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Just coasting.

Once Indians, explorers, pirates, slaves, smuggler, and rumrunners proweled around the hidden inlets, swamps, and offshore islands ofthe Gulf Coast. The lawless wilderness changed hands so many times that its settlers hardly knew which flag to salute. History records bizarre tales of lost treasure, outlaw bands, and scuttled ships.

Today, the ghosts of those anciet freebooters would find this ground even more bizarre. Those wooded covers marshes, and peninsulas still curl aroundtthe coastline like pieces of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. But today their treasures from the sea are supplemented by those who come to the sea for renewal. Shrimpers, beach bums, retirees, aristocrats, rednecks, and tourists all prowl the seashore from Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Panama City, Florida.

This string of sun-blessed real estate, described as a strip city 2 miles wide and 300 miles long, shares only one constant- gorgeous wide beaches invariasble accompanied munities could be suited up, Pass Christian would be hoop skirts, Gulfport would be Izods, Biloxi would be bikinis, and Ocean Springs would be cut-offs and bare feet.

Beginning at the little fishing village of Pas$ Christian (pronounced Cris-ti-ANN), the 26-mile ribbon of Highway 90 quietly skirts a dazzling white beach scarcely marred by footprints. On the other side, miles of stately old homes stare out over hazy pinpricks of islands, just as they have for decades. What makes this beach drive different from most is that virtually nothing comes between the oak-studded highway and the ocean. "Folks around the country don't know much about us down here in Pass Christian," drawls a local fisherman standing beside shrimp boats that look posed for a travel ad. "And we don't much want them to."

In the larger towns of Gulfport and Biloxi, where commerce intrudes upon Old South ambience, you might see a miniature golf course with DayGlo dinosaurs alongside an antebellum mansion dripping magnolias. Such juxtapositions give the Mississippi coast a sort of devil-may-care rakishness, like a grande dame who mixes rhinestones with her diamonds and dyes her hair orange.

Coast people are just as colorful. Over the centuries, Yugoslavs, Cajuns, Italians, and, lately, Vietnamese have drifted in to make their contributions to the fishing industry and the area's traditions. Influenced by nearby New Orleans, whose residents have traditionally kept weekend homes here, they love uninhibited festivals and celebrate their own Mardi Gras; their huge floating party, the "Blessing of the Fleet," is legendary.

Offshore 12 to 16 miles are barrier islands of wild, unspoiled beauty, accessible only by boat. Here the locals go when seeking clear blue-green surf; waters off the mainland are murky with river silt. Ship Island, the site of historic Fort Massachusetts, is developed somewhat for day-trippers, and Horn and Petit Bois are wildlife sanctuaries unchanged since those old buccaneer days.

Alabama's Eastern Shore

A short jog from the slash of Interstate 10 lies a necklace of secluded hamlets strung along Mobile Bay's wooded shoreline like a treasured family heirloom. Alabama's Eastern Shore has been a summer retreat for Southern gentry since the mid-1800s. In the old days they spent the season at the gracious Grand Hotel in Point Clear or at their own grand "cottages."

The slow turn of the generations gradually changed the faces but only mildly touched the tranquil setting. The Grand Hotel, now a lush 550acre resort owned by Marriott, still prides itself on elegant amenities and personal service. Those handsome "cottages" still stand shaded by longleaf pines and moss-covered oaks, their piers jutting out into Mobile Bay like the tines of forks lined up on a sideboard.

The area is also known for the "jubilee," a peculiar, unpredictable phenomenon that causes hundreds of sea creatures to beach themselves, evidently longing for Eastern Shore cooking pots. Their wishes are accommodated by seafood gastronomes , who scoop up the creatures by the basketful. More predictable is the restaurant fare, especially eclectic in nearby Fairhope, a bohemian enclave full of artists and writers, colorfulfloral baskets, and a fetching assort

ment of crafts and antique shops.

