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Gulf Time

How do millions of people get through the dark, dreary months of winter each year? They picture the beach.

That ideal screensaver image of white sand, emerald waters and relaxing atmosphere exists in the United States along the Gulf Coast. Guests don’t need to bundle up when visiting the area’s 1,600 miles of coastline. The winter average low stays in the 50s and 60s.

Each of the states along the Gulf Coast offer vibrant options for group travelers looking to escape to the beach together. These top Gulf Coast beach destinations stand out from the rest of the coastline for offering both natural beachfront beauty and impressive attractions.

Itineraries at each of these beach destinations can include a wide range of activities, such as kayaking through a birding hot spot, chartered deep-sea fishing, exploring a World War II aircraft carrier, gambling at a swanky casino and learning the art of sand castle creation.

Corpus Christi, Texas

The days of wading into freezing water are over when you feel the Jacuzzi-like temperatures of the Texas Gulf. Corpus Christi, the largest coastal city in Texas, invites guests to dip their toes into its miles of warm and pristine beaches.

The city attracts both nature lovers and urban sophisticates. The Padre Island National Seashore shines as the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.

Groups can book tours to the island to look for the rare Kemp’s ridley sea turtle and the island’s 380 bird species. The national seashore also protects a hypersaline lagoon teeming with fish that visitors can try to catch on guided fishing excursions.

Further inland, groups can board a legendary World War II aircraft carrier at the USS Lexington. Tours reveal how the ship set more records than any other carrier in the history of naval aviation.

Visitors can marvel at treasures from a Spanish shipwreck at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. The museum combines local history with scientific discoveries in exhibits on rocks, coastal wildlife and dinosaurs. The museum’s H-E-B Science Center offers interactive experiences for visitors, including the three-story DNA Climber, a planetarium and giant musical instruments, among other exhibits.

Groups treat their eyes to floral beauty at the South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center. Another must-see stop, the Texas State Aquarium uncovers the colorful life existing under the Gulf Coast at the Texas State Aquarium.

Foodie Favorite: Pier 99 Restaurant draws seafood-seeking diners for its fresh, local fare and casual atmosphere. The restaurant has garnered various accolades, including placement on Coastal Living magazine’s list of best seafood restaurants in Texas.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana

Many travelers might not associate Louisiana with tranquil beaches populated with wildlife. Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish proves a secret oasis bursting with rustic charm, bird-watching and an expansive shoreline.

Jefferson Parish stretches from New Orleans down to the Gulf Coast past intriguing bayous, historic towns and mouth-watering seafood restaurants, ending at Grand Isle along the Gulf of Mexico. Known as Sportsman’s Paradise, Grand Isle invites groups to breathe in the salt air on a fishing excursion with any of the nearly 30 charter fishing companies. The island boasts more than 280 species of fish that can be caught from almost any spot on or off the island.

In the spring, the Nature Conservancy offers nature hikes through the island to view thousands of migratory birds such as pelicans and pink roseate spoonbills that congregate on the island.

Other fun island activities for groups include renting canoes at Grand Isle State Park or examining 139 species of native butterflies at Grand Island Butterfly Dome.

Off the island, Jefferson Parish holds additional natural wonders, such as the well-visited Bayou Segnette State Park and Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve.

Gretna and Rivertown, two other captivating walkable and historic small towns, also draw groups. For more excitement, visitors can bet on Treasure Chest Casino, which offers nearly 1,000 slots and 36 table games.

Foodie Favorite: Not many restaurants specialize in Italian-meets-Cajun dishes. R&O Restaurant in Metairie has attracted a devout following for its crawfish pies and other distinctive dishes.

Biloxi, Mississippi

Groups can gain a new appreciation for the shrimp that ends up on their plate with a 70-minute voyage with Biloxi Shrimping Trip in Biloxi, Mississippi. The entertaining excursion drops a 16-foot trawl that drags the bottom of the Mississippi Sound to uncover the sea critters in its catch.

Biloxi and the surrounding Mississippi Gulf Coast immerse visitors in their coastal surroundings with cultural museums, outdoor activities, world-class gaming and championship golf courses. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art and Shearwater Pottery are two of the area’s most popular stops, with eccentric art at the first and hands-on pottery workshops at the latter.

