Day late and a dollar short. Sorry this is a bit tardy, but good things are worth the wait. Of course considering my location, punctuality is not really a virtue to be admired here. This week I am coming to you from the famed Riviera. Tropical ocean breezes, breathtaking sunsets and all the beer you can chug. Huh? No silly, I’m not in France…., I’m on the "Red Neck Riviera".
This long expanse of Gulf Coast beaches stretches from Panama City Florida to Gulf Port, Mississippi. Why is it called the "Red Neck Riviera"? I asked around but neither the guy with the mullet or his buddy with the monster truck seemed to know why. Perhaps it is due to the area’s proximity to Georgia, not to mention Alabama and Mississippi. I spent this past week driving from Florida to Texas along the gulf coast. It s a drive I used to do at least twice a year commuting from my home in Florida to my other home in Phoenix before moving to Florida full time in 2003. It’s been many years since I had time to pop in and take a look around. First stop, Destin , Florida.
Smack dab in the center of the "Emerald Coast" sits the glittering jewel know as Destin. Floridians have this strange habit of naming all of their beach areas to emphasize attention to a special feature or attraction of the area. For example, I live on the "Space Coast", which is home to Kennedy Space Center. Just south of me is the "Treasure Coast", which got its name from a ship wrecked Spanish Galleon off its shore. Therefore I made sure to comb the beaches of Destin looking for sparkly green gems, but sadly I came up empty handed. What I did find though were some of the most beautiful beaches in Florida. I feel confident with that statement as I have been to almost ALL of the Florida beach areas at one time or another. What I like best about Destin is the fine sugar like sand and what I dislike the most is the fine sugar like sand. Gets on your skin, in your hair, on your clothes and won’t come off. Despite the minor inconvenience of the micro fine sand, it, in combination with crystal clear water and snowy white soft dunes paint an extraordinarily stunning portrait. The best places to stay are either on or close to the beach. Parking is limited near the beaches as most of the shoreline is either hotels or private homes. There are plenty of public beach access points for those within walking distance. Traffic can get a bit gnarly during the high season. September and October are perfect times to visit. The weather is still quite nice; hot and sunny daytime, comfortable breezy evenings. Most of the summer beach goers have vacated and it is a bit too early for the snowbirds. This same rule applies to just about anywhere on the Gulf Coast. Although part of the "Red Neck Riviera", Destin has a bit more class than its neighbors, perhaps even a bit snooty. So, for less snot, try Fort Walton Beach, just down the road. They’ll let you park your RV there.
Actually, you can go either east or west from Destin in order to fill your quota of Rednecks. Panama City Beach to the east is the unofficial "Spring Break" capital of Florida, replacing Daytona and Ft. Lauderdale. The latter cities long ago decided they had enough inebriated college students bringing down their property values. Not only did Panama City Beach welcome them with open arms, they built them the biggest dog-gone night club in the world. The 7,000 person capacity La Vela plays host to MTV each spring, offering up enough drunken naked student debauchery to make Animal House look like a Disney flick. In other words: it is the world’s largest gathering of village idiots. Idiots take note: when you see a sign that reads: " Caution, ALL animals may bite" they really do mean it. One can never be too careful in this paradise filled with snakes, snapping turtles and alligators.
Next up, the Flora-Bama Lounge and Package. It is located on the Florida-Alabama line, hence the name. "The Bama" as locals call it, is the considered by many to be America’s last true road house. So what’s the "package" part have to do with the name. I understood immediately as will all of my New England readers, although I was a bit confused to see it used in that context down south. Must have been a Yankee sniffin’ around somewhere. What it refers to is the Liquor store adjacent to the Lounge. In Connecticut we call a liquor store a package store (due to the brown paper bags that the bottles are placed when you purchase them). The Bama is host to a number of annual events including the Mullet Man Triathlon and Super Bowl Chili cook off. The most popular by far though is the Interstate Mullet Toss. Contestants must throw a mullet (not the hair-do but rather a slimy fish), from the Alabama side of the beach, over the state line into Florida. Sadly Hurricane Ivan in 2004 took a nice bite out of the Bama, ripping away the boardwalks and the Package. Like the true redneck s they are, they got right back on their feet to the delight of Tammy’s every where. Here at the Bama, they say "the girls look like Sunday but treat you like Saturday night".
The Alabama coast in conjunction with several barrier islands, one of which they share with Florida, boast some of the best fishing in the US. In the summer a special phenomenon occurs when the ocean temp rises and the population of oxygen depriving plankton starts to knock most of the sea life unconscious. All manner of fish including crabs and shrimp flood the shallow bays and inlets as easy prey for wife beater wearing, beer swilling Bubba’s all along the coast. If gold panning is not your style you can still catch the fish the traditional way. Alabama has more than 200 artificial reefs off its coast. In true Alabama fashion they are made mostly of junked cars.
The city of Mobile, Alabama is not particularly interesting, except, that is, after a hurricane. Only in Alabama would they be smart enough to build a tunnel, yes a tunnel, with a mouth that is barely above sea level AND is located adjacent to one of the largest bays on the Gulf Coast. I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when tourists ask locals about whether or not to evacuate in the path of an oncoming hurricane, they give you a pitying stare reserved for visitors from countries without 240 TV channels. "You’ll be fine Sir". My Father, in charge of the Catastrophe team at one of America’s largest insurance companies related to me a story about post Hurricane Georges Mobile. The USS Alabama, a retired battleship and now a museum, appeared not to be docked in Mobile, but rather anchored off shore. It was in fact still docked, everything around it was simply covered with water. Upon entering downtown Mobile, my Dad and his team spotted an oil derrick from the Gulf of Mexico, sitting right smack in the middle of the city. Apparently it floated in through the tunnel, nuff said.
