The Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida Panhandle beaches affected by the oil spill are as different as Venice, Laguna and Solana beaches are from one another.
In years past, finding a good fit here was easy. And perhaps it will be one day again. But for now, visitors will have to navigate the effects of the spill, which often vary from day to day. Beaches that have been touched by tar balls and oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 men April 20 extend 550 miles, from the Texas coast to the Florida Panhandle.
It's almost impossible to say which beaches will be pristine by the time you are ready to take your vacation here because the situation is so changeable. We can say that Grand Isle, La., has been damaged. We can say that others have been too but have managed to clean up. For now.
When they do come back — and they will, given the resilience of the people — here's some of what will await you.
The fishing village of Grand Isle, La., for instance, draws serious anglers who stay in its camps and unpretentious accommodations. Casino hotels dominate the eastern end of Mississippi's beaches. High-rise condos and pastel houses on stilts, music clubs and a couple of honky-tonks attract families and couples to Gulf Shores, Ala.
A little farther east are Florida's resorts, where water often is varying shades of green. There's Pensacola Beach on skinny Santa Rosa Island; Destin, which has seemingly every conceivable type of lodging, restaurant and activity; Sandestin, with 1,800 houses, hotels and condos and four 18-hole golf courses stretching over 2,400 acres from the Gulf front to Choctawatchee Bay; the original planned beach community of cottages in Seaside, Fla., praised by Britain's Prince Charles and copied the world over; and busy spring break favorite Panama City at the eastern end of the panhandle.
About 90% of the visitors drive here, but the rest fly in from all over the country — yes, even from California, some combining a beach stay with a few days in New Orleans. In winter, Canadians, especially from Ontario, call Southeastern U.S. beaches their own.
As a native New Orleanian and a Florida State University alumna, I feel as though these places are part of my backyard. Most notably, I've seen Destin grow from two motels that fit its self-description as "the luckiest fishing village in the world" to a destination with 14,800 "lodging units" (as travel industry folks call them) that draw 4.5 million annual visitors and economic tourism-related activity of $1 billion.
Here is some of the scene this summer at several beaches close to New Orleans. For updates on the spill, go to http://www.response.restoration.noaa.gov/index.php, and click on "BP oil spill."
Grand Isle, La.
No one comes to Grand Isle by accident. About 50 miles due south of New Orleans, this fishing hamlet with fewer than 1,600 full-time residents is a 2 1/2-hour drive to the end of the road at Barataria Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Only 7 1/2 miles long and a mile wide at its broadest point, Grand Isle is an angler's dream, with 280 species off its shore. There are a few basic motels, rental houses (most houses are built on stilts to protect them from hurricane surges), RV grounds and five restaurants.
Some avid anglers have second homes here (locals call them camps, though some are fancy), and others enjoy the non-commercial beach and birding.
The only inhabited barrier island off Louisiana, Grand Isle is the focus of cameras when residents evacuate during a hurricane warning and during the summer tourist season, especially the annual Tarpon Rodeo the last weekend in July, one of the country's oldest and biggest competitive fishing events. It often draws 20,000 or more visitors who descend on the island to play and angle for the silver game fish, which can weigh up to 200 pounds. The dollars those visitors spend help locals make it through the slow winter season.
But not this year, when Grand Isle is most visible for the oil spill. It has been a center for cleanup, with journalists covering the attempted cappings.
Four days before the rig explosion, I visited Grand Isle. Jean Landry, director of the Nature Conservatory, showed us this birders' paradise, a 500-mile flight from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula for migratory birds in spring and fall. That afternoon, birders were excitedly comparing their sightings in the woods.
The oil hit the island about a month after the explosion, washing onto the beach, drenching birds and turtles. The government closed oyster beds and fishing grounds and swimming in the offshore waters.
Most events have been canceled, though a daylong Grand Isle Alive concert is scheduled for Saturday during what would have been the Tarpon Rodeo. Performers include Three Dog Night, LeAnn Rimes and Little River Band; the aim is to raise $1 million to rebuild fishing and tourism here.
Landry is hoping visitors will return in the fall to walk the nature trails, look for bald eagles in nearby Golden Meadow and Morgan City and see birds on their way south.
"They really are our snowbirds," she said.
(985) 787-2997, http://www.grand-isle.com
Biloxi, 90 minutes east of New Orleans, is at the far end of the 26 miles of Mississippi beaches. New Orleans and its failed levees received most of the attention after Hurricane Katrina, but the Mississippi coast caught the brunt of the storm, which killed 236 and caused about $125 billion in damages.
Near Biloxi, beachfront cottages, shaded by oaks and magnolias, were ripped off their pilings. Rebuilding continues.
There are a few casinos along the Mississippi coast, beginning in Bay St. Louis, less than an hour east of New Orleans, but Biloxi is casino central, with eight casinos and gambling revenue of $833 million in 2009.
The 1,740-room Beau Rivage, which underwent a $550-million renovation after Katrina, is queen of the Mississippi coast.
Next to it is the 318-room Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, originally scheduled to open three days after Hurricane Katrina; it finally opened two years later and made headlines when Bret Michaels had his first post-brain hemorrhage performance on May 28.
On Biloxi's back bay is the 32-story, 1,000-plus-room IP Casino Resort & Spa, where Wanda Sykes, Donna Summer, Billy Idol
and Larry the Cable Guy have upcoming dates.
The sand on the beaches along the Mississippi coast is white, but silt from barrier islands colors the water the shade of coffee with skim milk.
(888) 467-4853, http://www.gulfcoast.org
Three hours east of New Orleans is a manmade beach at the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa in Point Clear. Three orange booms have been in place in case the oil seeps into Mobile Bay, which the hotel and its beach face.
Generations of Southerners consider the Grand Hotel a second home. They return repeatedly to enjoy a beach vacation beside oaks, magnolias and azaleas.
(251) 928-9201, http://www.marriott.com
About 3 1/2 to four hours east of New Orleans, Perdido Key really is an extension of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala. But once you cross the state line, the ambience changes. It's quieter.
Pensacola Beach is 45 minutes to an hour farther east, has fewer than 3,000 full-time residents and is just a quarter-mile wide.
The biggest news in Pensacola Beach is the Margaritaville Beach Hotel, which opened at the end of June. Singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett joined the ownership of the $50-million, 162-room beachfront hotel this spring.
I walked in on opening night, admiring the open spaces overlooking the Gulf, the snazzily informal lobby restaurants where tables were filled and the exterior lap pool.
"It's the best hotel on the beach now," Tommy Grice, a resident and business owner in Pensacola Beach, said on opening night.
Grice has lived here since he was 18 and doesn't want to imagine being elsewhere.
Millions of travelers who vacation on these Southeast beaches feel the same way. Amanda Phillips, a New Orleanian whose family comes to Pensacola Beach in August every year, is one. Ten will make the trek again this year, she said.
"We usually spend our days at the beach and pool, so this year we are going to spend them by the pool," Phillips said. "It's all about being together by the water, chlorinated or salt, and enjoying each other."