The Gulf of Mexico

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 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.

Attractions:

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.

Drawbacks:

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.

Housing Options:

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.