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The Gulf Coast Of Florida

The Gulf of Mexico is not the ocean, which is obvious to anyone accustomed to the pounding California surf or the summer swell-type waves of the Atlantic Ocean. This is good news to anyone who is prone to sea sickness; an offshore trip in the Gulf for deep-sea fishing means cutting through small chop, rather than pitching and rolling in the heavy waves of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. The surf is only "up" when storms come knocking, but the Gulf is known as hurricane alley. Hurricanes have played a major role in shaping the shore, cutting new inlets and forming islands. This is the flattest and lowest coast in the United States; sand dunes, where present, are the highest points for many miles inland.

The Everglades, which is really a very shallow, slow-flowing river, meets the Gulf along the southwest Florida coast. This is called the land of ten thousand islands, but don't come here expecting to find beaches as mangroves dominate the landscape. Shark Beach is one of the few areas with some sand, but the real attraction is spotting fairly large sharks close to land. The sandy (beach) area is perched on top of a limestone ledge which drops off sharply. Obviously, this is not a place to go swimming. Mosquitoes thrive in this watery environment so come prepared.

The prized stone crabs are trapped throughout coastal Everglades in record numbers for serving at the prime seafood restaurants in Miami and elsewhere. No stone crab is asked to give up its life for our culinary delight. Only one claw is taken from the crab, which is then thrown overboard so that it can still catch food and defend itself; a new claw will shortly be regenerated.

The southwest Gulf coast is a haven for snow birds escaping the northern winters. The high season begins with Thanksgiving week and peaks between Christmas and Easter. Summers are hot and very humid here; this coast lacks the steady Trade Winds, blowing cooler air from the ocean, that make Miami much more livable. Air conditioning and a swimming pool are tantamount to survival for year-round residents.

Naples is a grand coastal resort; there are reportedly more millionaires residing in Naples per capita than any other city in America (and also more golf courses per capita; think there is any relationship?) This place quietly exudes wealth and good taste. The Ritz Carlton and Registry Hotels set new standards for excellence and service in Florida resorts. Naples' downtown beach is flanked to the south by the Keewaydin Island Club, which is a remembrance of the "Old Florida." Reachable by a short boat ride, this historic resort is only open to overnight or meal guests. Two great state park beaches are found to either end of Naples: Clam Pass to the south and Delnor-Wiggins to the north.

A tram ride along a three-quarter mile trail takes you from the high-rise development to a natural beach at Clam Pass State Recreational Area. On the ride you may spot some of the natural inhabitants such as eagles, hawks, ospreys, raccoons, and armadillos. At the beach, you can rent kayaks, canoes, windsurfers, and catamarans. With the gentle waves and shallow, sandy bottom, this is a good place to take children.

Delnor-Wiggins State Recreational Area, just north of Naples, is an unspoiled beach with a wide variety of vegetation and wildlife; it regularly makes my top 20 list of America's Best Beaches. The sand is whitish tan in color and contains whole shells, making it a collector's area. The sand dunes are anchored by sea oats, cabbage palms, and sea grapes, which are edible when ripe and turn reddish-purple. The golden sea oats might make a lovely dried plant display, but it is illegal to pick them because this is the number one dune stabilizer. The waves gently lap onto the shore at Delnor-Wiggins, where the beach tilts gradually offshore. Lifeguards are on duty, and this is a great place to swim except near the inlet with its swift currents. Wiggins Pass is a delight of fishermen; sea trout is my favorite catch of these local waters.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are two of the loveliest barrier islands in the country. Once connected, a hurricane severed the two islands at Blind Pass, and each has developed its own personality, though both cater to upscale winter vacationers. While the islands are known for their first-class amenities, there is room for nature lovers to explore. No high-rises are allowed, and even concrete and asphalt are limited as parking lots tend to be sandy areas under the shade of the large casuarina trees. Because these Australian pine trees are an exotic (non-native) species, the state of Florida has decided to chop them down all along the coast. I believe that this would be a tragic mistake as there are few other large, shade-providing trees that can live so close to the water's edge. One of my joys is to drive my convertible through the lush tunnel of vegetation created by the casua-rina trees on the south end of Captiva Island; I cannot image this experience being eliminated by environmental zealots. Oranges, after all, which appear on Florida's license plate, are exotics; these trees were brought to America from China.

