Beach Destinations of the Northern Gulf of Mexico


Map of US Coast of Gulf of Mexico and Florida, from Google Maps
Beach Destinations of the Northern Gulf of Mexico (Inset)

A disclaimer: we lived the first 40 years of our lives in Gulfport, Mississippi, on the western end of the area we’re talking about today. We hope that doesn’t mean we’re biased, rather that we’re well-informed locals of the areas that feature in today’s blog and the next few blogs.

We’ve seen all the TV shows and blogs listing the best beaches in the world, and we’ve actually been to quite a few of them. But having lived most of our lives in the midst of the beach areas of the northern Gulf of Mexico, we can wholeheartedly assure our readers that Americans have some of the best beach destinations in the world right here in our Southeastern backyard, and they offer some of the best travel value in the Western Hemisphere. You just need a little guidance to find them and to know what you’ll find when you get there.

Google Maps from New Orleans to Panama City, Florida
The Northern Gulf of Mexico: New Orleans to Panama City, Florida

First off, let’s define the “Northern Gulf of Mexico” as the 300 mile stretch of mossy-oak (the actual tree, not the sporting goods company) coast from New Orleans, Louisiana in the west to Panama City, Florida in the east. If you look at a map and assume there’s beach wherever land meets water, you’ll be disappointed: this coastline is incredibly diverse, and there are both natural and man-made beaches, marshes, wetlands, and seawalls. Owing to that diversity, there’s also a variety of things to do all along the way, from some of the greatest cuisine and seafood in the world, to casino gambling, golf, deep sea fishing, and (of course) beach-going.

To provide a primer on your vacation and holiday (a little UK lingo for you) options in this area, we’ll slice and dice it two different ways: first by spot, from west to east, then by activity. We start by area.

New Orleans – Most don’t think of New Orleans as a “beach destination”, and neither do we. But as we think of it as the western anchor for this area, we’d include it in a recommendation to anyone planning to tour the area. New Orleans, aka “The Big Easy”, aka “The Crescent City”, home of Mardi Gras and jazz, is one of the most characterful cities in the United States. In fact, we think of N’awlins (as pronounced by the locals) as one of America’s 3 most-unique cities. It could, easily, be the sole topic of an entire blog (as in ongoing blog, not just 1 post), but as this particular blog is about the options of the entire Northern Gulf of Mexico, we’ll summarize New Orleans as the place to go if you want your visit to this corner of the United States to include cuisine (Cajun and seafood, naturally) and jazz-infused nightlife.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast – Just to the east of New Orleans, lying between the towns of Pass Christian (pronounced “Chris-chee-Ann”) and Biloxi (Bi-lux-ee, NOT Bi-lox-ee), is the longest man-made beach in the world. The Army Corps of Engineers literally pumped sand up from the bottom of the Gulf and piled it up along the coast line to create a 26-mile long beach. The question we’re often asked is, “What was there before?” The answer: the land simply stopped and water started. Seriously. While there’s a long stretch of beach here, there’s low tidal action because the area is sheltered by barrier islands. The result is easy, gentle, low-surf water that isn’t particularly clear, but is some of the best fishing grounds in the world. The best beaches here are actually out on those barrier islands: Ship Island, in particular, where there’s also an interesting Civil War fort to explore. But, bar none, what the Mississippi Gulf Coast is most known for now is as America’s 3rd destination for casino gambling (behind Vegas and Atlantic City). Personally, we think it’s a better gambling destination than Atlantic City. Our favorite casinos to recommend are the Hard Rock Biloxi and the Beau Rivage in Biloxi.

Alabama’s “Redneck Riviera” – Heading eastward, we skip over Mobile bay and land on a stretch of natural beach affectionately known as “The Redneck Riviera”. We’ve spent a lot of time here, particularly in the town of Orange Beach, but there’s also the towns of Gulf Shores and Perdido. If you’re a Jimmy Buffet fan (aka a “Parrothead”), you’ll find the infamous Florabama bar on the state line between Alabama and Florida (hence the name). When we think of great beaches, we think of Orange Beach. These are beautiful, white-sand beaches set off with sea grass and cat tails. East of Mobile Bay the coast is no longer “encumbered” with barrier islands, meaning the surf action increases along with the water clarity. In fact, the water clarity can rival the Caribbean (though commensurately colder). While there are lots of hotel and resort options, what we always did (and what we therefore recommend) is staying in a beachside condo. There are probably a hundred options or more, from quaint wood-side 3-story buildings to mega-story concrete resorts with pools, spas, tennis courts, and restaurants. Just Google or surf for a place with great-looking pictures, good reviews, and a rate you like.

Florida’s Gulf Islands Area – Just a little further to the east, stretching from Pensacola over to Fort Walton and Destin is the Florida Gulf Islands area. This cluster of beach destinations, dubbed by the locals as the “Emerald Coast”, has all the same great beach qualities of The Redneck Riviera of Alabama, but is noticeably more developed. Located even further away from the protection of the barrier islands back toward Mississippi and Louisiana, the surf is even more active here, and the water is even clearer (emerald-green, actually). If you want a great beach destination with all the development (things to do, restaurants, etc.) we recommend Fort Walton and Destin. If you want a quieter, more out-of-the-way beach destination here, take a look at Navarre Beach.

Panama City, Florida – At the eastern end of our Northern Gulf area lies Panama City, Florida and its sister-city, Panama City Beach. Unsurprisingly Panama City is the inland city on the bay, and Panama City Beach is the Gulf-facing city. Panama City is well known as a spring break destination, and you will indeed find a few nightclubs on Panama City Beach made famous by MTV. A walk along the beach, taking in the sunset, and you’ll see why this corner of the world is so popular with the college crowd; dine in one of the hundreds of seafood restaurants serving up fresh-from-the-Gulf seafood and you’ll find out why it’s so popular with foodie adults. Look for a condo on Panama City Beach, but plan to spend some time in Panama City’s artsy downtown.

Chuck and Lori's Travel Blog - Lori Walking On Panama City Beach
Lori, Panama City Beach, Florida

Now let’s talk about activity.

Cuisine – If great cuisine is one of your objectives, you’ll find awesome seafood all along the Northern Gulf, but particularly to the west. Those murky waters behind the barrier islands are ideal breeding grounds for great seafood (one famous Biloxi restaurateur likes to say, “There’s a whole lotta lovin’ goin’ on in these waters!”) But also remember this: the further west you go, the spicier it gets, culminating with true-blue Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, along with N’awlins favorites like red beans & rice and muffalettas. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast (our hometown) be sure to treat yourself to a shrimp po-boy sprinkled with some Tabasco.

Deep Sea Fishing – If you have a desire to reel in a truly big one, consider the Mississippi Gulf Coast or Florida’s Gulf Islands area. Pretty much anywhere there’s a harbor there will be charter boats for hire.

Golf – The best golf is going to be found between the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Florida Gulf Islands area. Back when Chuck knocked balls around, one of his favorite courses was the Earl Stone designed Refuge course at Alabama’s Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. But that was quite a few years ago.

Gambling – No doubt: the Mississippi Gulf Coast is the place to go to mix a beach vacation with casino gambling. In particular, check out the casino scene in Biloxi.

Beach-going – For sheer sand-and-sun enjoyment, consider Alabama’s Redneck Riviera, particularly Orange Beach.

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