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Memphis Flyer Cruising the Redneck Riviera

The Gulf Coast has more than just t-shirt shops, but you'll have to look hard

By James Busbee

SEPTEMBER 8, 1997:  The Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Florida has a well-deserved reputation as the "Redneck Riviera," ground zero for the unholy trinity of ugly architecture, rampant commercialism, and tacky tourists. But look a little closer. Just down the coast from soulless resorts and cheesy souvenir shops are idyllic, delicate islands and pristine bayous. It's not a far drive from Memphis, and now that the blistering heat is behind us, the Gulf Coast makes an excellent destination for a long weekend.

The Gulf Coast is as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Hotels range from the multimillion-dollar casino resorts to the hourly-rate quick stops, often across the street from one another. For my own end-of-summer journey, I decided to go totally low-rent. I threw my dog Jake and a tent into the back of the car and sought out campgrounds along the coast. It's probably not the type of lodging you'd want for a romantic getaway, but if you're looking for cheap travel and a different perspective, it's a fine option.

Former Boy Scouts, take note: We're not talking hike-in, marshmallows-round-the-fire camping here; these campgrounds are the resort equivalent of setting up a tent in your backyard. You'll likely share the campground with RVs humming away at full power, within earshot of beachfront nightclubs and amusement parks. All but the most primitive campgrounds offer amenities like showers, pools, washer/dryers, and small grocery stores. Bookstores and auto clubs have directories of campgrounds in all 50 states. I used AAA's Southeastern Campbook, which quotes prices and gives detailed directions to each site.

The drive from Memphis to the Mississippi Gulf Coast runs around six hours, half interstate (to Jackson) and half two-lane state route. Biloxi and Gulfport are the major Mississippi stops on the long smear of commercial development that extends pretty much from New Orleans to the Everglades.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast has a long history as a resort town, first for rich Delta planters and now for damn near anyone with a few bucks to blow. The influx of multimillion-dollar casinos has only added to the already thriving tourist trade. You can imagine what most of the area looks like -- neon restaurants and souvenir shops huddled up hard and constant against the coastline. But Biloxi also boasts magnificent antebellum homes rich in history, and an array of restaurants with entrees that run deeper than Surf-n-Turf.

One Gulf Coast tip: Stay off the interstate. I-10, which runs along the coast, looks pretty much like I-40, which is to say totally anonymous. Get on U.S. 90, or better yet, the two-lane roads that run along the beach; they're slower, but the local marquee signs alone are worth the lost time. I saw a hardware store which repaired "londmores" (sound it out) and a gas station with the dark little proverb "Three can keep a secret...if two are dead."

U.S. 90 runs through Mobile, Alabama, and into Pensacola, Florida, where U.S. 98 becomes the beachfront road. Outside of Florida's state parks, there's scarcely a square inch of Gulf Coast property that hasn't been guzzled up by some condo development or golf course. The only unprotected area I saw that wasn't plastered with cheap pastel had been blasted down to the sand by Hurricane Opal a few years back -- and reconstruction is well under way.

Pensacola's beaches are sugar-white, its waters are radiant aquamarine, and its historic Seville Square is a pleasant district of restored Spanish-American architecture. Further east is Panama City Beach, awe-inspiring in its tackiness, a wonderland of putt-putt, cheap T-shirts and suspect seafood restaurants. In the evening, bass beats pump from a dozen nightclubs and a hundred cars along the main drag. Destin splits the difference, with exclusive golf resorts amid the commercialism. (Note to pet owners -- dogs aren't welcome guests on Gulf Coast beaches. The local authorities ordered Jake off half a dozen beaches, even leashed.)

To understand what the coast was like before the developers showed up, check out the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a federal preserve encompassing salt marshes, dense forests and windblown beaches from eastern Mississippi to western Florida. At the visitors' center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, you can follow a nature walk along the bayous and among pines and magnolias twisted into crazy shapes by hurricanes. Further east, near Pensacola, the stark beaches, lined with fragile dunes, front centuries-old forts. It's an unforgettable look at the real Gulf Coast. And there's not a T-shirt shop for miles.

For more information on attractions and accommodations, contact the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 237-9493, the Florida Division of Tourism at (904) 487- 1462, or your local travel agent.

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