Weekend Getaway

Cruising the Gulf Coast - From Orange Beach to Pensacola and Beyond

Gulf Coast
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October 2016
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By
Annette
Thompson

When the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway canal from Mobile Bay opens into Wolf Bay in Orange Beach, Alabama, it begins crisscrossing a series of estuaries tucked behind the finest white-sand beaches in the world. This stretch of beach between here and Panama City, Florida, boasts sugar-soft sands that once were the tops of the Appalachian Mountains. Now they welcome the warm waters of the Gulf Coast.Start your journey in Orange Beach, where so many excellent restaurants sit on the water that you'll want to stay longer to sample them all. Pull into Orange Beach Marina, which is located on a fully protected harbor and accommodates vessels up to 130 feet. For fine dining, be sure to head upstairs at the marina to Fisher's, or opt for their dock-side dining for something a bit more casual. If you're in the need of service or maintenance during your stay, Saunders Yachtworks is located next to the marina and can help with any fixes. Over at Perdido Pass, boaters tie up at the Cobalt dock to dine on fresh seafood while watching the water traffic travel in and out of the Gulf.For shopping, don't miss Orange Beach's eclectic collection of retailers and boutiques all along the docks. San Roc Cay and The Wharf both offer locally owned clothing, home decor, and specialty shops. Meanwhile, the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach sits on the shore of Wolf Bay in a 1920s-era hotel, and includes an art gallery. There's also an on-site glass-blowing studio and a pottery studio. If you prefer some outdoors activity, glide like a seagull on the Hummingbird Ziplines at Gulf Adventure Center at the Gulf State Park's Lake Shelby. Or opt for some paddle boarding on the lake. It's ideal for beginners without having to deal with surf and tides.When you do head to the east, leave time to dock or pull up on the sand at the state line's Flora-Bama Yacht Club. With your feet in the sand, sip a legendary Bushwacker and enjoy ruby red shrimp, a sweeter deep-water shrimp harvested offshore. Afterwards, wander across the street to experience the legendary roadhouse bar The Flora-Bama, with its three stages of live music.

Day 1: Orange Beach to Pensacola

Distance: 24 nautical miles

Slip behind the rows of marching condos on Perdido Key to motor out into Pensacola Bay to Palafox Pier Yacht Harbor, just footsteps away from downtown Pensacola. Be sure to stroll down Palafox Street's brick sidewalks and breathe in more than 450 years of history. The street is the heartbeat of downtown. Chic shops, galleries and trendy restaurants populate the wroughtironed buildings. Crepe myrtles wave in the gentle sea breezes.Take in a minor league baseball game at the adjacent stadium featuring the home team the Blue Wahoos, a Double A team for the Cincinnati Reds. If they are not in town you may want to see who is performing at the historic Saenger Theatre. Pensacola hosts many traveling concerts as well as its own symphony, opera, and ballet.Hungry? Head over to the Atlas Oyster House or its sister restaurant, The Fish House; they both sit on the bay, and both serve locally caught mahi-mahi, grouper and other Gulf fish. Or maybe you'd prefer to cook your own. Stop at Joe Patti's Seafood Market to pick up the freshest fish in town. When the sun goes down, join the party over at Seville Quarter with its dueling pianos. Afterwards, stop by Old Hickory Whiskey Bar for a late-night nip. In the morning, grab your coffee at the Fosko Coffee Barre.