Gulf Shores

Beyond Point Clear, Highway 98 curves through pecan orchards and bean fields toward Gulf Shores and wide white beaches that rival any in the world. Once an old-time, ramshackle beach community, Gulf Shores went concrete high-rise and cedar chic after a devastating 1979 hurricane.

Once Gulf Shores' only entertainment consisted of a few honky-tonks and oyster bars; now there are classy nightspots, brand-new hotels, and an unusually fine cuisine scene.

Despite the new makeup on its weather-beaten face, Gulf Shores' mystique is little changed. People still cross the bridge to "Pleasure Island" to play and forget their troubles. The locals have refined the art of laying back to its highest form, and a simple beach-and-boat life turns to honkytonking once the sun goes down.

Perched on stilts in the bayous off the Intracoastal Waterway, tiny fishing camps are passed on through families ftom generation to generation, and little marina-bars welcome a local clientele. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge, Gulf State Park, and historic Fort Morgan will always protect their windswept sand dunes against encroachment.

On 14-mile-long Dauphin Island, reached by a grand and gusty ferry ride from Fort Morgan or over a long causeway from Mobile, the islanders scorn "big-city" Gulf Shores and swear their tiny paradise will never go commercial. This peaceful, unspoiled isle, a true hideaway without a single hotel, distills to its essence the slow and easy spirit of the entire Deep South Gulf Coast.

In this neck of the woods, as they say around here, the locals take each day as it comes, and tomorrow will be the same but maybe a little different. All you really need anyway is a swimsuit, suntan oil, and, if energetic, a fishing pole.*


Even for flocks of travelers who head to the Sunshine State each year as regularly as birds head south for the winter, Florida still holds some surprises. Most of them are in that limbo-land called the Panhandle. Chopped off Alabama, this narrow slice of the Old South is so far removed from Walt Disney World and glitzy southern Florida that it's often labeled the "forgotten" Florida or the state's "Last Frontier."

One long, narrow barrier island deserves that name. Much of Santa Rosa, protected by the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is still splendidly isolated ftom the usual crush of condos, cottages, beach bars, and bodies. West of Pensacola Beach lie Fort Pickens and its campsites, nature trails over massive sand dunes, fishing pier, museum, and daily schedule of activities planned by the park rangers. In the other direction, Navarre Beach epitomizes untrammeled nature at her best. Only a tiny motel and a couple of seasonal seafood restaurants coexist with nearby park facilities,

But such unspoiled beaches are rare in the world. Around Fort Walton Beach and Destin, brochures brag about "The Emerald Coast" and its "sugar-white quartz sand" while ignoring the rows of identical cottages and high-rise condos that wall everyone but their owners off from that emerald water and white quartz sand.

So it is particularly nice to find such places as Seaside and Bluewater Bay, two resort-residential communities designed to harmonize with their settings rather than dominate them.

An architectural tour de force, Seaside is a surprising anachronism rising out of the scrub on County Road 30-A; it looks for all the world like an idealized and modernized version of a Victorian seaside village. Painted in luscious icecream colors, houses are garnished with porches, picket fences, stained glass, gazebos, widow's walks, tin roofs, gingerbread trim, hammocks, rocking chairs-all the sociable accouterments belonging to another day. Elegant pavilions designed on classical lines stand on tall dunes overlooking that fabled emerald water.

Bluewater Bay sprawls deep in backbayou country near Niceville and Eglin AFB. The secluded 1,500 acres hold championship tennis and golf facilities, a beach and a full-service marina on the Intracoastal Waterway, and hundreds of houses hidden in lush vegetation and tall pines.

Both resorts have earned architectural and environmental plaudits for proving it possible, and even good business, for man to live in the midst of beauty without spoiling it.
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Title Annotation:includes related article: Florida's Secret Hideaways; the Gulf Coast from Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Panama City, Florida
Author:Burton, Marda
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1988
Previous Article:Booty for a badman.
Next Article:Of seashells and Seychelles.

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