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

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2004

A lively bar on Okaloosa Island, Fla., serves cocktails named after tropical breezes, bayous and randy activities on the beach. But the bartenders will never mix up a Hurricane Ivan.

"We don't want to have that association with something so bad," says Steven LeBlanc, general manager of Howl at the Moon nightclub. "We'd rather just forget Ivan and move on."

Along Florida's Panhandle, the Emerald Coast -- comprising Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa and Destin -- is already well on its way toward full recovery. Farther west, though, Pensacola and the Alabama Gulf Shores region are still struggling with the havoc wreaked by the downpour of water, sand and debris that threatened to swallow them whole.

"We came back very quickly," says LeBlanc. "When one area takes a hit, tourism increases in the other areas. This coming spring, I think people are going to be looking at Fort Walton and Destin."

Barely three months after Ivan stormed through this tropical arm of Florida, whipping up its white sands and frothing its clear blue waters, the Emerald Coast towns are running within a whisker of normalcy. The eastern Panhandle region, popular with families and MTV spring breakers alike, has 18,000 guest rooms, of which 50 percent are currently operating; the other half should open by early February, at the latest. Ninety percent of restaurants are serving visitors, and all of the golf courses and public beaches on the Gulf of Mexico are open. Even the 1,200-foot-long wooden fishing pier, which Hurricane Opal crumbled to pieces nearly a decade ago, survived the bashing.

"This was no Opal, thank God," says Nancy Hussong of the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, who also rode out that 1995 storm. "We didn't have the same amount of damage. We had a lot of blown roofs and trees, but the permanent destruction was nothing like what we saw before."

In early November, the damage here was just a tiny bruise on the landscape -- a cluster of beached and battered boats behind a cocktail lounge, a Nintendo console peeking from the sand, an unhinged hotel sign resting wrong-side-up in a parking lot. At the Four Points by Sheraton, which sits on the gulf, the beachside pool and first-level rooms were temporarily closed due to the storm surge. But the courtyard pool and second-floor rooms were pristine, and only a small montage of Ivan photos in the lobby served as a reminder of what had been. At the hotel next door, though, were shattered windows, three-walled guestrooms and disgorged mattresses, coffee pots and lamps -- but that was due to the one-two punch of Ivan and the demolition phase of a new condo project.

"The area looks quite good," says Genifer McVicar, who was visiting from England and was the sole swimmer in the Sheraton's pool. "You can tell something happened here, but it doesn't seem to be encroaching too much."

The same cannot be said of Pensacola, about 40 miles to the west. Struck by the edge of Ivan's eye, this beach haven is still a major relief-work-in-progress. Despite a billboard that reads "Ivan Can't Bring Us Down. Stand Strong Pensacola," the area is still quivering from the hurricane, with thousands still homeless and hundreds of homes and buildings reduced to toothpicks.

On Pensacola Beach, the Core -- a tourist hub with restaurants, hotels, family activities and a long strand of beach -- is just starting to brush off its thick coating of white sand (it's 60 percent open). Flounder's, which fed relief workers with a free buffet of grade-A seafood, is cooking up fresh grouper, mixing cocktails and lining up bands to jam by the shore. Casino Beach is slowly drawing beachgoers, who marvel at the mounds of rare shells washed up from the storm. Yet, of the island's eight miles of public beach, only a half-mile is currently accessible. The rest is either sitting in people's living rooms or is piled up curbside, awaiting sifting before it can be restored to its proper place.

"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."

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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