Aerial view of the historic Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park

8 Serene Towns in Gulf Coast for a Weekend Retreat

The Gulf Coast brings to mind gorgeous swamps, meandering bayous, and spectacular barrier islands. The ocean's waters here are warm, often warmer than those on the East Coast or West Coast, making this stretch an ideal swimming venue. Dotting this lovely expanse is a delightful cornucopia of towns; some big and buzzy, others small and serene. If looking for the latter, discover below eight serene towns on the Gulf Coast — all of which are ideal for a weekend retreat.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island, Florida
Beautiful view of the sea and coastal mangroves at Sanibel Island, Florida.

While not fully back on its feet, especially after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian, Sanibel Island is still quaint, charming, and serene — still one of the best venues on the Gulf Coast for a weekend retreat. Unlike similar barrier islands, Sanibel Island is unique for its east-west orientation, not north-south, a setting many attribute its lovely white-sand beaches to. A first-time visitor can lock eyes with alligators at J.N. the "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which forms part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in America. Step waist-deep in the waters of Bowman's Beach for a top-notch shelling adventure, or spend about three hours at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, seeing and learning about a wide variety of sea creatures. On the culinary side, you will enjoy some kick-ass seafood at Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille just off Island Inn Road. And do not worry about where to stay. West Wind Island Resort is right on the beach — and is both enticingly cozy and quiet.

Long Boat Key, Florida

Snorkeling at Beer Can Island off Long Boat Key, Florida
Snorkeling at Beer Can Island off Long Boat Key, Florida. Image credit: via

Long Boat Key is immediately west of Sarasota but is quainter and more serene than its bigger neighbor. Joan M. Durante Community Park, one of this town's defining landmarks, has boardwalks that meander through mangrove forests and is worth exploring, especially for those who enjoy wandering through the woods and being in tune with nature. On the right side of the pavilion inside this park, a brass sign is emblazoned with the refreshing words — "May all who enter these hallowed grounds be embraced by love, tranquility, beauty, contentment, and goodwill." Beach lovers will enjoy splashing in the waters of Whitney Beach, located on the northwesternmost tip of Longboat Key. For a gush of fresh air, Longboat Key Bike Trail spans over 9 miles and provides breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico. That said, to kickstart your adventure with a hearty breakfast, Blue Dolphin Cafe is known for its heavenly bunnies and will set you in the right adventure mood.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Marshall Park in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Marshall Park in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

A lively and vibrant coastal town brimming with artistic talent, Ocean Springs hosts numerous art galleries. These include My Happy Place Gallery of Art, an excellent spot for framed paintings; The Art House, the longest-running co-op on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; and The Pink Rooster. But that is just a tip of this town's artistic credentials. More art awaits at numerous other spots, including the nationally accredited Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The museum offers a glimpse into the art and life of an incredibly talented man — Walter Anderson — and is worth its weight in gold. Besides, Mary C O'Keefe Cultural Arts Center, housed in an architectural masterpiece, tells the area's story through fun and interesting exhibits. Away from art, Aunt Jenny's Catfish Restaurant, located beneath massive oak trees, serves unbelievably delicious seafood — and is often the go-to spot when hungry. Just book a room at The Beatnik and savor the experience of a floating cabin.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Sign of Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Sign of Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Known for its sugar-white beaches, Gulf Shores provides a first-class beach experience and is, hence, ideal for a weekend retreat. To a large extent, this town appeals to vacationers because it hosts the spell-binding Gulf State Park. None other than Southern Living ranked Gulf State Park as the best state park in "the Cotton State." This park features up to nine ecosystems, three sparkling lakes (including Lake Shelby), slightly more than three miles of white-sand beaches, and many miles of paved trail system. For some yummy food in a setting that features tasty waterfront views, LuLu's Gulf Shores serves authentic coastal cuisine and should be on a vacationer's to-do list. On the flip side, for a pampered stay, The Lodge at Gulf State Park provides access to heart-ravishing beach-front vistas and offers the quintessential vacation experience.

