The Redneck Riviera

With spring break having concluded in our state, I’m wondering how many Arkansans made an early run down to the Redneck Riviera last week.

Of course, summer will be the prime time for Arkansans to make that annual pilgrimage south to the Mississippi coast, the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle.

The spring issue of Southern Cultures, the excellent quarterly published by the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, contains an essay titled “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.” The author is Henry H. “Hardy” Jackson III.

The essay is an overview of a book by Jackson that will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press. The book will focus on the Gulf Coast from Gulf Shores, Ala., to Panama City, Fla., since World War II.

Jackson, a history professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama (the place where Jack Crowe now coaches football), notes: “The Mississippi Coast, though equal in redneckery to any place on the Gulf, contains economic, cultural and demographic elements that set it apart from its neighbors to the east, so it was decided to save that area for another day — and likely another historian. The same factors led to the decision to leave Alabama’s Dauphin Island out of the book.”

In 1954, Jackson’s grandmother bought property in Seagrove Beach, Fla. Two years later, she built a cottage there. Jackson says that cottage has been his home away from home for more than 50 years.

I’ve never had the privilege of having a cottage on the Gulf Coast, but I’ve made plenty of trips there — both as a child and with my own children. Like many children in this landlocked state, my sister and I always wanted to go to the beach for our summer vacation. My father, who traveled the state selling athletic supplies to high schools and colleges, had no desire to travel any farther than he had to in the summer. If one travels due south from Arkansas, the first beach you hit is the one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

For us, Gulfport and Biloxi were what the beach was all about. The water in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to be gray. We had no idea there was such gorgeous blue water just a few hours to the east in Florida. But the memories were great ones. The rich folks stayed at the Broadwater Beach (I always loved the house in the Heights in Little Rock with its shutters and trim painted in the pink-and-blue Broadwater Beach colors) and ate at Mary Mahoney’s. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and ate at the Friendship House, the White Cap and McElroy’s. I mourned when Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much of what I had cherished as a child.

My own children have experienced not only Biloxi and Gulfport but also Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores, Pensacola Beach, Destin, Seaside, Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and Apalachicola (which is now my favorite city on the Gulf Coast, though a bit too far east to meet Jackson’s definition of the Redneck Riviera).

And, yes, we’ll be back this summer. We have our house reserved at Orange Beach in Alabama for a week in late July.

If I could afford it, I might just spend a few weeks each year at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. I realize that’s on Mobile Bay, but who needs waves at my age? Our boys want the ocean, though, and we’re happy to oblige.

Jackson thinks the term Redneck Riviera first appeared in print in 1978 when Alabama native Howell Raines published a piece in The New York Times about how former University of Alabama and then pro quarterbacks Richard Todd and Kenny Stabler spent the offseason on the Alabama coast.

By the way, Richard Todd and his family once lived behind me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood in Arkadelphia. Richard’s father was on the faculty at Ouachita Baptist University. Unfortunately for the Arkadelphia Badgers, the Todds moved away before Richard reached high school

At any rate, Raines confined his definition of Redneck Riviera to a small section of beach beginning just west of Gulf Shores and continuing east to the Flora-Bama, the famed bar on the state line that sits mostly in Florida to take advantage of that state’s more liberal liquor laws.

Jackson reports that you can find “Gulf Coast Riviera” references as early as 1941 when the WPA guide to Alabama was published.

“Raines’ Redneck Riviera was a scattering of vacation cottages, honky-tonks, picturesque if seedy motels, shacks on pilings and cafes that served smoked mullet, presided over by sunburned, bearded, beer-soaked refugees from civilization, driving rusted-out pickup trucks,” Jackson writes.

Jackson says that prior to World War II, there were a number of villages between Pass Christian, Miss., and Panama City that “survived on fishing and a trickle of tourists from not too far away, vacationers who came down to spend a week or so in the few ‘mom and pop’ motor courts. They’d swim a little, fish a little, eat raw oysters, buy something tacky at a local shop, and some, freed from hometown social restraints, would visit local nightclubs, dance and drink and get rowdy.”

The number of visitors to the Gulf Coast increased after World War II. The tourist economy grew and, according to Jackson, the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day soon became a “cash cow for locals.” Before long, upscale communities were developing for those who wanted to retire along the coast.

“As the region grew up, so did the offspring of these early pioneers,” Jackson writes. “Baby Boomers, the children of postwar passion, were part of the youth rebellion, with a Southern twist. Along with the Beatles and the Stones, they grooved to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. In the clubs they danced to the music they danced to at fraternity parties back in Tuscaloosa and Atlanta. Sometimes the bands were black, but the dancers were always white. … These bourgeois Bubbas and Bubbettes created the Redneck Riviera that Howell Raines saw and described.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Redneck Riviera became more and more upscale. The success of Seaside inspired others to build similar developments and, according to Jackson, ”people who bought into that lifestyle were a far cry from those who bought into beach life three decades before. First with money from the hot stock market of the 1990s and then with low interest loans after the dot-com bubble burst, Babby Boomers began to buy into a coast that a Baby Boomer generation of  developers was developing to sell.”

