Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

From the Florida Keys to South Padre Island, Texas, the Gulf's shore encompasses some of the last stretches of semi-affordable beachfront living.

By Paige Porter

Setting:

Forming an imperfect arch, this coastline boasts thealligator-friendly Everglades (southern Florida), pristine beaches(the Florida Panhandle), bustling bays (Mississippi), swampylagoons (Louisiana), and bird-friendly, if industrial, shores(Texas).

Florida's Gulf Coast has as many personalities as it hastransplants. The Keys comprise four major communities: Key Largo,the island closest to the mainland; Islamorada, scattered acrossfour islands in the Middle Keys; Marathon, in the Middle Keys; andof course Key West, at the end of the road. Though some parts arehighly developed and Key West's Duval Street fills with happypartyers, natural beauty prevails.

Central Florida appeals to urbanites who enjoy cosmopolitanofferings (museums, major sports teams, theme parks, restaurants,and the importation of corporate travelers and cash). Widestretches of white sand draw folks―and muchdevelopment―between Marco Island and Tarpon Springs. North ofTarpon Springs, the beaches disappear and riverbeds, mangroves, andfishing villages take over. Here, tourism is scarce and thepopulation low.

Beaches in Northwest Florida (the Panhandle) range fromoverdeveloped (Destin, Panama City) to curiously overlooked (MexicoBeach) to developed yet still charming (Rosemary Beach,Seaside).

Alabama's stars―Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, and MobileBay―shine with the help of beguiling little communitiesalongside bigger ones. Small-town Fairhope, Josephine, and PointClear supply ample Southern charm. They mirror the best ofMississippi's coast, where Ocean Springs and Pass Christian haveretained their character. Bay St. Louis, in west Mississippi,attracts throngs of beach-seekers from New Orleans. Small Cajuntowns and fishing villages dot Louisiana's coastline, where swampsare eroding rapidly.

Texas' 367-mile coastline is quite industrial (Port Arthur,Freeport, Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi). Nevertheless, many rarebird species migrate here during winter months in considerablenumbers. Boaters enjoy the bounty of moorings around Galveston Bay.Perhaps the most scenic and activity-filled stretch belongs toSouth Padre Island.

Attractions:

With the excellent fishing and gorgeous water of the Keys andthe unparalleled beauty of such beaches as Sarasota, Destin, andPensacola, the Sunshine State draws snowbirds from across theMidwest and East Coast. The Keys remain one of the last spots inthis country where people can truly get away from it all. That samelaid-back mentality pops up in Sarasota and Naples―only withmore cultural opportunities.

The Panhandle's beaches and scores of tourist attractions remainits top draws. Fall and spring here are optimal―perfectweather and smaller crowds. Another Florida bonus: There's no stateincome tax for individuals.

The Alabama coast reels in beach blanket aficionados andwatersports lovers. An impressive amount of culture exists here,and ecotourism is growing along Mobile Bay, where the scenery canbe as eye-catching as on the Gulf.

Mississippi's shores are decorated with casinos, such as BeauRivage in Biloxi. Bay St. Louis and other small towns have managedto dodge the flashing neon signs. Here, boating, birding, andbeachcombing rule. The hundreds of bays and inlets that skirtLouisiana create 40 percent of the continental United States'wetlands.

Texas' long coastline is home to some of the most affordable, ifunder-appreciated, coastal property in the country. Developmentsaround Galveston have been popular among boaters. A lively artsscene draws inlanders to such places as Rockport, where a slow paceappeals to those fed up with Houston and Dallas. And Texas has nostate income tax.

Drawbacks:

The Gulf Coast is vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanesJune through November, and these states experience extreme heat insummer. Many of the smaller, more affordable coastal towns lackindustry, nightlife, and culture.

Newcomers to the Keys may find the atmosphere a littlealoof―perhaps a symptom of some residents' wishes to get awayfrom, well, people. From Marco Island to Tarpon Springs, localsmust deal with hordes of tourists and terrible traffic.

