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Back from the Redneck Riviera

Schools have opened across Arkansas, and the flood of Arkansans who make the annual summer trek to the Redneck Riviera has slowed to a trickle.

Oh sure, there are those couples without children (or with grown children) who will go now that things are a bit quieter down on the coast.

But summer is when the big migration occurs. After several years away, our family of four made the trip a few weeks ago. By the size of the crowds, it appeared that Gulf Coast tourism is back following the disaster to bottom lines caused last year by the BP oil spill.

Not wanting to take chances on soiled beaches or unpleasant smells, we were among those last summer who canceled reservations. We had been set to go to Orange Beach in Alabama. We went to Eureka Springs instead.

Two years ago, I was starting a new job. We had no family vacation.

So this was our first family trip to the coast since 2008, the year we had our longest coastal visit. We had begun that vacation by staying a couple of nights at the Treasure Bay in Biloxi. We then spent a week in a house at Gulf Shores, drove east to Destin for three nights and then finished the trip with a Delta Regional Authority planning retreat at the venerable Grand Hotel on the shore of Mobile Bay.

It was a memorable trip that allowed us to visit a number of our favorite places along the coast.

This summer, I was determined not to let anything get in the way of a return trip. We would share a house with my sister, her husband and their daughter at Seagrove Beach in Walton County, Fla.

Our Friday departure was delayed by a morning meeting I had to attend in Conway. Our usual “to the coast” plan is to leave around 10 a.m. and have lunch at the Pickens Store in the old commissary building at the R.A. Pickens & Son plantation just south of Dumas. There’s not a better plate lunch in southeast Arkansas.

Since we didn’t depart Little Rock until almost 1 p.m., I feared it would be too late for lunch once we reached Pickens. So we had lunch at another favorite spot, Bobby Garner’s Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff.

Due to the late start, we made it only as far as Hattiesburg, staying at a relatively new Holiday Inn at the point where U.S. Highway 49 intersects Interstate 59. There were Arkansas license plates spotted in the parking lot, a sure sign that the Redneck Riviera migration was taking place in full force.

Rather than taking the direct route to Florida along U.S. Highway 98, we headed south on 49 for lunch at Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi. I’ve written before on this blog that my summer trips to the beach as a child were always to Gulfport or Biloxi.

You see, my father traveled the state for a living. He didn’t want to travel more than he had to. When I would beg to go to the beach, we would go to the closest beach in Mississippi. I didn’t even realize that the emerald water and sugar-white beaches existed a couple of hours to the east.

That said, I’ve always loved the Mississippi coast — its old homes, its live oak trees, its charming towns such as Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis.

I still mourn the fact that Hurricane Katrina six years ago blew so many of those homes away. During the first few years Melissa and I were married, we would head to the Misssissippi coast to stay in one of the cottages at the Broadwater Beach Hotel (still an empty property since being destroyed by Katrina, though it had long since seen its better days by the time the storm hit) and eat seafood at McElroy’s (which also never returned to its Biloxi location after the storm).

On my childhood trips to the Mississippi coast, Mary Mahoney’s was the “special night out” place for dinner.

We’ve continued that tradition with our own children. Since a summer schedule that was far too busy didn’t allow for any nights in Biloxi before or after our week in Florida, a Saturday lunch at Mary Mahoney’s would have to suffice.

Rest assured that the food at lunch is just as good as dinner always is. In fact, our boys thought it was the best meal of the trip. As always, Bobby Mahoney was there to make sure everything was running properly And I had my fill of the stuffed flounder.

Here’s wishing the Mississippi coast continued success in its recovery from Katrina.

What about the food over on in Florida’s Walton County?

The first night found us on the side porch of George’s in Alys Beach, a pleasant way to start our Florida visit.

After buying groceries at WaterColor’s large Publix store, there was a lot of cooking at the house.

There were also some trips out, though.

I love going to get coffee and newspapers each morning — one morning it was the Modica Market at Seaside (with a New York Times purchased next door at Sundog Books). There was a morning trip to the Fonville Press at Alys Beach (which has decent coffee drinks but unfortunately appears to have done away with the books and newspapers).

On other mornings we visited Amavida Coffee in Rosemary Beach and Flip Flops in Seagrove Beach for beignets.

We bought seafood for the house from the Goatfeathers market in Seagrove Beach and liked it so much that we drove over to Santa Rosa Beach one day for a seafood lunch at Goatfeathers Restaurant.

It was decided that we would spend at least one day viewing the crowds and the traffic jams at Panama City Beach (we called it our “tacky day,” and it included 36 holes of miniature golf).

A trip to Panama City Beach calls for dinner at the famed Capt. Anderson’s (which says it serves more seafood than any restaurant in Florida), but I suggest you get there by 4:30 p.m. if you’re impatient like me and don’t like to wait.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that my favorite freshwater fish to eat is crappie (smallmouth bass, on the other hand, is the species I most like to catch). My favorite saltwater fish is pompano, and the grilled pompano at Capt. Anderson’s was superb.

The “special night out” we always try to have was spent this year eating dinner at the Caliza Pool at Alys Beach. It was an early birthday gift for Melissa. The prices were high, but the atmosphere was incredible and the food was worth the cost.

When designing Alys Beach, architects Erik Vogt and Marieanne Khoury-Vogt wanted to make the pool the development’s centerpiece.

Here’s how the Alys Beach website describes it: “Caliza Pool was conceived as a communal space in the timeless tradition of the Greek agora or the Roman piazza and is actually a complex comprising a 50-by-100-foot main pool, a separate family pool, a 75-foot lap pool and a spa whirlpool. Throughout, exquisite architecture is punctuated with arched colonnades, private cabanas, fountains, lush landscaping and views of the Gulf of Mexico from an elevated terrace.

“Caliza means ‘limestone’ in Spanish, and the main pool terrace is completely paved in Dominican limestone. This main pool is a 100-foot-long ellipse and is one of the largest saltwater pools in the world. … The dining loggia is centered on an open-air bar decorated with mosaic and Cuban tiles. On each side of the bar are dining areas with tables shaded by a gallery roof and seating niches built within a thickened wall that is punctuated by wood-screened openings.”

Dinner overlooking the pool is served each Monday through Saturday beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Needing one last seafood fix on the way home, we had lunch at Felix’s Fish Camp, which overlooks Mobile Bay just off Interstate 10.

An Arkansas tradition for those on their pilgrimage to the Redneck Riviera is to honk in the Mobile tunnel on the way to the coast.

We did.

Sad that the vacation has ended so quickly, it’s traditional not to honk on the way home.

We also followed that tradition, silently driving through the tunnel — another vacation done, new memories made.

Please share your favorite spots along the Redneck Riviera with us.

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