Day 2: Pensacola to Destin and Sandestin

Distance: 47 nautical miles

Transit back out through the Bay and scoot in between Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Gulf ICW will take you behind pristine Navarre Beach, Santa Rosa Island and Okaloosa Island before popping out into the wide Choctawhatchee Bay. You'll first come to Destin, settled as world's luckiest fishing village. These days it's a beach hub too. Families and fisher folk flock here for incredible beaches, boating and bountiful seafood. If you want to leave your boat docked, a water taxi can move you between destinations.HarborWalk Village, tucked just under the bridge at East Pass and on Destin Harbor, has both a marina as well as a waterfront shopping and dining destination. It's the place to rent a paddle board, kayak or jet ski or to schedule a glass-bottom boat ride. Fireworks light up the night sky on weekends. There's a passel of Gulf-to-table restaurants with Brotula's Seafood House and Steamer especially notable. They will even cook your catch for you.A bit farther east is Baytowne Marina, located within the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The marina staff provides concierge service, including arranging golf tee times, restaurant reservations, tram service and golf cart rentals. There are well over two dozen restaurants nearby, including casual dining, dinner cruises and fine dining, where you can enjoy a spectacular breakfast, lunch or dinner.A favorite place to spend a day swimming and snorkeling is Crab Island. Depths around the island range from 2 to 10 feet depending on where you anchor. During the warmer seasons, a restaurant/snack barge sells hamburgers, steamed shrimp, boiled peanuts and ice cream.

pensacola

Day 3: Destin to Panama City Beach

Distance: 56 nautical miles

Move your boat to the east end of Choctawhatchee Bay to enter the narrow canal to West Bay, the Grand Lagoon and North Bay at Panama City. Those feed into St. Andrews Bay just past Panama City Beach, where you can tuck into Bay Point Marina at the Lower Grand Lagoon near the Pass. You'll find a lovely resort setting with a challenging Jack Nicklaus- designed golf course and a full spa at Bay Point.The nearby Capt. Anderson's Marina, also on the same lagoon, offers one of the most popular seafood restaurants in town, alongside a full fishing fleet, dive boats and cruises to Shell Island another fun spit of sand amid the emerald waters of the Gulf that's good for an hour or a full day's fun.Across St. Andrews Bay at the City Marina you can walk to many shops and restaurants in downtown Panama City. Don't miss Ferrucci Ristorante for Italian seafood dishes or Millie's Café for po'boys and beignets. Those with a taste for impeccably curated antiques will love Main Street. Afterwards, try your hand at Corner Pocket, a smoke-free pool hall that also has the city's largest selection of craft brews on tap.The charming small town of St. Andrews sits on the same bay with a host of eateries, watering holes and galleries all within two blocks of the docks. Chef Ernie Hall dishes up Latin Caribbean fare on his boat Just the Cook.On your final morning, head over to Andy's Flour-Power Café Bakery for the finest breakfast in town. Most tourists haven't found it yet, so you'll be able to score a table and sip your way into another beautiful day on the Gulf ICW.

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Wickford Cove to Block Island, RI
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Our nation's smallest state has big boating opportunities. Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay is prime for cruising picturesque and protected with many beautiful harbors. While not on everyone's chart plan, Wickford is an historic hamlet with delightfully walkable shady streets lined with beautiful colonial homes. From quiet Wickford, you're set for a straightforward passage out to The Bay, then poised to cross the broad blue expanse of Rhode Island Sound to the fun, boat- and bike-friendly Block Island. This Narragansett tour will have you feeling like a bold explorer while landing at easy modern marinas.

Day 1: Wickford Cove

Wickford Cove is the smallest town in the smallest county of littlest Rhode Island. That's not to minimize its quaint downtown full of waterfront gardens, charming architecture and tremendous yachting heritage. Stroll Wickford's self-guided marker tour of historic seaside homes, then pop into some darling boutiques around the harbor like Serendipity and Pink Parasol.Conclude your walk at Wickford on the Waterfront with a salty cocktail, local oysters or stuffed clams (stuffies in Rhode Island lingo). Tate's Italian Kitchen serves hearty classics across the village's main Brown Street. Moorings can be reserved at Wickford Yacht Club or go to Safe Harbor Wickford Cove for a full-service marina with dock space.

Day 2: Block Island

Wickford to Block Island 29 NMCruising down the western shores of Narragansett Bay under the Jamestown Bridge, passing magnificent mansions then Point Judith Light, you are soon on your way across the open expanse of Rhode Island Sound to Block Island. The farthest island from land on the entire Eastern seaboard, Block Island is even more remote than Monhegan in Maine (10 miles out by comparison).