Jackson continues: “So it was that the Redneck Riviera, which had been slowly dying as Baby Boomers aged, became an investment opportunity for some, and a place of calculated and carefully controlled leisure for others. Meanwhile, more and more of the sort of people who had come down to make the region what it once was found themselves priced into a shrinking selection of motels and condos, and the bars and seafood joints they once frequented became in-vogue eateries with designer decor and ferns.”

The destructive hurricanes of recent years, followed by the worst recession since the Great Depression, have changed things. Many of those gleaming condo towers now sit largely empty. The construction boom has ground to a halt. Jackson thinks this may actually help return the Redneck Riviera to its roots.

“As condo prices fell, cautious buyers began to emerge; people who were more interested in a vacation place that could generate a little money on the side than in a unit for quick sale and a quick profit,” he writes. ”These folks, mostly from the Lower South, were much like their parents and grandparents who came to the coast in the ’40s and ’60s: white, middle class, and comfortably so, but with just enough redneckery in them to help keep places like the Flora-Bama going strong.”

I’ve always said I’m an Arkansas redneck at heart with perhaps a thin veneer of sophistication to use when needed.

At any rate, summer will be here before we know it. Jackson says that “though much of the old Redneck Riviera has declined and fallen dormant, from these seeds a new one may one day sprout and grow. There are those who hope so.”

Where are your favorite spots along the Redneck Riviera — towns, hotels, restaurants, etc.? Which ones have disappeared that you miss? Where are your favorite places to stop on the way down? After all, it’s almost April and not too early to be thinking of summer and the pilgrimage of Arkansans headed south in their packed SUVs through Pine Bluff, Dumas, McGehee and Lake Village.

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13 Responses to “The Redneck Riviera”

  1. CBurn says:

    Such fond memories of the way the redneck riviera used to be. I, to this day, have vivid memories of my family traveling in the Oldsmobile Delta 88 all the way to gulf shores. Dad behind the wheel smoking marlboro reds. My sister and I taking turns crawling up in the back window to take naps.
    Now, 25 years later, my wife and I have been the past couple of years. One place that I always want to go, if only to remind me of the bygone era of early 80′s nostalgia, is Desotos Seafood Cafe in Gulf Shores. The decor hasn’t changed since probably 1985 and neither has the menu. Good times!

  2. Kay Brockwell says:

    Gulf Shores. THe Shrimp Basket, grilled grouper covered in crawfish etouffee. The Florabama. Lartigue’s seafood market in Orange Beach, across the road from where I always stay. Can’t wait!

  3. BeachBum says:

    The Flora-Bama isn’t exactly family entertainment, but for a tired, sunburned middle-aged parent, it is heaven. The kids can have the beach, give me a smoky room with Jimmy Buffett music playing in the background and I’m content.

  4. Rocky says:

    Love the Riveria. We make the pilgramage each summer. We usually stay at Gulf Shores Plantation. It seems to be the most family friendly. Me and the Mrs. at one time frequented Flora-Bama but now opt for Lulu’s (I secretly hope to see Buffett there some day). We usually go to the Original Oyster House and Zeke’s but we have our one little fresh seafood place we go to and buy everything to “eat in” most nights. After a long year with my job, there is nothing better than spending a week on the beach with a cold one in my hand and my toes in the sand.

  5. Richard Yager says:

    My wife and I started our trips to the Riveria in 1990. Every year we have gone with a group of friend and avid volleyball players to St. George Island near Apalachicola. If you have never been, go! St George and Apalachicola is a must see. If you want to drop that blood pressure that’s the place to do it.

    We now take two trips a year. With our kids we go to Ft Morgan, once again, a little lower key than the Gulf Shores, Destin, Seaside areas. Then the adult trip to St George.

    If you want seafood in Apalachicola then it’s Ward and son’s seafood on Water Street in town. Buy it off the boats.

    If you want seafood in Ft Morgan it’s either Billy’s Seafood on Bon Secour Bay or the little red trailer that’s always there at the end of Fort Morgan Hwy.

  6. Joyce Hayden says:

    Rex, we did make a spring break run to the Riveria last week. As usual, we stopped in Pearl, MS, on the way down. Then on to our rented house in Fort Morgan. We are 19 miles east of Gulf Shores and make the drive in each night for dinner. We rotate among our three favorite places: The Oyster House, Desoto’s and King Neptune’s. One day is spent at NAS Pensacola watching the Blue Angels practice and visiting the Naval Air Museum. We always plan on taking the Ferry to Dolphin Island but never seem to have time. Our family members drive on back but Bill and I roam the backroads of Alabama, taking our time coming home. It took us three days to get home this time!

    Hate to admit when I first started going to Gulf Shores. It was in the mid 40′s. The Navy had a PT boat stationed at Fort Morgan and they would show movies on the dock at night. There were four of us teen agers (chaperoned by the grandmother of two.) We would go to the movies much to the delight of the sailors.

