Authors: By BETH J. HARPAZ
PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) -- If you've turned on a TV lately, chances are you've seen ads for the Gulf Coast featuring beaches, seafood and friendly faces. But you might have winced if you noticed the ads' little green logo for BP. It's a reminder that they're paid for by the company responsible for one of the biggest oil spills in history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which littered beaches with tar balls and devastated tourism for months.
Some critics have mocked the ads, others call them "greenwashing." But two years after the spill, tourism along the Gulf is booming. Officials can't say how many vacationers might have been lured by the ads, which have run nationally and are called "Voices of the Gulf," but many Gulf Coast destinations had their best year ever in 2011. And with strong reports for early 2012, locals are hoping for another banner year.
I'm one of those visitors who, ironically, might never have considered a vacation here had it not been for the oil spill. Like a lot of New Yorkers, I've been to other parts of Florida - Orlando for theme parks, Fort Lauderdale to visit retired relatives, South Beach for the glam, the Everglades for nature. But until I saw those BP ads, I never thought about visiting Florida's Panhandle. Historically, this strip of coast stretching across state lines into Alabama was a summer destination for Southeasterners and a winter destination for Midwesterners. But the ads persuaded this Yankee to check out an area once known as the Redneck Riviera, a term some consider derisive, but that at one time connoted a workingman's paradise where beach vacations didn't have fancy pricetags.
With my sister, another Yankee who'd never been to the region, I set off on a Gulf Coast road trip. We ate oysters, went birdwatching, visited historic homes, and sunbathed on the soft, sugar-white sand the area is famous for. We didn't love the towering condos that dominate so much of the shorefront, but we found beautiful state parks offering easy access to pristine beaches nearly everywhere. And the locals definitely lived up to their reputation for hospitality and friendliness. For other travelers intrigued by the BP ad's invitation to "help make 2012 an even better year for tourism," here are some highlights from our trip.
We started in St. Petersburg, arriving via the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a 4-mile span with gleaming cables that look like giant gold and white sails. We visited the Dali Museum, a collection of surrealist art by Salvador Dali in a waterfront building with a geodesic dome and playful outdoor sculpture of the artist's moustache, http://thedali.org/ . In nearby Tampa's Ybor City, the historic if slightly rundown district known for cigar manufacturing and Spanish-Cuban heritage, we stayed at the 1895 Don Vicente Inn, http://www.donvicenteinn.com/ (rates start around $139), beautifully restored but with modern amenities (comfy beds and Wi-Fi).
En route to our next stop, Apalachicola, we detoured to the Indian Mounds at Crystal River State Archaeological Site, http://www.crystalriverstateparks.org/CrysRiv2.cfm . Trees draped in Spanish moss line a trail to an ancient monument made of shells and earth with a peaceful view of the river.
Apalachicola was even more scenic. Here a river meets a bay in an old port town with broad streets, like a magical painting come to life in soft blues, greens and browns. We stayed at the Gibson Inn, a 1907 hotel on the National Register of Historic Places with inviting verandas - http://www.gibsoninn.com/ (rates start at $115), and we enjoyed the best food of our trip: Oysters a few miles out of town at the no-frills Indian Pass Raw Bar (try the baked oysters with parmesan), a perfect dinner at the upscale Owl Cafe, and a cheerful breakfast at Tamara's. Beaches are across the bridge on St. George Island, a 22-mile barrier island, with a state park 4 miles in.
A word about oysters: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have tested local seafood since the oil spill and declared it safe. But oyster lovers should be aware of a nasty bacteria called vibrio vulnificus. Cooked oysters are safe, but vibrio in raw oysters sickens about 30 people a year, and about half of them die, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI says oysters harvested April-November in the Gulf are vulnerable to vibrio, but it's rarely seen in oysters in winter months or from colder Northern waters. For the record, my sister and I devoured Gulf oysters raw and cooked, thrilled by the taste and price, $6 or $7 a dozen.
We skipped Panama City's beachfront condo resorts, T-shirt emporiums and Ripley's Believe It or Not, and headed straight for nearby St. Andrews State Park, http://www.floridastateparks.org/standrews/ . There we sunbathed for hours on the famously soft, white sand while gazing at translucent emerald waters beneath a bright blue sky. It was an experience we repeated several times: No matter how many signs we saw for tattoos or drink specials along Highway 98, the main road linking Panhandle towns, nearby state parks offered serene stretches of sand and shore.
A rainy day in Pensacola turned out to be a highlight. We started with a hearty, inexpensive breakfast at the ubiquitous chain restaurant Waffle House, then visited a half-dozen homes in Historic Pensacola Village, some on our own, some on a tour, http://www.historicpensacola.org/ (Tuesday-Saturday, tickets $6 at 205 E. Zaragoza St.). We learned about the area's 450 years of history under five flags - Spanish, French, British, Confederate and U.S. - and loved how the village has preserved homes from different periods before and after the Civil War. The Julee Panton cottage tells the story of a free woman of color; the Dorr House displays Victorian oddities like art made from human hair; and the 1805 Charles Lavalle House alludes to the era's everyday hardships, with artifacts like an ingenious rat trap and a bed with springs made from rope.
The sun came out for our last Florida stop, the glorious beach in Perdido Key State Park, http://www.floridastateparks.org/perdidokey/ . Across the state line, we walked the 825-foot pier at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Ala., admiring the fishing techniques of its many visitors, http://www.alapark.com/gulfstate/ . Early the next morning, we joined birders at Fort Morgan State Historic Site, a stopover for birds migrating north from South America. We watched as volunteers captured tiny creatures in fine nets strung between trees, then weighed, measured and banded them before release. A similar event is planned for Oct. 4-6 in Fairhope, Ala., as the birds return south for the winter, http://www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com/ . But even those who can't tell a mockingbird from a wood thrush can enjoy the bird calls echoing off Fort Morgan's spooky stone buildings.
A ferry took us from Fort Morgan across Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island. Car spaces are limited and tickets are not sold in advance, so get in line early; $16 for car with driver, schedule at http://www.mobilebayferry.com/ . In Mobile, a mere 35 miles away, we checked into the Battle House, a Marriott Renaissance with rates that begin at $159 despite its four-star luxury accommodations. We then strolled down Dauphin Street, enjoying Bienville Square and old buildings decorated with lacy, elaborate cast iron balconies, a trademark of the city's architecture. Dinner was a fabulous selection of sushi and tacos at the hipster Bicycle Shop, 651 Dauphin St.
Our last day started at Bellingrath Gardens. Camellias and azaleas were done for the season, but the grounds are lovely. We took a fascinating tour of the antique-filled Bellingrath mansion and a relaxing river boat ride; http://www.bellingrath.org/ , $28.50 for grounds, tour and cruise. Our big meal of the day was yummy brisket and ribs at Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q, a regional chain with an outpost at 770 Schillinger Road South, then explored neighborhoods like Oakleigh, where many homes feature a crest and shield from the Mobile Historic Development Commission - http://www.mobilehd.org/ - designating them as historically significant. Several businesses offer guided tours, including Memorable Mobile Tours, 251-344-8687; Bay City Conventions, http://www.baycityconventions.com and Personalized Tours of Historic Mobile, 251-343-8165.
My sister continued on to Louisiana and Mississippi, the other states in the tourism ads. I returned to New York, where I told anyone who'd listen that the Gulf's beaches, seafood and hospitality were as good as they looked on TV.