MARCH 1, 2023 


Chalk it up to the pandemic or my increasing age, but a requisite element of a good vacation is finding time to flee the madding crowds. If you feel the same, you’re in luck. Along the Gulf Coast, there's numerous ways to get off the beaten path or discover something unique from the mainstream. We’ve compiled a few to get you started. 

Jumping with Dolphins

Look for signs when heading down Lorraine Road in Gulfport or you miss the cutoff to Ocean Adventures Marine Park. Located on the side of Bayou Bernard at 10801 Dolphin Lane, this park run by the non-profit Institute for Marine Mammal Studies features a host of fun animal adventures, from the Rainforest Aviary and an enclosure to feed parakeets, to the dolphin and sea lions show. Visitors may even touch baby stingrays and fish in the large Ray Pool or learn more about marine research and conservation in the Discovery Room. Kids love this place, but adults will enjoy it too.

Coastal Mississippi

Fill Up

If it wasn’t for the tables out front, I may have passed the Ole Biloxi Fillin’ Station. The restaurant and bar remake of an old gas station lies just off the buzz of downtown Biloxi, but within walking distance of casinos and hotels. And it still resembles a filling station. 

Naturally, the restaurant replaced the gas pumps and what’s in store today are fried and boiled fresh seafood dishes, poboys and burgers, oysters on the half shell and local brews on tap. Inside is a cozy bar where locals gather to watch sports and outside patrons enjoy Gulf breezes while imbibing a Biloxi breeze cocktail.

A Pricey Waffle House

There’s an unverified belief that if Waffle House closes in hurricane season, it’s best to get your butt out of town. Waffle Houses are known to stay open in inclement weather, only closing when things turn severe. It’s a philosophy folks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast take seriously, and there are plenty of restaurants to gauge this theory. In fact, Biloxi is known for having some of the busiest Waffle Houses in the country.

It also has one of the most expensive. Located at 618 Beach Blvd., just east of Biloxi’s Main Street, lies a Waffle House that cost $1.7 million to create. The Gulf lies on the other side of U.S. Hwy. 90, so this restaurant had to be elevated six feet above ground level. Surrounding this Waffle House are several ancient live oaks, so forestry care was needed as well.  

Visit this pricey Waffle House and you’ll be treated to the same menu, but feel like you’re in a treehouse with a gorgeous view of the Gulf.

12 Gulf Coast Ways to Get Off The Beaten Path photo

Panama City

A History Lesson

It’s not just about beer at History Class Brewing Company, a brewery and brewpub in the heart of historic downtown Panama City. Entrepreneurs Allan Branch and Tim Whaler took the business a step further, naming their brews after local historic figures. The duo consulted the Bay County Historical Society and pored over library archives to choose several local heroes, some lost to public memory.  

There’s an amber ale named for James Calvin Wilson, the city’s first Black officer. He began his career in 1952 but never received a promotion. The Hero porter honors Air Force pilot Lt. Edwin Gorbet, who saved Jinks Junior High School from catastrophe. His jet had caught fire but Gorbet guided the plane away from the school and lost his life in the process. 

The brewpub routinely hosts beer tastings and special events, but it’s a fun visit any day to peruse the historical artifacts and photos.

12 Gulf Coast Ways to Get Off The Beaten Path photos

Panama City Beach

Animal Behavior

Panama City Beach is home to one of the highest concentrations of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, possibly because of the excellent baitfish in the three back bays, said Capt. Justin Leake, who runs the Panama City Inshore fisher charter service.

“There is a massive baitfish migration in the spring, summer and fall,” Leake said. “And I think that has a lot to do with it. The dolphins don’t have to migrate.”

Leake admits it’s a theory spun by observation for most of his fishing trips include dolphins tagging along, sometimes fighting for the same fish his clients are reeling in. 

Whitetail deer also live throughout the region and many times visitors will see them swimming through the bays. For instance, deer will cross from St. Andrews State Park to Shell Island. Leake believes they are searching for food sources and mates.

“Honestly, I think they swim for fun too,” he said.

12 Gulf Coast Ways to Get Off The Beaten Path

Camp Helen

Lake Powell, at the west end of Panama City Beach and neighboring Rosemary Beach, contains the largest dune lake in Florida — and North America, for that matter. Visitors can kayak or paddleboat on this rare body of water containing a freshwater ecosystem that’s attached to the Gulf. Salt water enters the lake when the lake channel opens which results in a mixture of salt and fresh species inhabiting the same environment. 

