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Ode to the Summer

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It’s not too late for beach hopping!

beachWhile most of our nation is thinking about sweaters and football, I prefer to stretch the summer mindset for as long as the sun will keep my tanned limbs warm. Fall is a great time to beach hop, and for us New Orleanians, beautiful beaches are a quick Friday after-work drive away. While the days are often still warm and humid, evenings can cool into the seventies, and with school in full swing, the beaches and restaurants turn from family hour into happy hour! I was lucky enough to have several groups of friends heading to different beaches within a small time frame, which gave me the opportunity to hit the farthest beach and hop my way back, visiting friends and discovering fun-filled locations.

Seaside, Florida

Seaside was created about 30 years ago, when developers came up with a plan to sell high-end real estate with a scenic vista. While it resembles a sleepy town in New England more than old Florida, it is certainly a lovely and safe environment. The designer label crowd seems to love it, as I saw more alligators on sweaters at this beach than I have ever seen alive in Florida! Nonetheless, the area does boast some happening bars and fine restaurants (one ironically Cajun cuisine). The condos rentals are individual units rather than high-rises and present a more appealing postcard; they are all the rage for those loving cookie-cutter cleanliness and chic Pottery Barn decor. Our condo even came equipped with a karaoke machine! The beach here is breathtaking and uncrowded. The sand is white. The water is teal. Fewer people have access to it than the hotel beaches, so it will always be less crowded. A random professional photographer having to shoo you out of the way to take an annual family portrait may be the only person to disturb you. It took us four and a half hours door to door to arrive at Seaside, so the ride’s not bad at all. It’s romantic and ideal for a lovely retreat for just the two of you. We headed back toward home and to our next destination, less than an hour away.

Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Fort Walton Beach is that narrow strip of land on our side of Destin, with virtually the same atmosphere as Destin. If you are enamored of built-up strip malls of chain stores and restaurants and condos, this is your beach. It boasts plenty to do for teenagers. But don’t stay away just because you don’t like that kind of shore overrun. When your toes touch the fine-grain sand, you’ll soon forget about the boom box blasting rap right beside you. The water is that perfect! The sand is so white that the dunes look more like piles of snow than sand. The water is basin smooth, warm and clear, defining the term “Emerald Coast.” The sandbar sits about 10 feet from the shoreline, making it a perfect lounging area, far from the bustling traffic on the other side of the row of condos. But don’t sell short the other side of the condos. There really are some great local restaurants here and good shopping, even if you have to seek them out and ask the locals. If you’re longing for a taste of home, there is a Commander’s Palace here. On the other end of the spectrum, we found a dock-front semi-outdoor grill called Dewey Destin’s. Great fish. No fuss. Not even four hours from New Orleans, Fort Walton Beach is an excellent family and friends location.

Orange Beach, Alabama

Back up the road a bit, again about an hour, we drove through Perdido Key and left Florida for Orange Beach, party land of New Orleanians. We met at least a dozen people from home here over the weekend. Not to be missed, of course, is Florabama, a rugged open-air deck of a huge bar that houses most people in the area from time to time—and their bras on a regular basis. The Wharf area offers shopping and more restaurants, many with great views of the contiguous marina. The beach is on the rougher side; a little seaweed floating by, the water a little green in color and clarity and waves about the right height for good body surfing. The days were windy, and the beaches were not crowded, providing a comfortable atmosphere for chatting and relaxing. The new trend in resort amenities seems to be “lazy rivers.” Many of the new resorts offer them to their guests, as well as beautiful swimming pools with slides, saunas, gyms and playgrounds, not to mention putting greens and tennis courts. This area, which is three-plus hours from New Orleans, is a playground paradise for the active adult, with plenty to keep their small loved ones occupied as well.

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Heading home, we stopped off at one last waterfront town. Still primarily under construction from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bay St. Louis is a tad dusty and a bit empty. Nonetheless, the sand is a golden white hue and when we arrived in the late afternoon, the beach was strewn with peaceful-looking strollers and their happy-go-lucky dogs. Not a swimming beach for my taste; the water is a dark milk-chocolate color lovingly painted by our Mississippi River, and full of sea life. Dolphins frolicked off the shore near the country club, which, although closed, offered a waterfront deck, where we perched, enjoying the picnic we had packed and watching the periodic appearance of fins above the waterline. A local tells me there are several good-quality restaurants open again, but many shops still need to return. The upside is that this quiet, peaceful sandy town is only an hour away from New Orleans.

I grew up in Puerto Rico and have seen some beautiful Caribbean beaches. I wholeheartedly recommend our Emerald Coast as right up there at the top of them all. I can’t wait to go back!

– Myra Van Hoose