When you're planning a vacation with children, finding a family-friendly destination can be a challenge, but cities along the Gulf Coast offer plenty for kids to do—both on and off the beach.
From Destin, Florida to Padre Island in Texas, these towns along the Gulf of Mexico offer year-round warm weather, kid-friendly attractions, and plenty of outdoor adventures appropriate for the whole family.
With sand like powdered sugar and the brilliant turquoise Gulf of Mexico, Destin is a gem on the Emerald Coast. Located in the northwestern part of the state just a few miles outside of Pensacola, Destin offers a bit of a quieter vacation than the nearby college town.
Destin is home to a number of golf courses, hotels, nature trails, and some of the best beaches in the Panhandle—without the college-age party crowd of Panama or Pensacola. You won't have to worry about Spring Breakers out for a wild night in Destin encroaching on family time, but the city does have a nightlife scene that adults will enjoy.
The most popular stretch of beach, Henderson Beach State Park, is adjacent to the Destin Harbor Boardwalk, which offers chartered boat tours, great restaurants, ice-cream shops, and plenty of chances to people watch.
Another popular destination for children is Big Kahuna's Destin's waterpark that features raft rides, surf simulators, and pipeline slides.
St. George Island, Florida
Tucked into the crook of Florida's Panhandle, the 28-mile St. George Island is renowned for its unspoiled beaches—far away from most tourist destinations and secluded enough from local traffic as well.
Located just off the coast, the barrier island is part of the long stretch of beaches known as Gulf Islands National Seashore. The uninhabited St. George Island offers a chance for families to truly escape from it all, but that does mean attractions in the area are limited to outdoor adventures.
You can stay on the island itself if you wish, and there are quaint beach cottages available to rent or you could lodge at one of the two island hotels or inns on St. George.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Alabama
With 32 miles of spectacular white beaches and a raft load of outdoor activities and family attractions, the neighboring towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are premier family beach vacation destinations in Alabama.
While many Americans often overlook this southern state for its beaches, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are among the highest-rated beaches in the U.S. Both are known as water sports hubs, so Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are perfect for surfing, jet skiing, and even parasailing.
Popular attractions nearby include the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum, the Wharf, and the Backcountry Trail along the beaches to Gulf Shores.
There are also a number of accommodations and camping spots in the area, so there's no shortage of where you and your family can stay relatively inexpensively in coastal Alabama.
Sanibel & Captiva Islands, Florida
For shell-collecting and dolphin-spotting outside of popular destinations like Orlando and Miami, consider heading to Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida.
You won't find any amusement parks, traffic lights, billboard-lined highways, glaring neon or tracts of high-rise condos. Instead, you'll experience a laid-back vibe, terrific restaurants, chic shops and 15 miles of drop-dead-gorgeous beaches.
You can also enroll your kids in the marine biology classes of the Sanibel Sea School, which offers morning and full-day programs for kids aged 6 to 13, as well as an adult program.
Alternatively, you could kayak through a mangrove swamp, sample some local ice cream or visit the islands' lighthouse on Point Ybel.
Padre Island, Texas
Running north to south off the coast of mainland Texas, Padre Island is the world's longest barrier island and a playground for beachgoers and sun lovers.
Aside from the town of South Padre Island on its southern end, the island is quite sparsely populated. The central portion of the island is preserved in a natural state as the Padre Island National Seashore, but North Padre is where you'll find the pristine, unencumbered Texas coast—a dramatic contrast to the often congested scene of South Padre.
Along with the fabulous beaches, you can also take your family to see Texas' biggest waterpark Schlitterbahn, visit Sea Turtle, Inc., tour the Point Isabel lighthouse, or explore the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center.