Block Island - weekend warrior - marinalife
Block Island, RI | Greg Burke

Block Island has a vacation vibe, and everything is relaxed, truly on island-time with their moniker of Bermuda of the North. The 1,500 happy humble Block Island residents claim they've been social distancing since 1661, so they've got humor to carry them through the long off-season. Block's pear-shaped 7 x 3-mile island is cool, casual and fun to explore for a few days, yet not so stuffy-chic or celebrity-crushed as Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.Getting around by bike or moped is the best way to explore Block's entire 16 miles of perimeter roads. Along the undulating country lanes, you may feel transported to Ireland with the lush rolling fields, stone walls, dramatic Mohegan Bluffs and the contrasting blue sea. Passing dozens of unique beaches, you may plan to return later. Highlight sights are Block Island's two impressive lighthouses – North and South East – with the busier main village of Old Harbor in between.Block Island has two boating harbors: the more protected New Harbor in Great Salt Pond, which is preferred by pleasure boaters, and Old Harbor with its primary ferry landing and bustling downtown of shops and grand seaside hotels. Staying at Great Salt Pond overlooking your mooring or dock slip, you should enjoy sunsets, pub fare and a boaters' block party atmosphere at The Oar or Dead Eye Dick's (opens in May). While in the Old Harbor after browsing boutiques, find a perfect chair and cocktail at either grand seaside hotel: Spring House or Atlantic House.For a delicious local dinner, Kimberly's serves littlenecks or calamari followed by lobster mac n' cheese as a beautiful ending to a day of exploring. Live music may be piping out from next door Poor People's Pub to lure you over for a nightcap.Block Island's public moorings in New Harbor are assigned daily by the Harbormaster. Private slips can be reserved at Champlin's Marina, the Boat Basin and Oar House. They book up quickly in prime summer season, which results in boats rafting-up with strangers (friends you haven't yet met!).

Day 3: Newport

Block Island to Newport 25 NMDeparting Block Island, perhaps after fresh coffee and pastries delivered to your boat by enterprising locals, you will be in the company of power boaters and sailing vessels, plus the occasional charging ferry heading to Newport. It's a direct course northeast to the Sailing Capital of Newport.

Bannisters Wharf - weekened warrior - marinalife
Bannisters Wharf, Newport | Greg Burke

No boater worth his Sperry's can miss out on the yachty harbor of Newport, established in 1639. As a visiting boater, contact the Harbormaster or Newport Yachting Center for an affordable mooring or a much pricier dock space in this prime harbor. Water taxis ply the harbor frequently to take you to the town docks.Newport is full of magnificent vessels, lively waterfront pubs lining Bowens and Bannisters Wharfs, and scads of inviting seaside shops on cobblestone streets. Getting off your boat, stretch your sea legs with a scenic 3.5-mile cliff walk by the Gilded Age mansions of our fine affluent families (Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Dupont, Astor and Morgan). Before sunset, head for Newport rooftop drinks overlooking the harbor at The Vanderbilt or the Hotel Viking to toast your good fortunate in this big little state.

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The Florida Keys
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MAGICAL ASPECTS OF FLORIDA lie beyond the gates of Disney's Magic Kingdom. In fact, a wealth of nature's enchantment unfolds in the 110 miles stretching from Key Largo to Key West, and an abundance of fascinating creatures thrive on the 1,700 islands of the coral cay archipelago.The beginning of the island chain, Key Largo, made famous by the movie starring Bogart and Bacall, is known as the Dive Capital of the World. Wreck divers head for the sunken 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove, while reef lovers choose John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. Molasses Reef in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has shallow sections perfect for snorkeling. For a unique day excursion or an overnight stay, dive 20 feet below to the only entrance of the Jules Verne Undersea Lodge at Emerald Lagoon.The world-class and private Ocean Reef Club marina on the northernmost tip of the island has slips to accommodate vessels up to 175 feet.

Day 1: IslamoradaKey Largo to Islamorada 15 NM

It's a short leg from the diving hub to the Sport Fishing Capital of the World, which boasts the largest charter fishing fleet per square mile on Earth. At dawn, captains head out on deep-sea excursions or idle through mangrove islands and shallow seagrass flats of the backcountry. The silver flashes in the sunlight at Robbie's Marina dock are enormous tarpon, 50 to 100 feet long, doing daily water acrobatics for snacks thrown by visitors into the clear, shallow water.