Approximately 70% of America’s oysters and 69% of domestic shrimp originate from Mississippi’s coastal waters. The area’s thriving fishing industry reaches back 300 years, and the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum explores its engaging exhibits.

To find the wilder side of Biloxi, groups can book McCoy’s River and Marsh Tours to visit a pristine river swamp on the Pascagoula River Watershed, one of the largest undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. The protected wilderness offers abundant wildlife and stunning moss-draped cypress trees.

The Betsy Ann Riverboat sails to the Mississippi Sound and Back Bay Biloxi with a focus on history, wildlife and ecology. Guests can frequently expect to spy dolphins, pelicans and herons on the tour.

Nearby, Gulfport, Mississippi, expects to open the Mississippi Aquarium in early 2020. The aquarium will spotlight the state’s distinctive marsh and gulf environments on a sprawling campus of indoor and outdoor exhibits.

Foodie Favorite: McElroy’s Harbor House offers laid-back dining and unimpeded views of Deer Island and the Mississippi Sound. Groups can enjoy Gulf-fresh catches and traditional fare.

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

Groups can learn the art of sandcastle building and marvel at the work of professionals during a day at Sand Castle University in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Set on the sugar-white beaches on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, the one-hour class will hardly feel like school. Each class includes a time-lapse video and a list of tools used so participants can impress their families on future beach trips.

The tranquil setting of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach appeals to many groups for the area’s warm gulf breezes and plethora of activities for groups. Groups can voyage past the beach on a deep-sea fishing charter. Many restaurants in the area offer “hook and cook” options, so participants can bring their freshly caught fish for an affordable way to dine out.

Though tourist favorites, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach protect several parks brimming with wildlife, including Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. WildNative Tours’ Wildlife and Dolphins Kayak Tour regularly leads groups to the most impressive parts of the refuge.

Gulf State Park offers nine different ecosystems that are easy to access along the 28-mile Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail’s paved paths. Coastal Segway Adventures visits each ecosystem and points out hard-to-spot ospreys, bald eagles and other coastal creatures.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo allows groups face-to-face time with exotic animals during the Animal Enrichment Program. Groups can interact with various wild animals in a variety of scenarios, such as watching a baboon figure out a treat puzzle made from recycled fire hose.

Foodie Favorite: Lulu’s goes beyond well-reviewed seafood. The Gulf Shores staple combines food with a full-scale beach party. Groups can take advantage of the restaurant’s live music, ropes course, arcade and multiple bars.

Sanibel Island, Florida

About 25 miles south of Florida’s Fort Myers, intricate swirls and colorful designs decorate the abundant shells covering Sanibel Island, Florida. Shell collectors travel from around the world to visit the town, since the island’s curved shape acts like a shovel to scoop up shells from the Gulf of Mexico.

After hunting for conches and cockles, groups can see the ultimate shell finds at the island’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Some of the largest and most decorative shells ever found at Sanibel Island line the walls of the quirky museum.

Beyond the beach, the island offers several adventures at the 5,200-acre J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of animals live in this park, including crocodiles, endangered giant manatees and more than 245 bird species. Groups can hike, bike, kayak or drive past the park’s mangrove-lined streams.

In 2009, officials designated the hundreds of varieties of native and nonnative plants at the Sanibel Moorings Resort as an official botanic garden. Knowledgeable guides reveal how this garden grew to its current six acres.

For a historical perspective on the island, the Sanibel Historical Museum and Village preserves eight restored buildings dating back to 1898. Groups can step into a furnished pioneer home, a one-room schoolhouse and the 1899 Bailey’s General Store.

Connected by road to Sanibel Island is Captiva Island. The diminutive yet gorgeous island offers shopping, snorkeling, kayaking and sunset catamaran cruises.

Groups can find additional attractions at nearby Fort Myers, such as the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, the Imag History and Science Center and the Burroughs Home and Gardens.

Foodie Favorite: Il Cielo keeps the focus local with fresh-caught fish, free-range chickens and Florida-grown vegetables. The upscale restaurant offers a range of American and Italian menu items, such as crab cake with bacon hash.