Your toes wiggle in the warm sand; an icy drink sits next to your hand. A gentle salty breeze stirs your hair as your open your eyes. Two pelicans soar inches above the water as you take a cool sip. Yes, this is paradise.
Summer is the season when these restful memories are made, days when the most difficult decision is whether to walk along the rhythmic wave at sunrise or sunset. The hardest part? Deciding where to land. The upper Gulf Coast, that string of white pearl beaches that stretch from Alabama’s Gulf Shores east to Florida’s Panama City, are some of the finest seaside vacation spots in the world, sporting fab lodging, fresh seafood, and endless family playgrounds. And they’re within easy reach of Arkansas.
So pick your pleasure and come on down. Be sure to take a floppy hat to the water to shade your smile.
GULF SHORES: CASUAL CHIC
Three distinct communities welcome you to Alabama’s beaches. Gulf Shores packs in family fun attractions, while off to the west, quiet Fort Morgan is home to beach houses, golf courses, the Bon Secour Nature Preserve and a Civil War-era fort. To the east, Orange Beach’s condos and marinas create a casual beachfront life. Behind each community, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Back Bay marinas feature some of the best local dining. After dinner you can walk among the boats and plan your next fishing excursion.
Stay: The best way to see the area is from a weekly rental. Choose a beach house to sleep two or 20 from one of the local rental companies: Brett-Robinson (brett-robinson.com; (251) 968-7363) and Kaiser (kaiserrealty.com; (800) 225-4853). The area’s newest high-rise, Turquoise Condominiums (turquoiseplace.spectrumresorts.com; (855) 741-7984) indulges guests with gulf-front units featuring patios with hot tubs and grills, gourmet kitchens and sunrise and sunset views.
Play: The newest attraction in town is Gulf Adventure Center (gulfadventurecenter.com; (877) 947-8434), with zip lines soaring above Gulf State Park’s Lake Shelby. You can also rent kayaks and paddleboards. Ever wanted to hug a tiger cub? You can at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (alabamagulfcoastzoo.org; (251) 968-5732)—its animal interaction programs let you cuddle a kangaroo, too. Late night, head to one of the last great roadhouses, the FloraBama (florabama.com; (850) 492-0611) for live music, cold beer and the best party in the state.
Dine: The newest spot for a burger or oysters fills a stylish set of storage containers along the beach. Called The Gulf (facebook.com/thegulfal; (251) 424-1800), it’s this year’s sunset hot spot. Crowds fill The Hangout (thehangoutal.com; (251) 948-3030) at lunch and dinner for bounteous seafood platters; it also plays host to a line-up of summer concerts. While you probably won’t meet Jimmy Buffett, his sister runs Lulu’s (lulubuffett.com; (251) 967-5858), an open-air eatery overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.
PENSACOLA AND SANTA ROSA ISLAND: THE CITY AND THE NATIONAL SEASHORE
Dating to 1559, Pensacola claims it’s the oldest European settlement in the U.S. The city and beaches out on Santa Rosa Island are easily accessible from Interstate 10 and its attendant airport. The downtown district is the most uptown destination along the Gulf coast. You can catch a show at the historic 1925 Saenger Theater or hop through bars in the historic quarter.
Stay: Next door to historic Seville Square, downtown’s Lee House Bed and Breakfast (leehousepensacola.com; (850) 912-8770)overlooks the bay. The new Holiday Inn on Pensacola Beach (holidayinnresorts.com/pensacolabeach; (800) 465-4329) includes kid suites, indoor and outdoor pools with a lazy river and waterfall, and even dive-in movie nights during the summer. Portofino Island (portofinoisland.com; (866) 915-0633) is the most complete beach resort with golf, catamaran and dolphin cruises, a fitness center, bikes, kayaks and paddleboards. If you prefer to rent a beach house, don’t miss at the offerings from Barrons Realty Group (barronsrealtygroup.com; (850) 934-2588).