Sanibel is known as the best shelling beach in the country. The hard-packed sand at the water's edge, where the shells are plentiful, makes for an easy stroll and the casuarina trees provide shade, making Sanibel the Best Walking Beach in the Gulf. So many people lean over to pick up shells that this posture even has a name - the "Sanibel stoop". Whelks, cones, periwinkles, fighting conch, coquina, fan, lion's paw, and sunray venus are in plentiful supply along the 14 miles of beach. The best time to go shelling here or elsewhere is after the January or February coastal storms when big waves drive the shells ashore by the thousands. Sanibel hosts a Shell Fair in March, and serious shell collectors travel from around the world to meet their fellow conchologists at this event. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel is a great place to determine the types of shells that you have picked up along the shore. Seashells are considered by many as the Gulf's greatest gifts.

While the wave action is gentle and the water warm, this is not the best beach for swimming. The water is murky because the shells are being eroded out of a fine-grained matrix on the lower beachface. Sting rays also come close to shore on Sanibel's beaches, which introduces another problem for bathers and swimmers. The "Sanibel shuffle" is recommended wherein you stomp your feet and splash the water to make noise upon entering so that the rays will swim away even if they cannot see you.
Sanibel is also known for its restrictions on growth and preservation of nature. I have often spotted large gopher tortoises on the upper beach and dune areas grazing upon various plants and fruits. There are also "gator crossings" along the bayside. The real preserve is at nearby Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the home of numerous wildlife, including large birds like egrets, osprey, and roseate spoonbills.

The water is somewhat clearer and the shell deposits correspondingly less impressive on Captiva Island. The crowds have abated and the pace is slower here; the best way to really absorb the island environment and ambience is by bicycle. According to Florida folklore, the name Captiva was derived from the days of Gasparilla, the pirate who allegedly held kidnap victims here. Today, no one has to be forced to come to Captiva; the South Seas Plantation is one of Florida's top destination resorts and a favorite for weddings and honeymoons.

The Gulf beach at Captiva Island has had an erosion problem. While the major development is on the bay side, no one could bear to watch a greenway of the golf course slowly turn into a total sand trap. Because the South Seas Plantation is a private resort and there is no public access at the golf course, this area was not eligible for federal funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has restored hundreds of beaches elsewhere along the nation's coasts. At a property-owners association meeting, the hat was passed to pay for the sand pumping, and a whopping $6 million was collected. Just wish I had been the one passing the hat! Captiva has maintained its beach by the seasonal population of "old money."

Two beaches in the Sarasota area deserve particular mention: Venice Beach to the south in Sarasota County and Siesta Key closer to the city itself. Venice would be better named Shark-tooth Beach because this is one of the best beaches in the country to find shark's teeth, rivaling the Calvert County shoreline in the Maryland Chesapeake Bay. Besides the black teeth, fossilized bones of other prehistoric animals such as camels, bison, and tapirs can sometimes be found washed up on the beach. Real enthusiasts snorkel or scuba dive offshore to find the fossilized treasures as they are exhumed by wave action. The only problem is that the water is a bit murky, making the search difficult. If you don't find any real prizes, the local shop keepers will be happy to sell you a perfect tooth, still with its serrated cutting edges.

While manatees are found throughout south Florida on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, this sea mammal is now endangered. These ugly but lovable blimps can top the scales at more than a thousand pounds, and they have no natural enemies. Their major problem is the power boats that race through the waters of Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay and the intracoastal waterway (ICW) along the Gold Coast. Because manatees are mammals, they must come up for air, which can result in a collision between these slow-moving sea cows and power boats. Many manatees bear scars of a close encounter with a boat's propellers. Protecting these ancient sea creatures is a problem, but a knowledge of their habitat and habits can help greatly to preserve this species.

Siesta Key boasts that it has the "finest, whitest sand" in the world, but people along the panhandle beaches of Florida contest this claim. Crescent Beach at about mid-island is where these tiny grains of pure quartz sand are bottled by local promoters. A few years ago, I was the guest of honor at their annual Siesta Key Sandfest, and I was given an urn of this beautiful sand. Crescent Beach itself is also a delight - the real gem along this entire coastline, even rivaling some of the panhandle beaches but without any sand dunes. The clear, warm waters along this gently-sloping beachface make for ideal swimming. The beach itself is hundreds of yards wide, attracting young fitness types and beach volleyball players and fans. This is one of the most pleasing beaches in Florida to visit. The crescent shape of this beach is created by the anchoring of onshore rocks to the north and an interesting underwater formation of coral rock and caves that are good for snorkeling and scuba diving.