Destin, Florida

A crowded harbor at Destin, Florida.
A crowded harbor at Destin, Florida.

Located on a spectacular sliver of sand known as the Emerald Coast, Destin is among Florida's top-rated towns for a weekend getaway. While the beach imbues the town with a serene, rustic ambiance, Destin can be crowded, particularly because it is a popular spring break destination. But there is a way to go around this. Visit the beach in May or late summer. While you will not have it to yourself, you will experience more serenity and have enough elbow room. Kickstart your trip at Mimmo's if you are craving some delicious pasta, salads, or pizza. After this, stroll through Destin Commons and enjoy remarkable retail therapy. The buzzy Destin Harbor Boardwalk is a nice place for a stroll, especially during the last thirty minutes of daylight. Just have a good camera. The sunsets here leave first-time visitors completely blown away.

Anna Maria, Florida

Bradenton beach city pier on Anna Maria Island, Florida
Bradenton beach city pier on Anna Maria Island, Florida.

Boasting a population of just about 1,000, Anna Maria's small-town charm and laid-back ambiance combine to earn it a spot among the most serene towns on the Gulf Coast for a weekend retreat. This town sits on the north end of an island with the same name — together with Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach. One can spend the whole weekend on the beach, particularly Bean Point Beach. The sand here is like powder; the sunsets are heart-melting. Plus, it often sees fewer crowds. To learn about the fascinating history of the island, Anna Maria Island Historical Museum, conveniently located on Pine Avenue, is like stepping back into a bygone era. Besides, a first-time visitor will love the subtle charm of Anna Maria Historic Green Village. Established by a couple who sold their business to build their lives on the island, this stretch features nice, historic buildings, some of which are more than 100 years old. The Doctor's Office in Holmes Beach serves fancy cocktails — while BridgeWalk Resort in Bradenton Beach has that unmistakable home-away-from-home vibe.

Surfside, Texas

Aerial view of Surfside Beach, Texas
Aerial view of Surfside Beach, Texas.

Except for the rhythmic roar of the ocean, Surfside is mostly calm, quiet, and serene. The town's name is a tell-tale of its vacation credentials. Surfside Beach's deep waters are known to create excellent conditions for surfing and jet skiing. When not swimming, 4 miles of soft sand provide an enticing diversion, whether for strolling barefoot, soaking up some sun, or inhaling tasty oceanfront vistas. You can also cast a line at Surfside Jetty Park as you relax and watch cargo ships tear the ocean. You can also bike along the picturesque Bluewater Highway Trail or visit the site of the first battle of the Texas Revolution at the nearby Fort Velasco. Avid birders, however, will want to visit the nearby Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.

Grand Isle, Louisiana

Aerial view of Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Aerial view of Grand Isle, Louisiana.

The Pelican State makes an entry here through the small, charming town of Grand Isle, which hosts just about 1,000 residents. Like towns of similar size, expect an intimate, authentic vacation experience. While associated with deep-sea fishing, this town provides access to the Grand Isle State Park, which best exemplifies the state's natural beauty. Because the ocean water is often warm, this park is an excellent, almost year-round swimming venue. Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, just 6 miles away, features cascading coastal dunes and uncrowded beaches — and is a fantastic destination for birding. Plus, Fort Livingstone, one of the largest coastal forts in the state, is a fine example of American coastal forts, especially of the 1800s. That said, before embarking on the return trip, Post Lane is lined with massive, old oak trees, providing the ultimate serenity. A stroll along this peaceful stretch can slow down an adventurer's biological clock.

The Takeaway

Known for its pristine beaches, most of which are clad in powder-soft and sugar-white sand, the Gulf Coast, while not as mentioned as the East Coast or Gulf Coast — is just as spectacular. Besides, an adventurer will enjoy swimming in its warm waters and exploring its diverse ecosystem that features a world of birds, alligators, and sea lions. From Sanibel, Florida — unique for its east-west orientation — to Grand Isle, Louisiana, which hosts one of the largest coastal forts in the Pelican State, a vacationer seeking serene towns to spend a slow weekend will have a wide selection.

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