Gulf Coast Road Trip

by Michael Satterfield

Road trips are by far one of the best ways to really experience a place when you travel, you can stop when you like, explore back roads, and see things most travelers miss by flying into a destination. In 2018 I relocated to Central Texas and I have been eagerly exploring my new home state, from the small towns of West Texas to major cities like Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. Moving to the edge of "The South" has been a big change and while I have traveled in the Southern States in the past, most of the time it was just passing through or flying into a city and flying back home.


So with the Christmas holiday coming, my girlfriend and I decided to take our holiday on the road and explore the Gulf Coast and experience the South from Texas to the southernmost point you can drive to in the USA, Key West. Acura provided us with an RDX for the trip, which would be the perfect size for all the luggage required for a 10 day trip across several states and temperatures.


First stop would be New Orleans Plantation Country when most people think of New Orleans they plan on staying in the heart of the city and might take a day trip out to the Plantations, however, I would suggest doing the opposite. For our trip, we were able to stay at one of the most famous Plantation houses along the Mississippi River, Oak Alley.

Stephan Keller of Creole Sugarland Bonfire Tours
Oak Alley is where we would be spending Christmas and enjoying the local Christmas Eve Bonfire Festival which has been a part of the local traditions going back hundreds of years. We started our trip by visiting with Stephan Keller of Creole Sugarland Bonfire Tours, to learn about the history of the Bonfire tradition and the area. Stephan and his family operate several businesses in the Vacherie area, but he is mostly known for building bonfires, both in the tradition pyramid shape and in mimetic shapes like tractors, buildings, and animals. The tradition seems to have two origins depending on what side of the river you are from, on one side we are told it was a way to welcome Papa Noel on Christmas Eve, on the other side the bonfire tradition was started to light the way along the levee road to Midnight Mass. We headed to Oak Alley to check into our cottage and prepare for a full day of exploring plantation country the next day.


Waking up at Oak Alley is amazing, after breakfast, we toured the grounds and house, if you are a history fan, you will love the Oak Alley house tour and the grounds tours that talk about the whole history, including a very deep look into the role that slavery had in the region and the impact it still has today. They also explain to guests how Oak Alley was saved and the changes each family made to the property over the years.

 Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires
Wrapping up our time at Oak Alley we headed across the river to the town of Garyville, to meet with the crew from Blood, Sweat, and Bonfires. This team of enthusiasts prides themselves on building the most unique bonfires on the levee, past years they have built a massive snapping turtle, a crawfish, and even a replica of the local bank. This year they built a 15-foot-tall animatronic pelican, an amazing piece of art that is built to burn for Christmas Eve.


As it the sunset we headed out to the levee to watch as one by one the bonfires were lit and fireworks reflected off the Mississippi River. It was an exciting event and locals were so happy to share their tradition with us, from inviting us into their homes for food, to telling stories about how they have been celebrating on the levee for generations, we truly felt welcomed by the community. Retiring to our little cottage at Oak Alley we could sit on the porch and see the fireworks exploding over the river.

New Orleans
Christmas Morning we almost had Oak Alley entirely to ourselves, I got up early and took some photos and then we headed into New Orleans for the day. New Orleans is only about an hour drive from Oak Alley, there is plenty of public parking on the edge of the French Quarter allowing you to park and walk into the more congested areas, even on Christmas Day the city was busy and many restaurants are open. I would suggest booking a reservation if you want more a fine dining experience, but we put our names in for a late lunch at Royal House and were excited to have gotten a table on the balcony overlooking the street. While many restaurants were open, most of the shops were closed for the holiday so we couldn't stop in at Brass Monkey and pick up a memento. After meandering around the French Quarter, we headed back to our little cottage along the river.

Houmas House
Our last day in Louisiana was going to include a tour of another grand plantation, Houmas House. Located across the river Houmas House has a very different mission than Oak Alley, as it is still a private residence as well as a historic attraction with restaurants and hotel rooms, it is also the future home to the Great River Road Museum which is opening later this year. Houmas House is also home to the Turtle Bar and The Carriage House Restaurant as well as two other on-site restaurants. The Turtle Bar was my favorite space, with over 250 whiskeys as well as wine, beer, and mixed drinks, it has something for everyone, and it is open to the public without having to take a house tour.