The Mote Marine Laboratory near downtown Sarasota is known worldwide for its shark research. It was originally founded on the south end of Siesta Key by one of my friends, Dr. Eugenie Clark, who is affectionately known as "The Shark Lady." Beach erosion and other reasons prompted its move to Lido Key, where today the main attraction is the 135,000 gallon shark tank. While sharks as great ocean predators can be scary creatures, the number of reported attacks along swimming beaches is exceedingly small in spite of the bad rap, exacerbated by the popular "Jaws" movies.

More important to the regional beaches is the research being conducted on algal blooms or "red tides" at the Mote Marine Laboratory. Occasionally, the early spring to summer beach season is ruined by outbreaks of these noxious and even poisonous floating plants that can cover tens of miles of the Gulf surface before washing ashore with tons of dead fish. What causes the proliferation of these salt-water algae is not known, but pollution through the introduction of excess phosphorus and nitrogen from land runoff and wastewater is frequently blamed.

Just north of the entrance to Tampa Bay is Fort Desoto Park. This beach, which frequently appears in my Top 10 Best Beaches list, is set in a natural wilderness, but still close to all the amenities of nearby St. Petersburg Beach. Residents of the metropolis of Tampa and St. Petersburg often go here to escape the hustle and bustle of urban living. This Pinellas County park is spread over five islands and encompasses about 900 acres. There is a range of beaches from which to choose, but avoid inlets and channels because of the danger of strong currents and deep holes. The park is known for its birding, but it is also a great area for camping, biking, and fishing. It is fun to explore the park relics, including gun emplacements and ammunition rooms, of old Fort Desoto on Mullet Key; this fortification was declared obsolete before any shots were fired in combat. This area also affords you an awesome view of the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay.

Clearwater's exceptionally wide beaches are a haven for sports enthusiasts; several major beach volleyball championships are held here each year. Clearwater Beach is a favorite for family vacations, and the commercial district of the beach can be explored by boarding the free Jolly Trolley. There are no sand dunes so that the view from the road causes the illusion that the Gulf at high tide is as high as the land. All I can say is better head inland for the hills (because there are none here) or one of the nearby sturdy high-rises if a hurricane is brewing.

There is a complete range of water activities, and swimming is great in the calm, clear waters of Clearwater Beach. Pier 60 is quite long in order to span the wide beach and reach deep water for fishermen, but it is also great for girl and boy watching. Clearwater offers the visitor a wide variety of accommodations from historic to modern hotels and motels as well as good but very reasonably priced restaurants. The local seafood is highly recommended, especially shrimp and stone crabs when in season. Clearwater is a beehive of activity and rated the Best City Beach in the Gulf. To the south of Clearwater Beach is Sand Key Park, a natural oasis among the skyscrapers that dominate this shoreline.

Caladesi Island State Park, just to the north of Clearwater Beach, is one of the Top 10 beaches in the country. The waters are nearly placid, being protected by Honeymoon Island to the north. The white sand is soft and cushy at the water's edge, inviting one to take a dip in the sparkling clear water. Wooden boardwalks take you across the sand dunes and past the palm trees so that you can explore some of the inland trails or get a bite to eat at the snack bar on this offshore island which is only reachable by boat. Caladesi is a real getaway beach; it is the closest beach as the crow flies from Tampa, but few residents here have ever heard of it. This means that the beach is never crowded like the city beaches of Clearwater or St. Pete.

The pedestrian ferry ride to Caladesi is also great fun; no cars are allowed on the island. The shorter boat ride leaves from Honeymoon Island, but I prefer the longer trip via Clearwater because of the good chance of spotting dolphins which frequent these waters. It is illegal to feed dolphins because the food may not be part of their diet, and it is important not to train these marine mammals to become beggars who are dependent on people for food. It is wonderful to watch them frolicking in the water, sometimes even performing aerial acrobatics to the delight of the ferry passengers. Old salts often pilot these ferries, and it is great fun to hear their sea stories.

