Reporting from beach resorts along the Gulf—The Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and western Florida Panhandle beaches affected by the oil spill are as different as Venice, Laguna and Solana beaches are from one another.
In years past, finding a good fit here was easy. And perhaps it will be one day again. But for now, visitors will have to navigate the effects of the spill, which often vary from day to day. Beaches that have been touched by tar balls and oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion that killed 11 men April 20 extend 550 miles, from the Texas coast to the Florida Panhandle.
When they do come back — and they will, given the resilience of the people — here's some of what will await you.
The fishing village of Grand Isle, La., for instance, draws serious anglers who stay in its camps and unpretentious accommodations. Casino hotels dominate the eastern end of Mississippi's beaches. High-rise condos and pastel houses on stilts, music clubs and a couple of honky-tonks attract families and couples to Gulf Shores, Ala.
A little farther east are Florida's resorts, where water often is varying shades of green. There's Pensacola Beach on skinny Santa Rosa Island; Destin, which has seemingly every conceivable type of lodging, restaurant and activity; Sandestin, with 1,800 houses, hotels and condos and four 18-hole golf courses stretching over 2,400 acres from the Gulf front to Choctawatchee Bay; the original planned beach community of cottages in Seaside, Fla., praised by Britain's Prince Charles and copied the world over; and busy spring break favorite Panama City at the eastern end of the panhandle.
About 90% of the visitors drive here, but the rest fly in from all over the country — yes, even from California, some combining a beach stay with a few days in New Orleans. In winter, Canadians, especially from Ontario, call Southeastern U.S. beaches their own.
As a native New Orleanian and a Florida State University alumna, I feel as though these places are part of my backyard. Most notably, I've seen Destin grow from two motels that fit its self-description as "the luckiest fishing village in the world" to a destination with 14,800 "lodging units" (as travel industry folks call them) that draw 4.5 million annual visitors and economic tourism-related activity of $1 billion.
Here is some of the scene this summer at several beaches close to New Orleans. For updates on the spill, go to http://www.response.restoration.noaa.gov/index.php, and click on "BP oil spill."
Grand Isle, La.
No one comes to Grand Isle by accident. About 50 miles due south of New Orleans, this fishing hamlet with fewer than 1,600 full-time residents is a 2 1/2-hour drive to the end of the road at Barataria Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Only 7 1/2 miles long and a mile wide at its broadest point, Grand Isle is an angler's dream, with 280 species off its shore. There are a few basic motels, rental houses (most houses are built on stilts to protect them from hurricane surges), RV grounds and five restaurants.
Some avid anglers have second homes here (locals call them camps, though some are fancy), and others enjoy the non-commercial beach and birding.
The only inhabited barrier island off Louisiana, Grand Isle is the focus of cameras when residents evacuate during a hurricane warning and during the summer tourist season, especially the annual Tarpon Rodeo the last weekend in July, one of the country's oldest and biggest competitive fishing events. It often draws 20,000 or more visitors who descend on the island to play and angle for the silver game fish, which can weigh up to 200 pounds. The dollars those visitors spend help locals make it through the slow winter season.
But not this year, when Grand Isle is most visible for the oil spill. It has been a center for cleanup, with journalists covering the attempted cappings.
Four days before the rig explosion, I visited Grand Isle. Jean Landry, director of the Nature Conservatory, showed us this birders' paradise, a 500-mile flight from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula for migratory birds in spring and fall. That afternoon, birders were excitedly comparing their sightings in the woods.
The oil hit the island about a month after the explosion, washing onto the beach, drenching birds and turtles. The government closed oyster beds and fishing grounds and swimming in the offshore waters.
Most events have been canceled, though a daylong Grand Isle Alive concert is scheduled for Saturday during what would have been the Tarpon Rodeo. Performers include Three Dog Night, LeAnn Rimes and Little River Band; the aim is to raise $1 million to rebuild fishing and tourism here.
Landry is hoping visitors will return in the fall to walk the nature trails, look for bald eagles in nearby Golden Meadow and Morgan City and see birds on their way south.