There’s more to enjoy at Camp Helen State Park beside the lake, including swimming, hiking and fishing, but don’t miss the prehistoric middens and mounds or the remnants of the cabins that once housed the employees of the Avondale Mills of Alabama.


Get Crabby

There used to be an actual Crab Island off the coast of Destin, but erosion over the years had turned it into a raised sandbar that becomes a shallow sea — about one to four feet deep — at high tide. Today’s Crab Island on the north side of the Destin Bridge has become the perfect place to park your boat when you want to enjoy Destin’s gorgeous emerald green waters. You won’t be alone. It’s quite the party spot, with folks swimming, fishing and picnicking in the Gulf.

If you don’t own a boat, no problem, there are plenty of charter companies to get you on the water. Floating food vendors are sometimes available but they don’t sell alcohol; visitors may bring their own.

Crab Island is always open but the best time to visit is high tide.


Bring Your Tiara

Want to feel like old European royalty, or perhaps something out of a fairy tale? The historic Storybook Castle close to downtown Fairhope offers a one-bedroom suite through Airbnb that’s part of the historic Sheldon Castle, built around World War II by artist Craig Sheldon, the father of current owner Pagan Sheldon Mosher. Mosher operates the property with her husband Dean Mosher, another artist whose works graces the walls of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, among others. The couple live in their own castle nearby.

The Sheldon Castle’s suite includes a vaulted ceiling with exposed beams, bay window, a king-sized sleigh bed and amenities such as a kitchenette and outside grill. Guests may enjoy the grounds and pet the cats who live there year-round or listen to the owls in the protected park land next door.

12 Gulf Coast Ways to Get Off The Beaten Path

Orange Beach

No, You’re Not Stealing

So many times, beach visitors must haul a variety of toys to the water’s edge to placate children hoping to build sandcastles. Not the most fun when you’re also carrying towels, coolers and diaper bags. Toys often get lost, too, which contributes to beach litter.

Orange Beach came up with a handy solution, one that encourages keeping the beach clean while educating beach-goers about the importance of sustainability, wildlife education and recycling. Similar to the Little Free Library, the town’s new turtle toy boxes at public beach access points allow visitors to take a toy and maybe leave one too.


Throw Me Something

Lambert’s Café is not for those who want to avoid crowds, but it’s a unique place to eat. The family owned and family focused restaurant serves hearty meals in a down-home environment where perusing the walls covered in photos and artifacts is as much fun as the meal. 

What makes Lambert’s stand out, however, is the wait staff flinging dough at the customers. Rolls, that is. It all began when second-generation owner Norman Lambert couldn’t reach some customers so he threw them the restaurant’s popular rolls. Today Lambert’s is nicknamed the home of “Throwed Rolls.”

It may sound crazy, but kids eat this up — figuratively and literally.


Take a Hike

Visitors sometimes forget the history behind Florida’s sparking blue waters and quartz sand beaches. One way to solve that problem is to hike along the many trails in and around Pensacola, an area dating back to both indigenous inhabitants and Spanish explorers.

The Florida National Scenic Trail outside the main section of Fort Pickens, for instance, follows salt marshes teaming with wildlife while the Colonial Archaeological Trail downtown examines the 18th century colonization of Pensacola. Follow the signs that discuss why many nationalities were lured to the area on the Pensacola Maritime Trail along Pensacola Bay.


12 Gulf Coast Ways to Get Off The Beaten Path

South Walton

Sweet Deal

There are five craft, mom-and-pop, donut shops between Miramar Beach and Alys Beach, all of which serve unique creations to satisfy even the most discerning sweet tooth. Try the coffee maple bacon donuts (and other delightful breakfast dishes) at 2 Birds Coffee + Café in Miramar or the red velvet at the Donut Hole in Rosemary Beach. In Santa Rosa Beach, choose from the large selection at Dough Sea Dough Donuts, an Oreo donut and a milkshake at Blue Mountain Beach Creamery Shake Shop. In Alys Beach, 1920s-style donuts are served from a Sunbeam bread truck at Charlie’s Donut Truck.