limited. Key West, once America's richest town, has multimillion-dollar estates. The central coast has a wide range of dwellings―from the modest and low-key (Anna Maria Island) to upscale (Naples and Longboat Key).
The Tampa Bay area includes some of the most affordable coastal property; witness MiraBay, the hot new waterfront community just south of Tampa proper, where coastal homes range from $200,000 to more than $1 million. The Panhandle―famous for planned communities such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and WaterColor―often feels more like resort living than cosmopolitan Tampa, while Mexico Beach's tiny cottages have a more down-to-earth feel.
Alabama and Mississippi offer typical high-rise condos, most fairly pricey, as well as single-family homes and second residences on or near the water. Louisiana's fish camp-style housing along the marshes appeals to a select group, though New Orleans provides options in all styles and price ranges.
Texas has some of the Gulf's least developed shores, and therefore land here, though not quite as scenic as the rest of the Gulf Coast, is more available and slightly more affordable.
What It Costs:
Florida Keys condos go for $110,000 to $2 million. House prices start at $250,000 for a tiny cottage and go up to multimillion-dollar homes.
Around Sarasota, a fixer-upper begins at just over $100,000; a typical family home costs $400,000; large estates soar into the millions. Condos here average $400,000 for waterfront. Along the Panhandle, condos range from $115,000 to $1 million, and coastal homes average $500,000.
Mississippi and Alabama condos hover around $150,000 to $200,000 on the water, though some with better views carry larger price tags. It's possible to find a nice home in the $250,000 range, or a mansion for a million or two.
The average price of a town home or waterfront condo on the Texas coast is $125,000. Houses range from about $125,000 for smaller homes on canals in, say, Rockport, to estates on the water for several million.
Your Next-door Neighbors:
In the Keys, you'll find yourself in the company of celebrities (such as novelist Carl Hiaasen), retirees, artists, fishermen, environmentalists, top designers, and a handful of eccentrics. Naples and Sarasota draw many retirees and multimillionaires.
The Tampa Bay area welcomes corporate folks, but the region is also full of artists, musicians, chefs, and other creative types. The population of the Nature Coast (Tarpon Springs to Apalachicola) consists mostly of fishermen. The Panhandle hosts a mix of retirees, photographers, second-home owners, artists, chefs, and anyone involved in the tourism industry.
The coasts of Alabama and Mississippi boast chefs (Emeril Lagasse), writers, artists, teachers, restaurateurs, military families, fishermen, and other professionals as well as retirees. Louisiana's shores teem with fishermen, Tabasco plant workers, shrimpers, oil platform workers, and New Orleans suburbanites.
Texas towns attract creative types, too, from household advice columnist Heloise to sculptor Jesus Moroles, as well as former sports stars, ornithologists, marine biologists, doctors, lawyers, oil executives, and shrimpers. The Clear Lake area near Houston is full of NASA employees, engineers, chemical plant workers, and executives.
How You'd Spend Your Free Time:
The Gulf Coast is a fishing haven. In Florida, Key West hosts carousers, while Cedar Key and Gasparilla Island are places to unwind. Water sports abound year-round. Seashell hunting doesn't get any better than on Sanibel and Captiva islands. Museums draw crowds in the Sarasota and Tampa Bay areas, as well as New Orleans and Galveston. Art galleries pepper smaller towns such as Bay St. Louis and Rockport.
People can swim with dolphins in the Keys or with manatees in the Crystal River north of Tampa. Birding enthusiasts flock to Texas (Rockport) and parts of Louisiana (Chandeleur Islands).
Eating remains a passion on the Gulf Coast―from the Panhandle, where Grayton Beach serves fine fare, to the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama po'boy houses. In Texas, sailing flourishes in Corpus Christi and in the Clear Lake/Galveston area, while sportfishing rules in Port Aransas and South Padre Island.