By: Matt Meltzer | Thrillist.com
Americans sometimes forget we have a third coastline. Sure, we’re aware the Gulf of Mexico has beaches, but we tend to lump those in with Florida, which then gets lumped in with the east coast, which means the whole rest of the coast from Alabama to Texas gets criminally overlooked. The Gulf Coast is a lot more than the “redneck Riviera” it’s long since outgrown, a land of magical swamps, remote white-sand beaches, artists, musicians, and colorful characters. And it is the best coastal road trip few in America have taken.
Beginning at the end of Florida in Pensacola, then heading west to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, you’ll skirt the turquoise waters of the gulf while dipping into lush marshlands and storybook small towns. You’ll see a 50-foot lady in a lake, feed alligators, and discover a side of the south you never knew. Come along and see why the Gulf Coast truly is America’s most under-appreciated coastal road trip.
Perdido Key, Florida
If America has an icon of beachside drinking, it is the Flora-Bama, an epic wooden roadhouse on the border of Alabama and Florida about half an hour south of Pensacola in Perdido Key. It’s a maze of live music stages, sticky floors, and bras on the ceiling, where stairways seem to run sideways and you’re never sure what room -- or state -- you’ve stepped into. Imagine MC Escher designing a multi-level beach bar with SEC college flags and plywood bathroom stalls and you’re getting close.
Peer into the bar’s cavernous liquor room, where hundreds of gallons of liquor are connected to the Bama’s bar guns, to get a sense of the kind of volume this place does. It even serves its trademark bushwhackers during its weekly church services, where cracking a beer from the pews doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. If that’s all too buttoned up for you, check back in during the annual mullet toss, the Sturgis of coastal country life where competitors line up to see who can throw a fish the furthest across the state line.
Gulf State Park
Orange Beach, Alabama
After responsibly enjoying the Flora-Bama, head west on Perdido Beach Boulevard about 15 for the sweeping gulf views to Gulf State Park. Here you can immerse yourself in the sand dunes and Spanish moss that made Alabama’s beaches so beautiful before the condo boom. If you’ve got the gear, the park’s got plenty of car-camping sites. Or reserve one of the fully-furnished cabins that sit right along Shelby Lakes.
You’ll also want to take advantage of the park’s free bike-share program, where you can hop on its 28 miles of trails and roll under live oaks, then over a boardwalk to the area’s only stretch of sand not lined with condo towers. There, you can post up with a daiquiri from the park concession stand with nothing but sand dunes, pelicans, and the lapping waves to join you.
Gulf Coast Zoo, Stonehenge, and the Lady in the Lake
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Cross the arcing bridges of Highway 182 into Gulf Shores, and in about half an hour you’ll be at the Gulf Coast Zoo’s sprawling new 25-acre home. While the animal encounters that made this zoo famous are on covid-hold, you’ll still be able to take a safari jeep ride through lions and tigers, zipline over the park, and feed Benjamin and Akayla – the park’s new giraffes who’ll happily take some leaves from your hands with their curling, sandy tongues.
On your way out of town, traverse Alabama’s Coastal Connector (legal name: US-98) and stop by Bamahenge, a scale replica of Stonehenge made completely of fiberglass, for some reason. Then continue into Barber Marina and meet the Lady in the Lake – a 50-foot sculpture of a very large woman taking a bath in the middle of the marina, also for… some reason.
Gulf Coast Gator Ranch
Moss Point, Mississippi
Keep cruising on the Coastal Connector through Mobile and the towering pines and magnolias of Mississippi, and in a couple of hours you’ll reach the Gulf Coast Gator Ranch in Moss Point. There, you can take an airboat tour through the swamp, or dare to feed the dozens of gators who lounge around the ranch house all afternoon. Just be prepared: The hissing sound they make as you toss food into the swamp is something you’ll hear in your nightmares for years.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Continuing west on US-90 about 45 minutes, you’ll skirt the coastline a few more times on the way to one of America’s finest beach towns in Ocean Springs. The city will greet you with live music pouring out of its dense collection of bars along Government Street, and a young, friendly crowd eager to show you why coastal Mississippi is nothing like the Mississippi many imagine. Hotels and restaurants lean upscale and creative, with spots like The Roost, where you can enjoy original cocktails on the shady front patio before retiring to your uniquely designed suite.
