gulf coast vacations
From Mississippi to the Florida panhandle, there’ something to please every family.
Our guide to the great Gulf Coast beaches of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida (with special attention to attractions you might not know about). Some destinations are laid-back, some are action-packed. All are within a few hours’ drive.
Mississippi Gulf Coast
Within an hour and a half drive from New Orleans along U.S. 90 (Beach Boulevard) are 26 miles of Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches. Like all those along the Gulf Coast, these beaches feature white sand and mostly calm waters, thanks to the chain of barrier islands that keep stronger waves from reaching the shore. We highlight the more popular destinations for families.
, nicknamed The Pass
, and Long Beach
are mostly residential beaches to the west. Families looking for a quieter vacation can get a weekly beach house or condo rental, all the while enjoying being within an easy drive of the attractions of Gulfport
These are the bigger tourist destinations located further east along U.S. 30, offering more family-themed (and grown-up, too) entertainment. In addition to hotels, motels, condos and other rentals, there are water parks, go-carts, jump zones, museums, trolley and boat tours, tons of restaurants and shopping, and much more. www.gulfcoast.org
For a change of pace off the beaten path (literally), check out Mississippi’s barrier islands—Petit Bois Island, Horn Island, East Ship Island, West Ship Island
, and Cat Island
—separating the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico; they are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. These islands offer a plethora of outdoor adventures: biking, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, beach combing, bird watching, and boating. Primitive camping is permitted on Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship
and Cat Islands
. But the most popular among all the islands (where no camping is allowed) is West Ship Island
. It’s only accessible by private boat or a ferry (catch it from the Gulfport Small Craft Harbor). The island, 12 miles off-shore and an hour’s boat ride away, features beaches rated among the world’s finest and crystal clear waters. It’s also home to historic Fort Massachusetts
; construction on this military fort began in 1859, slowed during the Civil War, and finally ended in 1866 before it was completed. It’s weathered wars and storms remarkably well. You can have a guided tour. www.nps.gov/guis/miss.htm
Alabama Gulf Coast
Three plus hours and some 200 miles away from New Orleans is the Gulf Coast of Alabama—featuring Gulf Shores
and Orange Beach
Within Gulf Shores
, summer long family fun can be found at area horse farms, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Sea Lab Exhibits, and Waterville USA. Race enthusiasts should check out the Thunder in the Gulf Powerboat Races in July.
In Orange Beach, water sports are huge—but maybe your children are too young for parasailing? (And we’re too chicken.) How about one of the many dolphin cruises available? You can explore the water world of the area’s most famous marine mammal. When the kids are driving you bonkers, go ahead and treat them to a trip to Adventure Island for mini-golf, bumper boats, go-karts, kiddie rides, and a five-store volcano that erupts each night. www.gulfshores.com
Also in Alabama is Dauphin Island, a barrier island located three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay in the Gulf of Mexico; it’s accessible by car. The island is home to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, which comprises 164 acres of maritime forest, marshes, dunes, a lake, swamp and, of course, the beach along with many walking trails. That alone makes it a worthwhile daytrip; it also has golf courses, hotels, motels and privates homes available to rent, restaurants, and other attractions that make it a viable vacation destination.
, located at the tip of Mobile Point just across from Dauphin Island, was completed in 1834 and today is a National Historic Landmark. It is part of the Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail and makes a fun excursion for history buffs vacationing in the area. Extra fun: every Tuesday from June 5 through July 25, living history interpreters in Civil War period dress lead candlelight tours of the Fort.
Florida Gulf Coast
Just across the state line from Gulf Shores, Perdido Key
offers a quieter vacation setting. The barrier island features a 247-acre state park—with white sand beaches and rolling dunes covered with sea oats. Boardwalks from the parking lot allow visitors to access the beach without damaging the dunes and beach vegetation. Covered picnic tables overlooking the beach provide a great place for family outings.
Although it is known for its beautiful beaches, Pensacola Beach
has plenty of other attractions, too. The Portofino Island Resort and Spa has several activities for children and access to various watersports. There are numerous hotels and some bed and breakfasts closer to the fun downtown area. While there, check out the “Bands on the Beach” every Tuesday, an open house for the Historic Pensacola Village, the Fiesta Sand Sculpture Contest, and the Pensacola Beach Air Show. www.visitpensacola.com
Florida’s Emerald Coast
, comprising 26 miles of sugar-white beaches and crystal clear gulf waters, is a popular vacation destination for New Orleans families. It features the vacation spots of Destin
, the beaches of South Walton
, and Okaloosa Island
, about four and a half hours from New Orleans, is chock-full of fun activities for kids. They can ride go-cards or have fun with mom and dad in bumper boats at the Track Recreation Center (with lots of rides especially for younger children), feed and take pictures with live alligators at Gator Beach (a free alligator exhibit developed in a decade ago using the pond in front of Fudpucker’s; it now houses 100 alligators, including “Mellow Yellow”), and explore the Emerald Coast Science Center. Families can enjoy dolphin watching, glass-bottom boat tours, and Concerts in the Park. www.cityofdestin.com
South Walton features 15 separate beach neighborhoods—Miramar Beach , Seascape, San Destin, Dune Allen, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain, Grayton Beach, WaterColor, Seaside, Seagrove, WaterSound, Seacrest, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach, and Inlet Beach—each with its own distinct personality. Depending upon which beach town you choose, rental accommodations can vary greatly: from premium resorts to B&Bs to weekly cottage rentals. If the gorgeous sand and crystal clear water don’t entertain you enough, there are outdoor eco-adventures, hiking and biking trails, shopping, an arts community, and regularly scheduled special events and festivals throughout the summer. www.visitsouthwalton.com
is a barrier island located between Destin and Fort Walton. It’s surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, the Choctawhatchee Bay, and the Intercostal Waterway and is connected to Destin and Fort Walton Beach by bridges at each end of the island. On the island’s west end are condos, resorts, restaurants, and beach parks. The middle of the island offers more dining, as well as a Gulfarium, watersports, a waterpark, shopping, and more.