he young fellows at the table behind us spoke with an unmistakable south Alabama drawl. At least that's how it sounded in-between the curse words. They weren't hoodlums...simply four teenagers a little out of control.
They were away from home on spring break, probably for the first time. As my wife was within earshot of their foul mouths, my first instinct was to tap them on the shoulder and tell them to hold it down. However, the more we listened, the more obvious it was that they were just learning how to cuss. Their rather unusual combinations of four-letter words were crude. But creative. So much so, that instead of being insulted, we both laughed aloud.

Friends told us that this restaurant was the best place on the Florida panhandle to get a good steak. When we asked for directions from their beachfront condo, they said we couldn't miss it. There was a big plastic bull right out front. Perhaps that should have been a warning. However, after several nights of seafood on the fly at a favorite tourist spot on the beach, my wife was asking, "Where's the beef?"

The server took our order and promptly returned with iced tea. Sweet iced tea. Very sweet iced tea. While we waited for our meal, I noticed that the tops of the salt and peppershakers were rusty. So too was the paper napkin holder. My wife commented that for the price – which wasn't cheap – she expected more. Perhaps even a cloth napkin.

Soon the server returned. She placed beat-up wooden bowls containing a mixture of salad greens directly in front of us. Motioning toward my wife, she proudly exclaimed, "I hope you like Roquefort dressing...'cause I brought you three scoops." My wife looked down at the battered wooded bowl. She saw that her salad greens were literally floating in a thin, milky-white soup. The redeeming part of the meal was the steak. It was excellent and cooked to order. Afterwards, we questioned the high cost for food and service that was barely above the all-you-care-to-eat buffets scattered up and down the road.

We were accustomed to vacationing in southwestern Florida. While there we'd found some of the best restaurants around.

Restaurants that by comparison were very upscale, yet moderately priced. This, however, was the beach closest to the big city...the Florida panhandle...lower Alabama...LA...the Redneck Riviera. A strip of surf and sand that stretches some 95-miles along Florida's Highway #98. From Panama City Beach to Pensacola. Where we'd found the most beautiful beaches in the world. Sugar white sand, gently washed by an azure sea.

Panama City Beach is home to a great state park. Also many high-rise condominiums with long skinny balconies on each floor. These walkways make them look like ant farms. There's no-tell motels. Plastic amusement parks for the kids. Tattoo parlors. Beer joints, crab shacks, burger barns and tee shirt boutiques. Plus more beach trash and trinkets than you can imagine. Panama City Beach makes tailgating at a NASCAR infield appear hoity-toity. The always-heavy beach traffic is a blend of pick-up trucks, motorcycles, Mercedes Benz, SUV's and Beamers. Perhaps that's the charm of PC Beach – it's so funky, it's fun.

A few miles to the west, things get more civilized. There's Sea Crest, Seagrove, Seaside, and Blue Mountain Beach. Grayton Beach and Santa Rosa. Just a few years ago, these were places where families like ours rented an inexpensive beach house or cottage. Then simply laid back and enjoyed the warm breezes, the dunes, the calm gulf waters splashing the sand.

Now the area is overrun with mile-after-mile of upscale beach apartments and luxury condominiums. Most all with golf access, tennis courts and Olympic-size pools. Unbridled growth connects a half-dozen or more of these little beach towns. During the months of May, June, July, August and September, folks from all over the world flock there in droves. Often spending a month's salary or more for a week's stay.

Continuing west along highway #98, there's Sandestin. A world-class beach resort with a championship golf course, discount as well as upscale malls. Then there's Destin. One of the more popular vacation and deep-sea fishing spots in the country. Fort Walton sits halfway around the panhandle. It has a laid back, old south charm reminiscent of Mobile and Biloxi. On the western edge sits Pensacola. An old Navy town that's much the same as it was during its heyday in WW-II. While the heart of Pensacola is a little mildewed, dingy and gray, Gulf Breeze and Navarre Beach are as spectacular as any you'll find along the gulf coast.

