It is still culturally distinct although now alternately called the “Redneck Riviera,” (in Mississippi), the “Emerald Coast,” (by the local Chamber of Commerce), or, in a tip of the hat to the local accents, just plain “south Alabama.” The stretch from Orange Beach, Alabama, to Pensacola, Florida, is just fabulous as a stop-off if you are traversing I-10 to or from New Orleans. You can drop down from I-10 to the Gulf Beach Highway via the Baldwin Beach Express exit, drive east into Florida, and camp at Big Lagoon State Park. Hang out on a thin barrier beach between the intra-costal waterway and the Gulf – Perdido Key. There’s a terrific and underused RV park for day use there, Perdido Key State Park (links below).
My personal recommendation is an old-style honky-tonk on the Florida/Alabama line called the Flora-Bama. It’s the sort of place with a worship service at 10 a.m. on Sunday and a bikini contest at 3 p.m. Much live music, much local color – if a Jimmy Buffet album cover sprang to life this is the shape it would take. The Flora-Bama has survived not only hurricanes but also development (something arguably worse for a place like this) and retains a marvelous and authentic dive-y charm.
For breakfast you can’t beat Trigger’s, a hyper-local place where you’ll find charter captains and their crews getting ready for a day on the water.
Further down the beach highway in Pensacola you can visit the Naval Aviation Museum (Naval Air Station Pensacola is also home to the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team) and stock up on Gulf seafood at Joe Patti’s. The Patti family has run this wholesale seafood mart since the ‘30s and it is very much a part of the panhandle culture. If you are coming toward the panhandle from far enough west you can start actually your seafood pilgrimage earlier back in Kenner, Louisiana, at Fisherman’s Cove. Joe Patti’s is not an eat-in place so you’ll have to take that Grouper or Pompano filet with you. At Fisherman’s Cove, though, you can eat a phenomenal meal and take fresh shrimp, oysters, or fish on the road or have it shipped home (or as a gift to those not lucky enough to be with you) as you travel.
Fisherman’s Cove seafood http://www.fishermanscoveseafood.com
Flora-Bama honky-tonk http://www.florabama.com
Trigger’s Seafood: http://www.triggersseafoodrestaurant.com/
Joe Patti’s Seafood http://www.joepattis.com/Joe-Pattis-Seafood-Company-History.cfm
Naval Aviation Museum http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/
Big Lagoon State Park: https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Big-Lagoon
Perdido Key State Park: https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Perdido-Key