Boater's Guide To Gulf Coast Festivals

By Chris Landers

Speedboats, mosquitoes, and One Big Omelet — they all await the adventurous boater between Florida and Texas.

Gulf Coast illustrated map Illustration: Gary Hovland

If you ever imagined taking your boat down to the Gulf Coast, to explore the beautiful hideaway anchorages, to enjoy terrific downhome cooking, or to catch some of the best small-town festivals in the entire country, this is the year to do it. Tourism forecasts for the Gulf Coast for 2011 may have seemed gloomy in the months after the BP oil spill, when visitors stayed away in droves, but the region is bouncing back as the lure of sun and fun on the Gulf proves irresistible.

As of this writing, spring break reservations for 2011 are on track to equal last year's pre-spill totals, according to Florida tourism officials. Events such as the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, which took a year off last year, are on track again, and if you needed another excuse to head south this year to check out some fine jazz, have a glass of wine, go fishing, or eat a giant omelet, we've put together a list of some of the festivals that line the water from Florida to Texas. 

Fiesta Of Five Flags

Pensacola, FL

A celebration of Pensacola's founding in 1559, the Fiesta of Five Flags gets its name from the different standards that have flown over that city, from Spanish to British to the U.S.A. For the insiders, there are Mardi Gras-style balls and krewes, and the annual crowning of Don Tristan de Luna (to stand in for the founding conquistador) and his queen. For the rest of us? Parades, seafood, music, airplanes, boats, and then probably some more seafood.

Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo

Grand Isle, LA

The Tarpon Rodeo lays claim to the title of oldest fishing tournament in the United States, and since 1928, tens of thousands of visitors have come to try their hand at battling the huge game fish, or to just enjoy the beaches and the Louisiana cooking. In 2010, because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the event was cancelled for only the fourth time in its history, and a charity concert to help the island was put on instead. The tarpon had better mark their calendars for the last weekend in July 2011.

Shrimp & Petroleum Festival

Morgan City, LA

Named for the twin engines that drive the Morgan City economy, the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival is billed as Louisiana's oldest harvest festival. This is Cajun country, with everything that comes along with it, so we're talking food from jambalaya to alligator to (naturally) shrimp. Listen to Cajun and zydeco music in downtown Morgan City's Lawrence Park, and check out one of the South's largest showing of artists and craftsmen.

Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival

Madisonville, LA

The Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival draws around 30,000 people every year to the banks of the Tchefuncte River. Benefiting the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, the festival includes all the classic boats you can ogle, from runabouts to trawlers, plus activities for the kids and a 14-hour "quick and dirty boat-building contest," along with music, food, and parades.

Panama City Beach Seafood, & Music Festival

Panama City Beach, FL

Panama City Beach may be a big spring break destination for college kids, but they're aiming for a more sophisticated crowd with the Seafood, Wine, and Music Festival. Wine tastings every evening, music all day and night, and local seafood for breakfast lunch, and dinner. And no keg stands.

National Shrimp Festival

Gulf Shores, AL

2011 marks the 40th year for this four-day celebration of shrimp and every conceivable manner of preparation. Sand sculpture, a children's activity village, two stages of music, and admission is free, leaving you with more to spend on shrimp.

Giant Omelette Celebration

Abbeville, LA

For the past 27 years, Abbeville has joined with other French and Francophile towns around the world to commemorate what must have been one heck of an omelet. According to legend, the breakfast in question was eaten by Napoleon's troops as they marched through southern France, but it lives on in memory, and at omelet celebrations from Belgium to Argentina. Abbeville's 5,000- egg (Cajun) omelet shares the plate with antique car and tractor shows, bands, and an art show. And yes, you get to eat the omelet.


Galveston, TX

Ending slavery seems like a pretty darn good reason to celebrate, and Galveston hosts the country's oldest Juneteenth festival (they started marking the date in 1865). Events span the teen days of the month, but the actual holiday falls on the 19th. Last year featured gospel music, historic reenactments, a community picnic, and lots of other cultural events.

Biloxi Seafood Festival

Biloxi, MS

At the start of the 20th century, Biloxi, Mississippi, had a reputation as the seafood capital of the world, so it's safe to say they know a thing or two about the subject. More seafood than you can possibly consume, served with a side of zydeco and jazz music. Still not convinced? How about this: There's a gumbo cook-off, and festival-goers get to sample the entries.

Orange Festival

Fort Jackson, LA

It probably comes as no surprise that the Fort Jackson Orange Festival centers around oranges, from the crowning of the orange king and queen, to the contest for the longest continuous peel. You can also display your non-citric talents (and win prizes) in shrimp peeling and de-heading, duck calling, and catfish skinning, or just go on a carnival ride, or see how many kumquats you can fit in your mouth.

Annual Blues And Heritage Festival

Pascagoula, MS

Since 1991, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Blues Commission has been hosting local and national acts to benefit the region's youth and preserve the heritage of the blues tradition. A few years ago they added a second day of gospel music, so you can get the blues on Saturday, then get right on Sunday.

Thunder On The Gulf

Orange Beach, AL

Thunder on the Gulf brings one of the world's fastest, noisiest, most dangerous sports to the Gulf Coast. Two days of racing will crown the Offshore Powerboat Association's World Champion, as the fastest powerboats in the world roar past spectators on Orange Beach. A VIP pass gets you into the pits to see the crews prepare for a shot at glory, and everyone can unwind with concerts in the evening.


Mobile, AL

A mega-festival that attracts as many as 200,000 music fans to Mobile, Alabama, every year, Bayfest has brought acts as diverse as Motley Crue and the True Vine Baptist Church Choir to seven separate stages.

Gecko Fest

Gulfport, FL

Gulfport is an artsy little beach town just outside St. Petersburg, and at the end of the summer, they celebrate a Florida transplant who has managed to thrive in the Sunshine State — the south Florida house lizard. Wear your gecko hat (available onsite, should you forget yours), check out the music, vendors, and walking parade, but save some energy for the end-of-festival street dance, where renaissance fair meets Mardi Gras ... except, you know, with lizards.

Great Texas Mosquito Festival

Clute, TX

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. Every year, the small town of Clute, Texas, turns a liability into an asset with a celebration of the unofficial Texas state bird. Music, barbecue, carnival rides, and of course a mosquito calling contest draw thousands every year. Suggestion: insect repellent.

— Published: June/July 2011

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