Cross the Mississippi state line and you’ll find your self in the "sleepy little town of Pascagoula", site of the famed "Mississippi Squirrel Revival". Ok, actually it is just a Ray Stevens song, but definitely worth a listen. (You can find it on You-Tube). In reality, it is a bit of a sleepy town, not widely visited and more industrialized than it’s sister cities on the Mississippi Coast. Once home to many famous people including the Pirate Jean Lafitte, Presidents Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson and Zachary Taylor. Even famed Admiral Farragut, hero of the civil war battle of Mobile Bay, once resided here. You may know him better by his tag line: "Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead!" No one is really sure if he actually said that, after all Davey didn’t carry a cell phone. The most famed resident of all is none other than the original "Parrot Head" , Jimmy Buffet, who was born in Pascagoula. A piece of Pascagoula’s history may best explain why it never developed into the mega beach and casino resorts as it’s neighbor Biloxi did. Local legend says the Pascagoula tribe chanted and waded hand in hand into the Pascagoula river, drowning together, rather than become enslaved to an enemy tribe, the Biloxi. While driving out to the beach, I almost missed the signs reading "Don’t feed the alligators", mostly on account of the fact that this huge ferocious snake was crossing the road, close to my tires. The beach itself was pristine and secluded, evidently all the previous visitors had been eaten.
Biloxi, once stood out in my mind and one of the most romantic and charming examples of antebellum architecture, second only to Charleston, South Carolina. Hurricane Katrina changed all of that. All and I do mean ALL of the beautiful old homes that once lined the beach are gone, not damaged, but gone. If not for the tell tale brick steps leading up to the empty lots, one would never know a grand home had once been the occupant. I have not been back to the gulf coast of Alabama and Mississippi since Katrina. Quite frankly, I just wasn’t ready to stomach it. I have lived through hurricanes and the aftermath and know what they are capable of. I had heard first hand accounts from the Gulf Coast from my , father who was one of the first on the scene. He and his staff roughed out Katrina in Pensacola, FL, and were in Biloxi less than 24 hours after the strike. Ground Zero for Katrina was 20 miles to the west in Pass Christian, MS, so naturally Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport were flattened. The recently completed Hard Rock Hotel and Casino was completely destroyed without ever having opened it’s doors. Similarly, several other casinos suffered catastrophic or complete losses. The Casino Magic, slammed into an adjacent apartment hotel, yes the entire building moved many feet inland. The iconic Treasure Bay "Pirate Ship" floated to a watery grave out at sea. The storm surge reached the 3rd level of the Beau Rivage Hotel and gutted the entire bottom 3 floors of the building. It s a wonder it was still standing. Prior to Katrina, Mississippi law required that all casinos be built over water , not on dry land. Therefore the casino sections of the resorts were either built on stilts over the ocean or inland waterways, or were on floating barges. The devastation after Katrina, forced the hand of the state of Mississippi, to review this law or risk losing the profitable casinos. The Hard Rock did finally open in July of 2007, but the stately old homes that lined the historic waterfront are gone forever. Beauvoir, the childhood home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and his Presidential Library, survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, but proved too weak to withstand Katrina. Heavily damaged, Beauvoir is currently under restoration. The beaches in Biloxi and Gulfport have recovered and with the advent of the new casino laws, the beach horizons are no longer broken up by massive buildings.
A number of notorious visitors have left a lasting mark on the "Red Neck Riviera" throughout the past 40 years. Camille, Katrina, Opal, Frederic, Ivan and Dennis. They say that beauty has a price and in this case that cost was told by what those visitors left in their wake. Katrina, now the costliest disaster in US history, was not the most deadly storm nor the most intense. The deadliest, also a Gulf Coast Hurricane, the unnamed 1900 or sometimes called Galveston Storm, cleared that island like and eraser on a chalk board. In its wake, over 9,000 people perished. In 1969 Camille roared ashore as a category 5 storm, quite near the same spot that Katrina struck 36 years later. In comparison, Katrina was only a category 3 storm. The 1969 Mississippi coast, largely unpopulated by today’s standards, suffered a modest death toll with only 255 confirmed fatalities. Until Andrew in 1992, Camille was the only Category 5 storm to hit the mainland of the US and still today remains the strongest storm ever to make landfall on our shores. Katrina supercedes Camille in damage only due to the large number of people affected. Had it not been for the levee collapses and the inadequacy of the State of Louisiana’s preparations, Katrina might not have gained as much notoriety. It never fails to surprise me how people forget that it was the Mississippi Coast that took the brunt of this storm, NOT New Orleans. Except for Slidell, LA and the far eastern reaches of the New Orleans Metropolitan area, that area sustained only minor wind damage. Like Jekell and Hyde, storms have a good side and bad side. Depending on wind direction and the shape of the storm, two areas equidistant from a storm can experience quite different impacts. With Katrina, New Orleans found itself on the "right side". What they did get is rain and tidal surge. If not for the catastrophic failure of the levee system, Katrina may have gone down in History as just another storm. After all you don’t hear much complainin’ from the folks from Mississip’.
I find the people of the "Red Neck Riviera" to be a modest god fearing lot for the most part. Down home cookin’ and down home values are never at a loss in this neck of the woods. Perhaps that is what gives the Gulf Coast so much of its charm and appeal. That and the never ending supply of souped up fishin’ boats, beer kegs and pot bellied trailer park gals wearing spandex. So pass the gator tail, get ready for the mullet toss and head on down to the Riviera for some fun in the sun. I get teary eyed as I leave but then remember there are more adventures ahead. I’m going to the Big "D" and I DO mean Dallas. Yee Haw!!!