Islamorada - weekend warrior - marinalife
Islamorada | romrodinka on Canvas

The Keys have a motley past: shipwrecks, pirates, buried treasure, movie stars and especially luscious Key Lime pie. History reaching back to Native American life is outlined at the Keys History & Discovery Center at the Islander Resort.Downtown Islamorada's patchwork of boutiques and galleries is overflowing with original creations of artists, sculptors and jewelers inspired by life on the islands. The Morada Way Arts & Cultural District is a bustling six-block corridor of shops, restaurants and studio spaces. Thirsty shoppers can duck into the welcoming back garden of Florida Keys Brewing Company. Beside the seasonal beer on tap, they serve a Key Lime cocktail so delectable that it could be counted as dessert.Transient dockage to 100 feet is available at Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina, a premier facility with 15 sprawling acres of white sand beach. Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina, located in the fabulous Founders Park, is ranked among the top marinas in the world and is a designated Clean Marina.

Day 2: Duck KeyIslamorada to Duck Key 21 NM

Tucked into the secluded and intimate isle of Duck Key, Hawks Cay Resort is a 60-acre destination often named the top family resort in the country. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, a $50 million renovation revitalized the entire property. It's the perfect backdrop for Discovery Channel's popular Saltwater Experience, which is filmed on site.Hawk's Cay guests can do everything or do nothing. Interact and swim with dolphins in their natural environment at the Dolphin Connection or rise early for oceanside yoga before wandering to the spa for a Key Lime Mojito scrub followed by a warm body butter wrap with Key Lime essential oils. Come evening, multiple resort dining choices include the new Sixty-One Prime, a Key-style chop house, and the island casual Angler & Ale.Hawks Cay Marina can accommodate boats up to 110 feet with beams to 20 feet in the resort's back basin.

Day 3: Key WestDuck Key to Key West 52 NM

Before adventuring out in the heat to pet the famous six-toed cats at Hemingway House or view the spartan simplicity of the Truman Little White House, grab a Cuban Café con Leche and wander around town absorbing the laid-back, culturally diverse life of island time.Nightly pub crawls guide visitors along Duval Street's legion of barrooms. Much like the revelers doing the Duval Crawl, the Key West chickens strut the streets and crow at all hours. Colorful roosters and mother hens with tiny chicks weave in and out of traffic and through open cafés around town.

ocean reef club - weekend warrior - marinalife
Buccaneer Island, Ocean Reef Club | Ocean Reef Club

Much quieter winged creatures reside in the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a tropical paradise home to hundreds of species of magical butterflies and birds. More of nature's birding and fishing wonders lie just off the western shore. Accessible only by boat, Key West National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 208,308 acres with only 2,019 acres above sea level. Wading birds, pelicans, shorebirds, sea turtles, manatees and dolphins all live within or visit the refuge.There's an eatery on nearly every corner from the quirky Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe to the beautiful Seaside Café at the Southernmost Mansion and Louie's Backyard for fine dining. It's best to experience Key West on a bike or a golf cart so you can catch the quirkiness of the island including the popular drag show at 801 Bourbon Bar and the famous cemetery. And at the end of the day, join the locals for live music at the Green Parrot Bar.Several marinas welcome boaters with a range of pleasant amenities and convenient locations: Conch Harbor Marina in historic Old Town, Stock Island Yacht Club and The Perry Hotel & Marina.

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Enjoy a Southern Maryland Getaway
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Ready to go beyond the places in Maryland that grab the tourists, the headlines, the buzz? Spend a weekend in the quiet southwest corner of the state and explore the earliest beginnings of Maryland from the first colony on St. Clement's Island to the site of its first capital, St. Mary's City. Along with fascinating history, you'll discover friendly folks, serene landscapes and fresh bay-to-table dining.

Day 1: Solomons Island

Just a sliver of land measuring a mile and a half long, and in some spots it's just the width of a single road, yet Solomons is alive with eateries, shops, a tiki bar, marinas, a scenic sculpture garden and a world-class museum.

