Mike Yardley: The amazing Gulf Coast

Publish Date
Fri, 9 Oct 2015, 4:09PM
Pensacola Beach (Mike Yardley)
Pensacola Beach (Mike Yardley)

Mike Yardley: The amazing Gulf Coast

Publish Date
Fri, 9 Oct 2015, 4:09PM

If you’ve toyed with the idea of an American road trip, one of the great drives is to traverse the Gulf Coast, which connects the soul of the American South with the sightseeing sugar-rush of flamboyant Florida.

Venturing east from New Orleans, a four hour drive will bring you to the sugar-white sands of the Gulf Coast beaches.

 En-route from New Orleans to Pensacola, cut the trip in half by stopping by atmospheric Mobile, Alabama.

Two hours from New Orleans, the coastal Alabaman city is renowned for its historic districts, leafy boulevards and generous green spaces.

Visit in the spring months and Mobile is ablaze with its spectacular azaleas.

The city has a bustling music and party scene, and is commonly regarded as “New Orleans for beginners.”

Much of the bar and restaurant scene is based around the Dauphin St historic district, which boasts a profusion of electric and authentic Dixie-style entertainment and dining venues.

If you’re craving oysters, you must call into the legendary Wintzell’s Oyster House  which has been serving up the slimy suckers “ fried, stewed or nude” for decades.

It’s a Dauphin St institution.

  For a panoramic insight into the charm and splendour of the Southern States mansions, head down Government St, the canopied downtown boulevard which leads into the Leinkauf Historic District.

This neighbourhood boasts hundreds of perfectly maintained antebellum mansions, a legacy of the architectural finesse of European settlers, before the 1861 Civil War.

The residents are more than happy for tourists to potter around the manicured streets to admire the grand designs of the 19th century. Your camera will get a serious work out – and in the wake of the protracted housing slump, don’t be surprised if you’re collared by a real estate agent staking out prospective purchasers.

Before departing Mobile, totter down to the waterfront for an intimate encounter with the USS Alabama, a storied battleship that survived nine major World War II battles unscathed.

Pensacola is the premium beach destination, with a mix of picture-perfect coastline and impressive history. The Naval Aviation Museum is the most popular tourist destination in Pensacola, and it offers a comprehensive look at the history of flight in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps.

The 150 beautifully restored aircraft are the biggest draw here. They are showcased absolutely magnificently. I half expected all of them to roar into life, in the spotlessly presented hangers.

The World War Two collection includes some Japanese kamikaze aircraft that were shot-down, complete with the pilot’s suicide note for his loved ones. 

You can even try your hand at taking control of a warbird in the flight simulator, and the IMAX theatre presents a visually stunning documentary, the History of Flight.

Best of all, the museum is free to visit.  Pensacola town boasts a delightful historic district, which looks like a movie-set direct from Little House on the Prairie.

For something truly bizarre, call by by the TT Wentworth Museum which houses an eclectic collection of Pensacola oddities, including a petrified cat.

When you’ve had your fill of the cultural attractions, reward yourself with some quality beach time on Santa Rosa Island. Completing encircled by water, this generous-sized sandy island juts out into the Mexican Gulf and is connected to the mainland by a 7km-long road-bridge.

It’s a tourist brochure beach, where the sand is powder-thin and perfectly white. It’s cachet beach status is well deserved – no wonder those notorious Spring Breakers swoop on Pensacola’s sandy expanse in their teeming and exhibitionist hordes. (Travel advisory - April is not a pretty nor peaceful time to visit.) 

If you’re visiting in July, around Independence Day, the famous Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, puts on a free show for spectators at Pensacola Beach.

Another major draw is Fort Pickens, a 150-year old brick fortress that once held a very famous prisoner – Geronimo. A great place to pamper yourself and soak up the coastal scenery is the Hilton Pensacola Beach Front.

Overlooking the emerald waters of the Mexican Gulf, this family-friendly property offers a luxury beach resort experience at refreshingly affordable rates. 

Further down the Gulf coastline, as you head south into Florida’s ever increasing heat, the sparkling waters, gleaming seashells and ivory-hued sand of Clearwater Beach, Siesta Key and Sanibel Island are all radiant beach-break settings.

Thankfully, these succulent seaside spots aren’t yet on the mass-adolescence target list of the Spring Break invasion.

For an indelible encounter with local wildlife, you really need to experience swimming with manatees. Cold mornings in winter is when Florida’s manatees are out in force in the Crystal River, the sweet-spot of Citrus Country.

There were around 500 of these gentle giants, with their wide goofy grins, in the river on the crisp morning I ventured into the river on a manatee snorkelling safari, and the water clarity is far sharper between November and March.

From the Crystal River, you’ve got a spoil of Floridian choices competing for your attention, whether it’s the thrills and spills of Orlando, the pantheon of space exploration at Cape Canaveral or the art deco ambience of Miami Beach. Happy driving.

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am