Beaches along the southwest coast of Florida from Tampa to Naples are the favorite areas for the snowbirds from northern climes. There is no winter here as opposed to the famed panhandle beaches, which are many hours drive further north and west around the Big Bend coast of Florida. There are no good beaches or even that much sand in this "zero energy coast" because of the exceptionally shallow water that extends for more than a hundred miles offshore. There is just not enough wave energy to build a beach so the shoreline is marshy and lined with mangroves. While this coast is often called the "armpit" of Florida by beach lovers, locals like to promote themselves as the Nature Coast. Fishing is reportedly good here, and Tarpon Springs has historically been known as the sponge capital of America.

St. George Island occupies the eastern flank of the greatest strand of white sand on earth - the panhandle beaches of Florida. From here to Perdido Key in Alabama, the sand is nearly pure quartz crystal. While most noncarbonated (noncoral) beaches are composed of 15 to 20 different types of sand, the panhandle beaches are like a bar of Ivory soap - 9944/100% pure.

The remarkable purity of the Florida panhandle sand is related to its geologic history. Like most all beaches along the East and Gulf coasts, the panhandle sands came from the wearing down of the Appalachian Mountains, which brought an array of different minerals to the shore. But unlike other coastal areas, the rivers stopped bringing any new sand for tens of thousands of years. During this long period of time, wave action has ground the particles down to size. Quartz, being the most resistant mineral commonly available on the face of the earth, is the only type of sand grain left as the other minerals were ground down to dust. Not being stable on the high energy beach, these fine-grained sediments were transported and deposited offshore. What we find on the panhandle beaches today is quartz sand crystal at its terminal size, meaning that all the grains are nearly the same size (well sorted in geologic terms).

The lack of any new sediment delivery to the beaches by rivers for many thousands of years also means that the Florida panhandle coast displays some of the clearest water in the country, rivaling that found in the Keys. The water at St. George Island is tinted by the outflowing brackish water from Apalachicola Bay, making it somewhat less inviting for swimming compared to other panhandle beaches, but it is still good quality for water sports and a boon for fishermen. The fishing is great right from the beach, but the best catches of mackerel, sheepshead, and cobia are often made off the jetty at the western end of the island. During the winter months, large redfish are the prized game fish and great eating to boot. St. George Island State Park occupies the eastern side of the island; I enjoyed walking over the marching dunes that are partially covering the wooden boardwalk that crosses the island.

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park projects out into the Gulf at a strange angle and is reachable from the mainland across Apalachicola Bay and via Cape San Blas. This estuary is the largest producer of seafood in Florida. Apalachicola Bay oysters are some of the best in the country. While some people prefer to eat this delicacy raw, I am very leery of such brashness in today's world of increasing pollutants. Several of my friends have contracted hepatitis by eating raw oysters supposedly from pristine waters elsewhere. I don't believe that it is worth the chance anymore. I prefer my shrimp steamed, fish grilled, and oysters roasted.

Cape San Blas's lighthouse is worth a stop on your journey to the St. Joseph beaches. Erosion is clearly evident by the wave-cut scarp in the shore bank and uprooted trees falling seaward into the water. Two brick lighthouses toppled into the water during the late 1800s due to storm-induced erosion. These sentinels were followed by the present iron tower, which already has had to be moved twice due to progressive erosion. Capes are notoriously unstable. This cape-like feature is no exception.

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park regularly makes the list of Top 10 Beaches in the country, and a visit to this out-of-the-way barrier peninsula will tell you why. The snow-white sand from the beach has been blown by onshore winds into the anchoring sea oats to produce some of the largest sand dunes in Florida. Wooden walkovers take you across these magnificent dunes, which are 30 to 40 feet high. The aquamarine water is crystal clear and the surf is normally low, making for excellent swimming. Perhaps the best news of all is the peace and quiet that can be enjoyed on this secluded, 2,500-acre beach park. While many people bring their campers, I like the cottages that are available for very reasonable prices (there is a limited number within the park boundaries). You can scoop your own scallops on the bayside during the season (July through August). This is one of the few places on the Gulf Coast where the public can harvest these plentiful tasty shellfish.

St. Andrews State Recreational Area is a beach area that can only be described in superlatives - clear emerald to turquoise waters, pearly white sand, and a beautifully sculpted landscape close to the amenities of Panama City, Florida. St. Andrews was the National Winner in 1995; it was selected just before Hurricane Opal devastated the developed coast. The storm waves cut back the big sand dunes and broke up the fishing piers at St. Andrews. Hurricanes are a part of the heritage, and natural beaches like St. Andrews will recover with no permanent or long-lasting damage. It will take a few more years before the dunes completely recover their size, but the beautiful beach was back the following year and the park was operational for summer vacationers.