    We all lived just outside of Birmingham and the grandmother would drive us down to her cabin on the Lagoon. You could look up and down the beach and never see another person, nor a high rise!

  7. Angie says:

    To a child growing up in the early-mid 70s, the Redneck Riviera meant making the annual pilgrimage to Panama City Beach in the family’s ’66 Ford Galaxie 500. We often made the trip with a couple of extras, which meant we sometimes packed in eight people for the six-hour drive from our home! We always stayed in the old Georgian Terrace, next to the Fontainebleau, where we’d bask on the colorful back patios of our ground floor accommodations while gazing longingly toward our neighbors in the high-rise with the blue neon sign and an INDOOR heated pool. It took growing up and having children of my own to appreciate the sacrifices made to bring a family of six to those humble accommodations year after year!

    It was a treat to visit Miracle Strip, even though I only remember one year when we had the money to do more than walk and gawk at the amusement park. It was like a dream came true the year that I was able to purchase the bright orange armband that guaranteed unlimited rides on the Music Express. I still can’t hear “Life in the Fast Lane” or “Try and Love Again” by the Eagles without reliving in my mind the feeling of the wind in my hair and the smell of Panama Jack suntan oil. That was also the year that Jaws came out and I almost kicked my brother’s teeth out when he thought it would be a wise idea to sneak up on me underwater while we were in the ocean to ‘bite’ my leg! Other cherished memories from trips to PCB– the year we made the trip down in our friends’ very hip airbrushed van, spending three hours in traffic every night to get to a restaurant among the teenage cruisers, climbing into the Easter Island statue at the putt putt golf course so our parents could film us in ‘Super 8′ while we hung out of the nostril, and finding BUCKETS of sand dollars that we brought home and bleached (30 years later, I still have some of them!)

    By the way, in my life as a ‘grown up,’ I have the honor of working with Hardy Jackson here at Jacksonville State University. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with him about his adventures in writing his book about the Redneck Riviera, and if you have any ties to this special place, I guarantee you’ll enjoy the book!

  8. Hardy Jackson says:

    I’m the Hardy Jackson writing “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera.” Thank you so much for your commentary and for all the responses. I could do another book just on memories — though a lot of things were told me “off the record” or at least “but please don’t mention my name.”
    This summer I will be pulling together illustrations and if you have any you think might fit into the title and theme, please let me know at hjackson@jsu.edu.

    Thanks again.

    Hardy

    Harvey H. Jackson
    Jacksonville State University

  9. RWF says:

    I recently interviewed a lady moving to Arkansas from Northern Florida. I told her that I have frequented the “Redneck Riviera” since my college days. She seemed to be slightly offended at that title although I consider it an endearing term. None-the-less Navarre Beach is a great place, better before a hurricane flattened it but, still a very relaxed vacation.

  10. rexnelson says:

    Hardy: Thanks so much for the comment. Your article was fascinating. I can’t wait for the book! — Rex

  11. Diane Merkel says:

    UNC just got another subscriber to “Southern Cultures” thanks to this article and its comments.

    I admit that I am one who is “slightly offended” by the term “Redneck Riviera.” I have lived across the bay from Destin for the last 16+ years and love it, but the term reminds me of an embarrassing moment. Before moving here, I worked in the Washington, D.C., area. A lawyer friend announced at a meeting that I was moving to the Redneck Riviera, and all of the displaced New Yorkers in the room laughed as I wanted to slide under the table. I’m sure they were just jealous, but the horror of the moment hasn’t left me. :)

    Professor Jackson, I am under contract with Arcadia Publishing to produce “Images of America: Coastal Walton County” so I will most likely be in touch with some suggestions for images for your book.

    All, I would appreciate photographs of the South Walton area of Florida, especially from its early days. I can be reached at DianeMerkel@cox.net.

    Best wishes to all who love the Redneck Riviera! :)

    Diane Merkel

  12. JMF says:

    There was a little, old, place called the Tiki Hut on Orange Beach close to were we used to stay that was great. It was the kind of place where it seemed like only locals hung out at. Very small but on the beach. You could play the juke box and try your hand at that game were you tried to hang a small ring on a string on a nail. Cold beverages to cool you down while the sun set. They tore it down to put up a Holiday Inn Express. Some things are just a sin.
    I believe I am having a day dream now…

  13. Craig says:

    For about 15 years, my wife and I headed to the New Orleans Jazz Festival for its first weekend. Then, on a foggy Monday morning, we would head over to the Redneck Riveria to dry out for a week before heading back to N.O. for the final weekend of Jazzfest. We would stay at the state park motel on the beach and lay out on the beach while no one was there since it was May and before the schools were out. I would sometimes wander off from my wife to go to the Pink Pony Pub at Gulf Shores to eat shrimp and drink beer while watching the college girls who came down to lie on the beach to catch some rays at the start of summer. Five days later, we would head back to N.O. on I-10 to catch the end of Jazzfest. It was 10 days of pure bliss before heading back to Little Rock.

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