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Ala./Fla. Border: Sifting Through the White Sand

"We have more beach now," says Mike Norman, a 20-year-old resident who was filling a plastic Gap bag with shells. "I see Pensacola being the same [after rebuilding], but it's not ready for tourists yet. Maybe in the spring."

The area is certainly not idle. Hotels, swarming with construction workers, are taking advantage of their closed doors to not just fix Ivan-related damage but also refurbish their properties. Some are banking on January or February reopening dates, and 700 of the 1,250 hotel rooms on Pensacola Beach should be booking guests by spring. (By comparison, about 85 percent of hotels are open in Pensacola proper, and 95 percent of its restaurants.) But with aid workers and the displaced still being housed at hotels, and a number of places condemned and scheduled to be razed, finding accommodations could be a challenge. To be sure, a tourism official from adjacent Perdido Key recommended looking in Mobile, Ala.: "It's only an hour away."


In Gulf Shores, Ala., the Pink Pony pub has been around since 1956 but was demolished by Ivan. It plans to rebuild. (Andrea Sachs -- The Washington Post)

STORM UPDATE
From washingtonpost.com at 12:00 AM

But Ivan was fickle, and because of that, some parts of Pensacola, such as Palafox Street and the Seville Historic District, were spared (relatively speaking). Damaged roof tiles at the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Museum; sopped carpeting at Jackson's, a white-tablecloth restaurant; a gash in the roof of the Museum of Commerce, part of Historic Pensacola Village -- nothing you can't pass off as wear and tear. And a stark contrast to the devastation just over the Three Mile Bridge.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde effect is also in play about 40 miles west in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala. Drive about two miles inland on Route 59 and you can still shop at the outlets, play a round of miniature golf or grab some gumbo at Lulu's restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway. (The spot, owned by Jimmy Buffett's sister, set up a video loop of the hurricane; an unmoored barge crashed into its deck and kitchen.) Fort Morgan peninsula ducked Ivan, and its 10 miles of beach gleam like white diamonds.

"We played putt-putt ball -- that was like the only place open -- and the beach is here," says Darin Page, who drove down from Michigan for his weeklong honeymoon in Gulf Shores. "We pretty much did everything we could do in a day. But that's okay; we wanted a lazy vacation."

The newlyweds also cruised Gulf Beach Highway to view sights you'll never see on a tourist brochure: "wind-burnt" pine trees; sand pyramids pocked with furniture, up-ended cars and personal belongings; closed beaches that tempt but cannot be enjoyed. Just yet.

"We have a chance now to fix it up and make it better than before," says Bebe Gauntt of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, who speculates the area will be 80 percent open by summer. "The scenery will be different, but it will still have the same charm."

Details: Alabama/Florida Border

GETTING THERE: There are no nonstop flights to any of the major towns along Florida's Panhandle. You can fly into either Destin or Pensacola on most of the major carriers. Delta, for example, flies from BWI to Pensacola, via Atlanta, for about $230 round trip. Other carriers, as well as flights to Destin, are in the same price range.

From the Pensacola airport, Pensacola Beach is less than 15 minutes by car, and the Emerald Coast and Alabama's Gulf Coast are about 45 miles to the east and west, respectively.

DEALS: The Panhandle region has a mix of deals influenced partly by the hurricane, partly by the winter off-season. Emerald Coast's tourism Web site (see below) lists a number of bargains. Among them: 25 percent off a room at the Four Points by Sheraton, including two breakfast buffets, from $75 a night (good through December; based on availability); and a fourth-night-free offer at the Holiday Surf and Racquet Club (winter rates from $83; good through Feb. 28).

In Gulf Shores, Ala., the just-reopened Phoenix All-Suites (201 E. Beach Blvd., 800-594-9685, www.phoenixallsuites.com) offers a low rate of $77, down from a summer high of $268, for one-bedroom suites with full kitchens and a balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico (and the storm-battered Pink Pony restaurant and bar). The visitors bureau's Web site (see below) also lists specials beyond accommodations, including attractions and dining.

In Pensacola, golf packages are on sale for $49 per person per night, including a double room at the Best Western Pensacola Beach (room usually from $69), greens fees and cart at a choice of courses, and breakfast. Valid Jan. 1-31; book at 800-477-4833, www.destinygolf.com. Also, Portofino, a luxury rental property and spa on the gulf set to open April 1, is offering 15 percent off stays of three nights or more. Nightly spring rates start at $196. Book by April 1; good till Aug. 7. Info: 866-478-4306, theportofino.com/cvb.

INFO: Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-322-3319, www.destin-fwb.com. Pensacola Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-874-1234, www.visitpensacola.com. Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-745-SAND, www.gulfshores.com. -- Andrea Sachs


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