Fishing from the inlet jetty is super as the tidal currents carry mackerel, flounder, redfish, and other game fish past your lure. Across the inlet is Shell Island with seven miles of undisturbed beach, also part of St. Andrews State Recreational Area. A real treat is to take a day trip on the pedestrian ferry to this completely desolate island. Shell Island is a good place to pick up seashells as the name implies, but it also has some of the best birding on the Florida panhandle coast.

Panama City Beach is the first Gulf Coast beach I ever visited. I immediately noticed the blinding white sand and was glad that I had brought my sunglasses. As a child I was always so excited to see the ocean water that I would run straight in, letting the depth of water knock me down for a refreshing dip. Along the Carolina coast, I would hit the swimming-depth water fairly quickly, but at Panama City Beach I just seemed to keep running and running and still the water was shallow. Because there were no waves, I thought that my parents had tricked me and we had actually gone to White Lake again (a large, freshwater lake in eastern North Carolina). This was my first lesson in understanding the relationship between sand size, wave energy, and beach slope. Fine sand beaches are generally gently sloping like Panama City Beach. Later trips to California during my college years allowed me to explore a classic high-energy beach at Half Moon Bay, where the relationship between these three variables was first quantified.

Panama City Beach was once considered the capital of the "Redneck Riviera," but this label has faded fast in recent years; this area is now visitor friendly and the cuisine good to excellent. At one time you could only get your seafood deep-fat fried, but now Panama City Beach has its own culinary school nearby and local restaurants are winning awards. While most of the folks from Georgia and Alabama arrive during the summer, I prefer the bumper seasons. Fall is the best time of year when the water is still warm, the air is refreshingly cooler, and the crowds are a distant memory. Springtime is also delightful, but watch out for the spring breakers in March and early April.

Panama City Beach is the number one spring break beach in the country, attracting more than 300,000 people per year. The frenzied crowds are a great boost to the local economy during the fringe season. The city encourages the noisy hordes to come and even publishes a little booklet listing all the activities. In short, the booklet tells you how to have the most fun possible without going to jail. I happened to be passing through one year during this annual rite of passage and witnessed MTV stars performing on the beach to the partying and dancing young crowd. The police keep a watchful eye on the happenings at a respectful distance. Hoteliers and merchants in Fort Lauderdale miss the extra revenue during this low season, but most are glad that the crowds now go elsewhere.

There are plenty of inexpensive hotels and motels in Panama City Beach as well as activities for children. Amusements and attractions abound, particularly at the area called Miracle Strip with over 60 rides, 13 gaming arcades, and live entertainment. The Shipwreck Island Waterpark is a big attraction with a whitewater tube ride that can shoot you downstream at a heart-throbbing rate of 35 miles per hour. There is an abundance of excellent golf courses, and a multitude of beach activities, including volleyball, skim boarding, swimming, and parasailing. There are hundreds of natural and artificial reefs offshore in the crystal clear water; Panama City Beach ranks with Key Largo in affording some of the best diving in the country. All of these myriad activities makes Panama City Beach the Best Sports Beach in the Gulf.

A word of caution: Panama City Beach is not staffed by USLA lifeguards, but wave action is generally small and currents nonexistent. Coastal storms, however, can quickly kick up the surf, creating strong rip currents through the breaks in the nearshore bar system. There have been some drownings in recent years of people who ignored the red flag warnings, which is now against the law and can land you in jail. People have to remember that the ocean is not a swimming pool, and any beach can be dangerous on a particular day. The experienced surfing crowd loves the big waves and uses the rips to take a free ride offshore. Good surfing conditions mean poor to dangerous swimming.

Grayton Beach State Recreational Area is located smack in the center of the Florida panhandle, and all descriptors of this area are given in superlatives. The sugar-white sand is pure as the driven snow, the emerald green water is perfectly clean and clear and beach development has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape. At the same time, all the amenities of great restaurants and pleasing accommodations are close by in the old town of Grayton Beach or Seaside. Beautiful tidal lakes and freshwater ponds punctuate the natural landscape and yield ample fish to the dedicated angler. If all of this isn't enough, thousands of orange-colored monarch butterflies pass through the area in the fall during their southward migration to Mexico. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area was the National Winner in 1994.