Isolation and a dearth of beaches make the Big Bend area ofFlorida less appealing. Rambunctious teens and college students whoinundate the Panhandle during spring break send some localsrunning.

The Alabama and Mississippi coasts have been subject to muchdevelopment in recent years, a downside for those who preferunobstructed beach beauty. Along the Louisiana coast, jobs arelimited and beaches are all but nonexistent.

In Texas, industrial plants take up much of the prime realestate.

Housing Options:

In the Keys, condos and houses on the ocean carry slightlyhigher price tags than those on the canals. Apartment options arelimited. Key West, once America's richest town, hasmultimillion-dollar estates. The central coast has a wide range ofdwellings―from the modest and low-key (Anna Maria Island) toupscale (Naples and Longboat Key).

The Tampa Bay area includes some of the most affordable coastalproperty; witness MiraBay, the hot new waterfront community justsouth of Tampa proper, where coastal homes range from $200,000 tomore than $1 million. The Panhandle―famous for plannedcommunities such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach, andWaterColor―often feels more like resort living thancosmopolitan Tampa, while Mexico Beach's tiny cottages have a moredown-to-earth feel.

Alabama and Mississippi offer typical high-rise condos, mostfairly pricey, as well as single-family homes and second residenceson or near the water. Louisiana's fish camp-style housing along themarshes appeals to a select group, though New Orleans providesoptions in all styles and price ranges.

Texas has some of the Gulf's least developed shores, andtherefore land here, though not quite as scenic as the rest of theGulf Coast, is more available and slightly more affordable.

What It Costs:

Florida Keys condos go for $110,000 to $2 million. House pricesstart at $250,000 for a tiny cottage and go up tomultimillion-dollar homes.

Around Sarasota, a fixer-upper begins at just over $100,000; atypical family home costs $400,000; large estates soar into themillions. Condos here average $400,000 for waterfront. Along thePanhandle, condos range from $115,000 to $1 million, and coastalhomes average $500,000.

Mississippi and Alabama condos hover around $150,000 to $200,000on the water, though some with better views carry larger pricetags. It's possible to find a nice home in the $250,000 range, or amansion for a million or two.

The average price of a town home or waterfront condo on theTexas coast is $125,000. Houses range from about $125,000 forsmaller homes on canals in, say, Rockport, to estates on the waterfor 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 isalso 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 ofretirees, photographers, second-home owners, artists, chefs, andanyone involved in the tourism industry.

The coasts of Alabama and Mississippi boast chefs (EmerilLagasse), writers, artists, teachers, restaurateurs, militaryfamilies, 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 advicecolumnist Heloise to sculptor Jesus Moroles, as well as formersports stars, ornithologists, marine biologists, doctors, lawyers,oil executives, and shrimpers. The Clear Lake area near Houston isfull of NASA employees, engineers, chemical plant workers, andexecutives.

How You'd Spend Your Free Time:

The Gulf Coast is a fishing haven. In Florida, Key West hostscarousers, while Cedar Key and Gasparilla Island are places tounwind. Water sports abound year-round. Seashell hunting doesn'tget any better than on Sanibel and Captiva islands. Museums drawcrowds in the Sarasota and Tampa Bay areas, as well as New Orleansand Galveston. Art galleries pepper smaller towns such as Bay St.Louis and Rockport.

People can swim with dolphins in the Keys or with manatees inthe Crystal River north of Tampa. Birding enthusiasts flock toTexas (Rockport) and parts of Louisiana (Chandeleur Islands).

Eating remains a passion on the Gulf Coast―from thePanhandle, where Grayton Beach serves fine fare, to theLouisiana-Mississippi-Alabama po'boy houses. In Texas, sailingflourishes in Corpus Christi and in the Clear Lake/Galveston area,while sportfishing rules in Port Aransas and South PadreIsland.

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