Being from the north, I admittedly came to the south with preconceptions. And for us northerners, the preconceptions surrounding the Gulf Coast aren’t always good ones.
For people who haven’t visited, it might bring to mind devastating hurricanes like Katrina, environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or overwhelmingly oppressive heat and humidity.
Beyond that, there’s the fact that it’s…well…Southern. This brings up a whole slew of biases — many of which I’ve fallen victim to myself. I can’t help it, I just don’t like sweet tea (bring me a pop instead, eh?).
Of course all of these preconceptions are gross oversimplifications of a beautiful, historically rich region, every bit as diverse as the more familiar cities of the north. As with most places within the U.S. it’s best experienced slowly. A Gulf Coast road trip offers the perfect chance to soak in what the Southernmost states have to offer.
When Tara and I had the opportunity to take a Gulf Coast road trip we had a little less than a week to drive from Orlando, Florida to Houston, Texas. This took us through the panhandle area of Florida, as well as the southernmost regions of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
We had a blast exploring the deep south, learning that there is so much more to it than meets the eye. It is an incredibly underrated region for travel, with so much to do and see that you could easily pass weeks in the area.
Our Top Gulf Coast Destinations
Despite our limited time, we did manage to experience a wonderful sampling of what the region has to offer, though, and are excited to visit it again in the future.
If you’d like to retrace our steps, here’s our itinerary, slightly modified for maximum enjoyment (aka, what we’d do if we could do it over again!).
Day One: Orlando, Florida
We easily could have started further south in Florida, in the Everglades or a city like St. Petersburg, adding to our trip, but Orlando worked out for us, since we were visiting friends there. It’s a great place to go if you like theme parks (and spending small fortunes).
Our favorite was Universal Studios, where Tara and I ran around like fools, pretending to be witches in the Harry Potter area and hiding from dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park region.
Orlando is also great for concerts and shows. Being such a tourist hot spot, there’s never any lack of entertainment. I’ve also been assured that Orlando has much more to offer than theme parks, in the way of hiking and kayaking. We fully intend to check out the less touristy side of Orlando on our next trip.
Day Two: Drive to Tallahassee
There are a ton of potential stopping points along the way, including the aforementioned Three Sisters Springs, a fossil-filled cavern, and even a live mermaid show. Take your time, and don’t be afraid to deviate from the freeway as you explore some of the quirky highway attractions.
Once you get to Tallahassee, bypass the city and head for one of the many state parks. There are caverns, tumbling waterfalls and sinkholes, all offering a unique look at Florida’s geological history.
The trails along the Gulf Coast offer access to one of the most delicate and interesting ecosystems in the United States. Estuaries and marshes bump up against sand dunes, all of which are home to an unbelievable variety of wildlife. There are ample hiking opportunities, with trails that wind through estuaries and lakes – just go before the mosquitoes start biting!
We opted to camp out at the Three Rivers State Park campground, a quiet park with only about twenty campsites. Situated on the banks of a lake, it was both peaceful and beautiful.
We entertained ourselves with a self-guided tour of one of the trails, and sat around the campfire that evening, enjoying the fresh air.
Three Rivers is just one of many state parks that adorn the Gulf Coast, most of which offer full electric sites and even cabins.
Day Three: Drive Highway 30A
The panhandle of Florida hugs the coast, and you can turn to the shores and cruise along the gorgeous Highway 30A, where you can really appreciate the amazing white sand beaches.
There’s a great little Italian shop called Capriccio Cafe, which serves up amazing crepes. Check it out – the owner is from Italy and happy to chat!
The beaches in this area are gorgeous, making it well worth the detour.
From Destin, continue along the coast. There are a variety of places where you can stop for swimming or fishing, or you can take a boat or jetski out. Everything you could want in a beachside paradise is available along this stretch.
End in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where you can relax on the beach and try to spot dolphins playing in the waves.
Day Five: Drive to Biloxi, Mississippi
From Mississippi through Louisiana you’re likely to be bombarded with casino signs. Biloxi, Mississippi is one of several possible stopping points for those who want to add a little gambling to their trip.
Not a casino-dweller myself, I still enjoy the hotels, which are a luxurious deviation from my usual.
On our most recent trip, we had an opportunity to try out the app Hotel Tonight, which afforded us a stay in Harrah’s, a chain casino hotel, at a steep discount.
Day Six: Drive to New Orleans, Louisiana
You can’t talk about the South without bringing up food, and you can’t talk about food without commenting on the culture. For the most unique take on both of these, head on down to New Orleans.
This city may be a bit overwhelming at first, but the architecture, language, and food will draw you in. Lunch in the French Quarter (really, choose any restaurant, and try the gumbo) followed by a stroll along the streets will almost guarantee a few interesting sights, as well as some epic live music.
Day Seven: Plantation Exploration Outside of New Orleans
About an hour outside of New Orleans, you can step into history by journeying up River Road. Stop off at the various plantations and learn about the history that was shaped by the Mississippi River.
We opted for the Oak Alley Plantation, on recommendation from my mom. Not only was it gorgeous, with careful attention paid to restoring the historical details, but it was also the filming location for one of our favorite films: Interview with a Vampire. The plantation does a great job of teaching visitors about the families that called Oak Alley home (and the slaves that kept it running).
Day Eight: Lafayette, Louisiana
Stop off at Breaux Bridge, the crawfish capitol of the world. This small town touts itself as “authentic Cajun”, away from the hustle and bustle of cities like New Orleans. There’s a historical district that you can explore, and you’re likely to run into Zydeco music at any number of restaurants and bars.
Day Nine: Drive to Houston, Texas
This part of the drive is a long haul, so it can be split up by a stop in Lake Charles, Louisiana, or Beaumont, Texas. Once in Houston, though, there’s no end to what you can do. It’s a thriving metropolis with world-class museums, amazing food, and a thriving performing arts scene. Head downtown and check out the historic market square area, or make your way to the Heights, which is full of antique stores and coffee shops.
Days Ten – Twelve: Continue Down the Coast
We stopped in Houston, but you could continue on to Corpus Christi, South Padre Island, and numerous other coastal towns along the Texas coast.
That’s it! If you decide to take your own Gulf Coast road trip, make sure you take the time to make it your own. Tailor the trip to your hobbies, and be sure to try something new along the way.
Have you been to the Gulf Coast? Where are your favorite places to stop?