Play: Head to Casino Beach under the famous “beach ball” sign for free concerts, the pier and Gulfside Pavilion. A bit east you’ll discover the uncrowded Fort Pickens at the Gulf Islands National Seashore (nps.gov/guis; (850) 934-2600). Families adore the free and interactive National Naval Aviation Museum (navalavaiationmuseum.org; (850) 452-3604). You can also watch the Blue Angels practice here.
Dine: Dine on the dock at Fish House (goodgrits.com; (850) 470-0003) for fresh seafood. For beach-party food, go to Crabs-We Got ‘Em (crabswegotem.com; (850) 932-0700). Want to cook your own or buy prepared seafood? Join the locals at Joe Patti’s Seafood/Sushi Bar for just-off-the-boat provisions (joepattis.com; (850) 432-3315).
DESTIN: SPORTS LOVERS’ PARADISE
Long known as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, Destin is the best place to book a charter for deep-sea or back-bay fishing. For those less sure of their sea legs, the area boasts some of the region’s finest golf courses, as well as a string of boutiques and outlet malls along U.S. 98.
Stay: The huge Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort (sandestin.com; (800) 622-1038) offers hotels alongside both the beach and its golf courses, plus multiple neighborhoods featuring house and condo rentals, all within walking or bicycling distance of Baytowne Wharf, the resort’s entertainment district.
Play: Tee up at Kelly Plantation (kellyplantation-golf.com; (850) 650-7600) on Choctawhatchee Bay. This semi-private club designed by Fred Couples and Gene Bates is one of the area’s prettiest. Nearby Emerald Bay (emeraldbaygolfclub.com; (850) 837-5197) is a Bob Cupp 18-hole design. Or opt for Sandestin’s famous Raven, a Robert Trent Jones design. Hook into a day of angling through Fish Destin (fishdestin.com; (850) 837-9401). They match your desires to the best local crew and boat, whether you want a full day at sea or just a few hours back in the bay. Or get out on the water on either Southern Star Dolphin Cruise’s glass bottomed 80-foot boat (southernstardolphincruise.com; (850) 837-7741) or the Nathaniel Bowditch (bowditchsailing.com; (850) 650-8787) for a 3-hour sunset sailing charter aboard a 54-foot steel-hulled schooner.
Dine: Cuvee Bistro (cuveebistrodestin.com; (850) 650-8900) adds a touch of Asian flavors to French and Mediterranean fare. For traditional grouper, snapper, shrimp and crab, opt for Harbor Docks (harbordocks.com; (850) 837-2506) on the big deck overlooking the water. Louisiana Lagniappe is a much-loved favorite that blends Destin seafood with New Orleans style (thelouisianalagniappe.com; (850) 837-0881).
THE STATE PARKS: WHERE NATURE GETS ITS STYLE ON
Don’t skip Northwest Florida’s natural areas, which offer a glimpse of what this region would look like without all the development between Destin and Panama City. These less-visited spots boast towering sand dunes covered in golden grasses, wilderness areas for hiking and camping, and streams and lakes for kayaking and crabbing.
Stay: Grayton Beach State Park (floridastateparks.org; (850) 267-8300) rents out its 30 simply furnished two-bedroom cabin duplexes that can comfortably sleep four to five. The cabins offer basic amenities but no televisions or telephones, so you can enjoy the quiet without distraction. The camping at Grayton is some of the finest on the Gulf Coast, with both primitive and RV sites. You’ll want to make reservations in advance to secure a spot ((800) 326-3521).
Play: While there’s no lodging at Camp Helen State Park (floridastateparks.org; (850) 233-5059), this hidden-in-plain-view park near Laguna Beach is surrounded by water on three sides, ideal for fishing, swimming, beachcombing and hiking. Deer Lake State Park (floridastateparks.org; (850) 267-8300) offers similar tranquility in a little-known beachfront oasis jammed with wildflowers and rare plants along an unsullied coastal dune ecosystem. The better-known Grayton Beach includes four miles of trails meandering through a flat maritime forest, ideal for hiking and cycling. Pristine beaches and the 100-acre Western Lake are ideal for freshwater and saltwater fishing.