The water at Grayton and all along the Emerald Coast of the Florida panhandle is some of the most beautiful in the world. Some people mistakenly believe that the water color is due to a concentration of blue-green algae, but nothing could be further from the truth. The color is partly due to the very purity and hence crystal clarity of the water that allows such incredible visibility and light penetration. The other factors include the shallowness of the water and the very high reflectivity of the sun off the ivory white sand. Instead of the crystal-clear blue color of the deeper waters, the nearshore waters are characterized by the emerald-green color, making the water sparkle like a gem. I believe that this type water, which is also found at some Hawaiian beaches, especially Lanikai on Oahu, is the most beautiful.

The nearby Seaside resort is one of my favorite areas to visit. While Grayton Beach dates back to the 1920s, Seaside emerged in the early 1980s as an overnight success story, built to strict specifications and state-mandated setbacks by resident developer Robert Davis. The houses are characterized by Victorian-style pastel architecture and are surrounded by white picket fences. Wooden walkovers, crowned by fashionable gazebos at the dune crest, are indicative of the good taste and practicality of this planned development. The houses are positioned close together to encourage socialization and to permit room for a New England type commons where classical concerts are performed. While many of the developed beaches along the Florida panhandle experienced considerable damage during Hurricane Opal in 1995, Seaside was spared this destruction because of the top-level construction and placement of the houses behind and not interfering with the protective sand dune. Newscasters called it the "miracle of Seaside."

Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 150-mile-long, discontinuous string of undeveloped barrier islands that begins at Santa Rosa Island, Florida and extends into Mississippi. The Santa Rosa Island portion is seven miles of desolate shoreline, which is good for surfing when storms stir the Gulf. Pensacola Beach, where the amenities can be found, separates this portion of the National Seashore from Fort Pickens National Park at the western end of Santa Rosa Island. Fort Pickens, strategically located at the entrance to Pensacola Bay, is best known for the incarceration of the most famous Apache chieftain - Geronimo. All the beaches along this barrier island have the same great sugar-white sand and turquoise water as found throughout the panhandle. Your preference depends on the type of amenities and degree of nature that you seek. The most interesting landscape is to be found at Fort Pickens with its large dunes and wide variety of coastal vegetation. The fort itself is intact, and I enjoyed walking around the perimeter wall as a vantage point to scout the area.

The Pensacola Bay area was first settled by the Spanish in 1559, just a few years before its twin sister of St. Augustine on Florida's Atlantic coast. The old town area of Pensacola on the mainland is definitely worth a visit by history buffs, but first you must pass through Gulf Breeze, an island community in the bay. Gulf Breeze has assumed an interesting place in American history as the UFO capital of the world. There have been more alleged sightings here than any other place on earth. Locals tell vivid stories of seeing flying saucers; others will even relate their tale of abduction and fortunate release after a harrowing ride in a spacecraft. Gulf Breeze is the UFO-spotting headquarters because of the nearby presence of Elgin Air Force Base and Pensacola Naval Air Station. Both of these defense installations are involved in top-secret research, including experiments with the famed Star Wars anti-missile technology. No wonder people have seen some pretty strange things in the sky. Boaters have even been warned in the past about a mini-psuedotsunami occurrence. You might want to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola NAS and try out the do-it-yourself flight simulator. In July there is a terrific air show by the world-famous Blue Angels, who are stationed at the Naval Air Station.

Perdido Key is the last island in the long chain of barriers that line the Florida panhandle coast, providing some of the best swimming beaches in the country. Florida shares the island with Alabama, where the developed area is called Orange Beach. Fortunately, big hunks of the island have been saved from development at Perdido Key State Recreational Area and Gulf Islands National Seashore. One of my favorite areas to visit is the Flora-Bama Lounge, located right on the state line. This is the best beach bar in the Gulf with its myriad activities both inside and out. Jimmy Buffet has been here as have many other big names. The seafood is good and cheap, and the booze couldn't flow faster from a fire hose. While I was sitting on the deck, three people skydived down beside me, and the bartender had their favorite beer waiting for them. Now that's service! Another interesting and rather unusual activity is the annual mullet tossing competition; locals talk about how much fun it is to see how far you can throw a dead fish.


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