Turtle Bar, Houmas House
After Houmas House we hit the roads towards Pensacola Beach where we hoped to take in the sun, sand, and really explore everything that the Gulf Coast has to offer. The weather, however, had different ideas. We checked into our hotel, Hilton Pensacola Beach, that was arranged for us by Visit Pensacola, the three-bedroom suite on the 16th floor had amazing views of the beaches and bay.

View from the 16th Floor of the Hilton Pensacola Beach Hotel 
Thankfully there is a lot more to Pensacola than just the beach, downtown Pensacola has so much to do, including great restaurants like Jackson's Steakhouse, to cool little shops, we even stopped in at Bubba Watson's Candy shop on the recommendation of our valet at the hotel. We defiantly want to head back to Pensacola to explore more of the beaches and check out Fort Pickens, which was closed because of the Federal Government Shutdown. Our last morning in Pensacola we stopped by a local breakfast spot called Native Cafe, I highly recommend their biscuits and gravy.


Back on the road for a long drive to Tampa Bay, which was delayed by multiple accidents on Interstate 75, making our arrival at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa a several hours later than expected, but after a quick refresh we headed to The Rez, the Hard Rock's latest restaurant for dinner. Jennifer had the salmon and I tried the half order of chicken and waffles, after that, we headed down to their new Lobby Bar, L Bar, for drinks before enjoying the casino. 


Tampa Bay has a lot to offer from Top Golf to Boat Tours there is a lot of activities, we had breakfast at a local spot called Goody Goody. From there we went exploring on the Davis Islands and Downtown before heading up to Canoe Escape at the Hillsborough River, where you can rent canoes and kayaks and explore the Hillsborough River on self-guided tours, just beware of the alligators. 

The Rez, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa
That afternoon we went to Coppertail Brewery to sample some local beers before heading to the last Tampa Bay Lightning game of the season, thanks to our friends at Visit Tampa Bay. As someone who grew up playing hockey, it was great to experience an NHL game again, and it was Jennifer's first time going to a professional hockey game so it was fun taking her through how the game works and what everything means. She has been helping me understand Texas football culture so it was nice to be able to return the favor. 

Canoe Escape at the Hillsborough River
We departed Tampa with a plan to stop at the Manatee visitor center on the way out of town, a very cool free attraction where they have several different exhibits and a large Manatee viewing area. The rest of our day's plans had been upended with Everglades National Park being closed due to the Government shut down, so we turned to our followers on Instagram to ask what we should do as we headed south towards the keys. One suggestion that stood out was visiting The Ringling house in Sarasota. 

The Ringling House, Ca' d'Zan 
The summer home of circus mogul John Ringling and his wife Mable, the Venetian Gothic Mansion, called Ca' d'Zan, overlooks Sarasota Bay harkens back an era of luxury and style that is hard to match today. Touring the grounds is free, however, there are several different tours available depending on how much time you have to spend. We didn't feel like we had time for the over hour-long tours, so after exploring for a bit we jumped back in the RDX and headed south with the plan to stay in the Miami area, before pushing all the way to Key West the next day.


The Florida Keys has always been a destination I have wanted to visit, driving the 113-miles of the Overseas Highway is a unique road tripping experience and should be on any car enthusiasts road trip list. Thankfully the RDX had the full panoramic sun roof, which was a pretty good substitution for a convertible considering we had two weeks worth of luggage and souvenirs to haul around with us. It being New Year's Eve the island was packed, parking was a hassle, but eventually we found some street parking. After walking over to the Southernmost Monument we headed over to get some Key Lime Pie at Kermit's and explore the old town of Key West as much as we liked Key West, Jennifer and I agreed we liked the more laid back and less touristy feel of the upper Keys so we jumped back in the car and headed back towards Key Largo, then onto Miami to ring in the New Year. 


Overall the trip was an amazing look into the culture of the American South, we met all kinds of people along the way, recent transplants seeking the tropical sun of the keys, others whose family had spent generations on the Mississippi River, each with a unique perspective on what made their community special. 


I am looking forward to sharing a lot more from this trip in upcoming stories focused on the people, places, and activities we experienced on this amazing road trip with Acura. Please subscribe to my email list to keep up-to-date on all the stories and visit GrowingUpTexas.com for Jennifer's take on the trip.