Seemingly every block has a cool bar with live music on a sprawling outdoor patio, interspersed with funky galleries and artists’ studios, independent shops, a giant art museum, and seriously good restaurants. And then there are the beaches: the Gulf here is calm, prime for paddleboarding to soak in Mississippi’s natural beauty. Or take a boat out to the barrier islands and see beaches so remote you might forget you’re anywhere near civilization.
From Ocean Springs, keep going down the largest stretch of man-made beach in America along US-90. The scenic drive offers gulf views on the left, and stately historic homes on the right. You’ll also pass the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, which is worth the hour or so it takes to peruse abstract pottery from the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” George Ohr, along with rotating exhibitions that range from African-American photography to 21st century surrealism.
After about half an hour you’ll reach downtown Gulfport, where you can jump on an hour-long ferry ride to a little slice of the Caribbean in Mississippi at Ship Island. The soft, white sandy beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and though its landmark Ft. Massachusetts is currently closed, venture to the northern part of the island and find a pristine island beach you’ll likely have to yourself.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
The white sands continue along US-90 all the way to Bay St. Louis, a tiny artist town about 45 minutes east of New Orleans. The streets of this one-time fishing outpost are now filled with art galleries and clever souvenir shops, alternating with restaurants like the Starfish Café, a pay-what-you-want laboratory for local culinary students. You can also grab a drink along the water at Buoys Bar or, if the weather isn’t cooperating, tuck into the Shops of Century Hall, a mall of local artists with everything from gulf-inspired paintings to elaborate Mardi Gras headpieces.
Though it might be tempting to dip into New Orleans from Bay St. Louis, instead take this road-tripping opportunity to delve headfirst in Cajun country. Your first stop will be at Cajun Encounters near Slidell, where colorful guides take you deep into what they describe as “Bobby Boucher country” along the Pearl River and the Honey Island swamp. In addition to boating deep into black water and cypress trees, you’ll also venture by homes that feel as removed from society as small villages on the Amazon. Though these ones on the Pearl are less than an hour from New Orleans.
Much of the tour through Honey Island feels like a movie set, whether that’s the aforementioned Waterboy backdrop on the river, or Mama Odie’s tree from The Princess and the Frog. That tree sits just a few feet away from a family of racoons who, when tours come by to feed them, stand up and look like less trigger-happy versions of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Much of the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain was originally developed as a weekend country getaway for city-weary New Orleanians. Today, it’s still a calming waterside escape, easily traversable by car. Your best bet for a base will be Covington, where the revamped historic Southern Hotel offers a lively craft cocktail lounge in the lobby, and probably the area’s best restaurant at Oxlot 9. You’ll also want to stop into H.J. Smith and Sons General Store, a hardware store which doubles as a city historical museum. You may recognize it from its brief cameo in The Highwaymen, where Bonnie and Clyde’s dead bodies are paraded past its facade.
Stop off at Liz’s Where Y’at Diner in Mandeville for some devil-may-care Cajun food -- spicy sausage scrambled eggs, crab au gratin, and bigger-than-your-mouth hamburgers --and linger with a to-go drink on the public beach at Fontainebleau State Park next door.
Once you’re mobile again, take the long curve on Highway 190 leaving Mandeville: You’ll pass what looks like an unassuming convenience store and bait shop with a blue sign reading “Bayou Adventure.” And while you can certainly stop in for your daily fix of night crawlers and an impressive collection of local beer, this mini mart and café also offers kayak tours through the Cane Bayou… with chips and a sandwich included (go for the alligator sausage).
Their sunset paddle is the perfect way to end your Gulf Coast adventure. Pack a six-pack of local beer into a deluxe kayak and silently glide through woodlands, cypress swamp, and marshlands as the sky changes color. Arrive at the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain and enjoy the sunset as hungry alligators lurk nearby looking for non-human food. Once the sun goes down, you’ll return back through the swamp in complete darkness, with nothing but peering orange gator eyes and croaking frogs to guide your trip back. It’s part nature float, part horror movie, and a fitting final impression from this truly unique region.