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Great Gulf Coast Beach Vacations, Even Without the Beach

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The tourism industries of southern Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle are of course reeling from the effects of BP's catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, now more than two months old: precious marshes poisoned, miles of beach fouled, and some waters unswimmable.

But prevailing currents and tides mean many Gulf beaches are still unlikely to be seriously affected this summer, and even though oiling has now reached the Florida Panhandle, damage to other coastal areas has still been light to non-existent; most of the stricken coastline is east of the mouth of the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana, particularly Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes (New Orleans, meanwhile, is a hundred miles inland). Besides that, if you haven't yet made firm plans for your summer vacation, I'm here to tell you from experience that a Gulf Coast vacation can be big fun for the whole gang even if you're too spooked to hit the sands -- and your big fun will help out local communities in need, big time. Just a sampling:

For History Buffs

Alabama Mobile and its bay are an undersung gem when it comes to gracious architecture and mansions like the Bellingrath Gardens and Home. Other historic sites including Forts Morgan and Gaines, the Carnival Museum, and the USS Alabama battleship museum; recently a Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail also opened, covering 90 miles and a dozen sites.

Florida Panhandle As the oldest European settlement in the Continental United States, Pensacola also has plenty of historic architecture, from Victorian to Spanish colonial; don't-miss sites include Forts Barrancas and Pickens, the Colonial Williamsburg-like Historic Pensacola Village, the Civil War Soldiers Museum, and the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

Louisiana The parishes (counties) of Iberia, St. Mary, Assumption, and Terrebonne are the heart of the Cajun coast, and a great place to explore some of its past is Houma's Southdown Plantation/Terrebonne Museum, in a 19th-century sugar plantation home. Military buffs can get an eyeful at the Regional Military Museum in Houma, and Charenton's Chitimacha Museum offers a look at the history of the native Americans who still live in the area. The Victorian and antebellum downtowns of Houma, Franklin, and Morgan City, meanwhile, are surefire charmers.

Mississippi Beauvoir, the Biloxi home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is a fascinating window into the Civil War and has recently had a $4 million makeover after Katrina nearly blew it off the map. You can also hop a ferry from Gulfport out to 19th-century Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island and take in the historic downtown of Bay St. Louis.

For Nature-Lovers

Alabama In Mobile and Baldwin counties, a birding trail includes five loops rich with feathered critters, especially before the fall migration south over the Gulf and during first landfall on their way back north in the spring. The town of Elberta, meanwhile, is home to the 20-acre Biophilia Nature Center, and Gulf Shores has the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, with six miles of hiking trails.

Florida Panhandle The Pensacola area's thousand-acre Edward Ball Nature Trail is a look into a unique Florida ecosystem, and you can also explore the coast and barrier islands in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Perdido Key State Recreation Area, and Big Lagoon State Park.

Louisiana The famous bayous aren't on the open Gulf, and so are unaffected by the spill; bayou and swamp tours abound in and around the Houma and Franklin areas, for example -- by boat and also, at Gibson's Wildlife Gardens, on foot. And the Terrebonne Loop offers some truly spectacular birding.In Slidell, don't miss the Pearl River Eco Tour of the Honey Island Swamp.

Mississippi Kiln's private McLeod Water Park has great fishing and beautiful waterways for waterskiing and canoeing, plus there are hiking trails, picnic grounds, and campsites. The Crosby Arboretum in Picayune has both forests and savannahs, as well as a great environmental education program. And check out Waveland's brand-new beach hiking and biking path.

For Gamblers

Louisiana If you like to hit the slots and the tables, check out Amelia Belle Casino in Amelia with more than 800 one-arm bandits and 20 different kinds of table games, as well as the even bigger Cypress Bayou Casino on Charenton's Chitimacha Indian reservation.

Mississippi Biloxi has turned into one of America's top gaming capitals, with 11 Vegas-level casinos, including the Beau Rivage, Hard Rock, and Treasure Bay. And it goes without saying the town and neighboring Gulfport have sprouted restaurants and other entertainment options to match. There are also a couple of casinos farther west in the town of Bay St. Louis.

Miscellaneous Other Cool Stuff

Alabama Mobile's Museum of Art and Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center with an IMAX theater; Hurricane Hunters and other cool videos and exhibits at the Gulf Shores Museum in Gulf Shores, a resort town also home to Pirates Island Adventure Golf, a gimmicky but fun pair of 18-hole courses themed with a pirate ship, waterfalls, caves, and the like. The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach area offers a load of entertainment, shopping, and dining options along with attractions like a zoo, alligator farm, zip lines, and amusement and water parks.

Florida Panhandle Pensacola hosts the thrilling Blue Angels air show on July 10, and its art museum boasts marquee names like Warhol, Dalí, and Calder; there's a great zoo and botanical garden several miles east. Panama City Beach is pulling out all the stops, with summer-long concerts, street festivals, and discounts, and top attractions include the Museum of Man in the Sea, all about underwater life and exploration, and a pair of zoos/aquariums, ZooWorld and Gulf World Marine Park.

Louisiana Houma is a great place to get a zesty taste of Cajun cooking and music. And perversely, to get a sense of the roots of the disaster in the Gulf, you can actually explore an out-of-service offshore drilling rig at Morgan City's International Petroleum Museum.

Mississippi Gulfport has the Gulf Islands Water Park and a great children's museum, the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center. In Biloxi, the iconic lighthouse is open for tours and you can hop on a boat called the Sailfish for a shrimping tour. Extraterrestrial enthusiasts will get a kick out of NASA's Stennis Space Center Visitor Center in Bay St. Louis, with plenty of exhibits about space and the space program.

Finally, don't give up on the beaches just yet! Most are open and clear as of mid-June, and you can get beach and other tourism updates from www.GulfCoastTravelUpdate.com, as well as the forums, webcams, and Twitter feeds of Alabama's www.GulfShores.com; Florida's www.VisitPensacola.com and www.VisitPanamaCityBeach.com; Louisiana's www.CajunCoast.com and www.ExperienceJefferson.com; and Mississippi's www.GulfCoast.org and www.MSWestCoast.org.

David Paul Appell is director of AskATravelExpert.com and the travel social network Tripatini.com.

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