Drum Point Lighthouse - weekend warrior - marinalife
Drum Point Lighthouse at Calvert Marine Museum | Wikimedia Commons

Local residents seeking to preserve the maritime heritage of the area began the Calvert Marine Museum as a community project in 1970. It has evolved into a research museum, renowned for local history exploration while actively looking toward challenges of the future, especially environmental issues. Maritime history, estuarine biology and paleontology are brought to life through hands-on experiences. More than 500 artifacts include a 28-foot three-log canoe, a tobacco press and boats from Solomons' long-gone shipyards and oyster industry.

On the surrounding grounds, stroll the marsh walk home of great blue heron, osprey, hermit crabs and more. Nearby is the River Otter Habitat where residents Bubbles and Squeak frolic between naps.

A short distance away, the synergy of art and nature on the grounds of Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Art Center encourages creativity and reflection. Along the walking paths, tiny fairy gardens are dwarfed by rotating artworks on loan from the Smithsonian.

If all the walking makes you hungry, an abundance of dining choices is at hand, from the generous seafood starters at Lighthouse Restaurant & Dock Bar and the savory cheesecake appetizer at CD Cafe to Sunday piano brunch at Charles Street Brasserie. The rooms of Lotus Kitchen, formerly a private home, are decorated with original artwork, and the fresh, elegant food is in itself a work of art. It's a favorite breakfast and lunch stop, and according to locals, it serves Key lime pie rivaling those in the Florida Keys.

Several marinas on Back Creek include the resort-style Solomons Harbor Marina close to the town's center, and the larger, 246-slip Spring Cove Marina that offers a courtesy shuttle to restaurants and shops.

Day 2: St. Mary's City

Solomons Island to St. Mary's City 36 NM

"Where's the city?" is a frequent question from arriving tourists who haven't yet realized they are standing on the archaeological site of Maryland's first capital. Tours of replica buildings bring that era back to life. Trails along this historic exhibit on the St. Mary's River wind past a replica of the Dove (one of the ships that carried Catholic settlers), the Godiah Spray Plantation and a fully excavated 17th century building at St. John's Site.

St. Clements Island - weekend warrior - marinalife
St. Clements Island | Susan Elnicki Wade

After a 90-year search, a fort-like formation the size of a football field was recently uncovered. Ground-penetrating radar scans revealed a brick cellar guardhouse and dwellings -- possibly Native American -- within the walls. Native communities in the area can be traced back 10,000 years, and a quartzite arrow dating back 4,500 years was unearthed.

Eating options are limited but tasty. Tiny Enso Kitchen has amazing breakfast sandwiches and lunch salads, but its fame comes from scrumptious bread and pastries. Although it's located in a gas station, St. James Deli & Spirits is known for excellent take-out pizza and subs.

Boats can dock for the day on site, and the closest full-service facility, Dennis Point Marina in Drayden, offers gas and diesel.

Day 3: Coltons Point

St. Mary's City to Coltons Point 26 NM

Off-season, the pace of life in this peaceful little community on the Potomac is lower than the speed limit. That all changes as warm weather tourists arrive at St. Clement's Island Museum to learn about the 1634 arrival of two ships, the Ark and Dove, whose English passengers sought to establish a new colony based on religious tolerance.

Bald eagle in flight - weekend warrior - marinalife
Bald Eagle in Flight | Frank Cone

A half-mile offshore is the 62-acre St. Clement's Island state park and federal nature preserve. A towering white cross marks where the first Catholic mass was held in the new colony. The park includes a hiking trail, beach, picnic pavilion, and fishing and hunting grounds.

In 1967, local preservation groups organized the annual Blessing of the Fleet, a time-honored traditional benediction for the boats and the St. Mary's County watermen. The event also raises awareness about the island's future, currently one-tenth its original size due to rising sea levels.

Visiting boaters can tie up to the piers for the day or take a weekend water shuttle from Coltons Point. Guest piers are on the north and south shores of St. Clement's Island. Overnight slips are available at Coltons Point Marina and Cather Marine just a few miles from the mouth of St. Patrick's Creek.

Before returning to the usual faster pace, mosey up to Morris Point Seafood on Canoe Neck Creek for just-off-the-boat homemade seafood (start with crab dip Florentine) or Sunday brunch featuring Chesapeake eggs and smoked trout platter.

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