Dine: In the village of Grayton Beach, locals flock to Chanticleer (chanticleereatery.com; (850) 213-9065) for artisan pastries and local produce. If the state park is too quiet head to The Red Bar (theredbar.com; (850) 231-1008), which serves up smooth jazz, cocktails, and fresh seafood in the old general store.
30-A: POSH RESORTS AND MORE
This area is America’s answer to Santorini and the French Riviera, each with own distinctive look and feel. Between sunwashed Alys Beach and Seaside, the first planned community in this part of Florida, you can find the ultimate in coastal homes and mouth-watering meals, as well as an inviting carpet of sparkling white sand beaches and enough boutiques in places like Rosemary Beach, Seagrove and Watersound to make your credit cards melt.
Stay: At Alys Beach (alysbeach.com; (866) 732-9276), rent Mediterranean-inspired stucco houses that feature stunning architecture and exquisite interior design. Check out the Seaside house rentals (seasidefl.com/vacation; (866) 966-2565) as well as the cozy beachfront Honeymoon Cottages in the middle of town. Watercolor Inn and Resort may be the best hotel along the entire Gulf Coast (watercolorresort.com; (850) 543-5000). The David Rockwell design feels like a casually chic boutique inn but lives like a grand hotel. Just-updated guestrooms make it an ideal beach retreat with spa, golf, kids programs and a fabulous restaurant.
Play: The beaches here grab everyone’s immediate attention. On days you need to pry yourself from the beach chair, you’ll find plenty of upscale shops and markets in Seaside, a community that inspired the movie “The Truman Show” for its perfectly manicured beach style. Seaside Repertory Theatre (seasidereptheatre.wordpress.com; (850) 231-0733) stages “Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King” and “James and the Giant Peach” this summer at its 75-seat theater.
Dine: Don’t skip the granddaddy of rooftop dining at Seaside’s Bud & Alley’s (budandalleys.com; (850) 231-5900), with its fresh seafood, pizzas and burgers. Fish Out of Water at Watercolor (watercolorresort.com; (850) 534-5050) offers white-tablecloth dining facing emerald waters. Menus range from lamb and steaks to oyster roasts and snapper ceviche.
PANAMA CITY: THE FAMILY BEACH
If you haven’t seen this old family beach town in a few years, you’ll be surprised at how new it feels. The era of mom-and-pop motels along the beach is past, and a line of gleaming high-rise condos now march down the sandy beaches to catch spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport makes getting there a snap.
Stay: Families love the high-rise Splash (splashpanamacitybeachcondo.com; (850) 238-9087) that features such kid-friendly amenities as an indoor/outdoor waterpark and multiple pools, and baby-proof units at its beachfront locale. The luxe condos at Bay Point (baypointgolf.com; (850) 235-6950) offer a resort clubhouse with full-service spa, tennis complex and 36-holes of challenging golf.
Play: Play one of the goofy mini golf courses such as Barnacle Bay ((850) 234-7792) or frolic at a small amusement park such as Cobra Adventure Park ((850) 234-5271), which sports mini golf, a small coaster and arcade games. Gulf World Marine Park (gulfworldmarinepark.com; (850) 234-5271) boasts old-timey animal shows all day long featuring the antics of trained dolphins, sea lions, birds and reptiles. Shoppers adore the Pier Park complex just off the beach with big name stores, movie theaters and restaurants.
Dine: Start your day out like a local at Thomas Donuts ((850) 234-8039) along the beach—it’s been dishing up eggs and handmade pastries for 40 years. Join the throngs waiting for the sought-after tables and huge seafood platters at Captain Andersons (captanderson.com; (850) 234-2225). One of the best oyster bars in Florida, Hunts features raw, steamed, and Cajun baked oysters (huntsoysterbar.com; (850) 736-9645).