This 95-mile stretch represents the last beach frontier. Its atmosphere mixes the circus that is spring break with the old plantation south. Permanent residents include active and retired military and those who can afford resort living year round. Depending on the time of year, temporary inhabitants range from wealthy northeasterners to farm boys. Students to skinheads on motorcycles. It's a place where vacationing families, anglers, golfers, and conventioneers alike go to escape the workaday world.

Once while attending a conference at Sandestin, in addition to the beach parties, one of the highlights was an elegant awards dinner at a five-star restaurant. Another was a dinner cruise out beyond the three-mile limit for some games of chance, aboard a casino ship called the "Southern Charm." The meeting planners had seen a brochure that made a dinner cruise aboard the casino ship look like a memorable and fun experience.

Thirty-five or so of us – mostly from parts west of the Mississippi or slightly north of the Ohio River – signed-up. We took a chartered bus from our hotel in Sandestin to the dock in Panama City. That was where we boarded this tub inappropriately dubbed the "Southern Charm." Note: I didn't refer to the "Southern Charm" as a ship. She was a tub. A 175' trawler replete with a meat 'n three buffet, red plastic tablecloths, more paper napkins, plastic forks. She had three decks of crap tables, roulette wheels and slot machines.

"Southern" she was; "charming" she wasn't.

It was a muggy night in mid-September. The air was hot and heavy and the gulf waters were thankfully still. After a greasy dinner, those that drank and gambled spent hours in the casino despite the lousy odds. Those that didn't stopped pulling the handles on the slots after the money they had set aside for entertainment was gone. Teetotalers like me, found a lounge chair on the upper deck. Where the air was less smoky and slightly cooler than it was inside. As the money disappeared, others joined me. Throughout the evening, the group on the upper deck grew larger and larger. No one could believe we'd been so taken in.

A little after midnight, the "Southern Charm" pulled anchor. With a belch of black diesel smoke and a honk of the horn, she headed back to shore where our bus waited for the return trip to the hotel. Looking at the vehicles in the parking lot, there must have been five or six busloads of suckers just like us.

One woman, a rather inebriated gal from northern Alabama boarded the wrong bus. On the way back to Sandestin, she stood up and with somewhat slurred speech asked if this was the bus to Birmingham. Our even drunker bunch assured her that it was. She proceeded to lead the rowdy group in a rousing songfest. We sang good old southern songs...Yellow Rose of Texas, There's a Tear in my Beer, San Antonio Rose, You Are My Sunshine, etc., etc., etc. Even though quite drunk and unaware of our destination, she was a very good sport.

She was last seen standing in the parking lot of our hotel. She had her hands on her hips and squinted in disbelief at the destination placard on the front of the bus. It plainly said Sandestin, not Birmingham. We often wondered if she ever made it home.

A few years later, we drove south to Biloxi to visit the new casinos. On a bridge near Gulfport one of the inland waterways spills into the gulf. Out the car window, I spied the carcass of the "Southern Charm." She was sitting high and dry in the Mississippi mud. Evidently, she had run aground and been left there to rust.

What goes around comes around, eh? Not so. Thanks to the Internet, I recently discovered that a refurbished and re outfitted "Southern Charm" is alive and well and operating once again. This time on the coast of South Carolina.

The culture of the Redneck Riviera is all this and more. It's Mardi Gras with a beach. A cornucopia of junk and funk. A world-class resort. It's a game of chance with lousy odds. It's beautiful beaches, magnificent sunsets, and warm gulf waters. It's nature watching at its finest with some delightful specimens clad in the briefest of bikinis.

The next time one of your yuppie pals brags that he's vacationing in "LA," tell him you are too. Then load up the pickup or the SUV, and head south on highway #231. At Panama City, go west on #98 into lower Alabama – the other "LA."

Let your hair down. Forget your inhibitions. Drink a cold brew or two. Have the time of your life. But take it from me, order your salad dressing on the side.


©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.