GRAYTON BEACH, Fla. — Has the “Redneck Riviera” title outlived its usefulness? It sure seems so.
For the last several decades, the corridor of land that stretches from Mexico Beach, Florida to Pensacola and across the Alabama border onward to Dauphin Island had been unofficially deemed the “Redneck Riviera.”
For around six weeks every year, that 200-mile long section of the Gulf Coast, dotted with fishing villages and U.S. Navy and Air Force outposts, was the destination for vacationers from all over the Southeast and also many from the Midwest.
The traditional clientele, a somewhat unpolished Southern variety that traveled to these spots over the past few decades for vacation, earned it the moniker.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to spend a few spring breaks or post-high school or college graduation weekends at one of these destination spots at any given time between 1985 and 2005, you would have seen it wasn’t necessarily a pretty sight. It was a sort of younger version of the night before the main NASCAR race at Talladega, but with a beach nearby.
Drunk tourists with their pickup trucks and Confederate flags would inhabit the hundreds of old and rundown classic motor lodges that dotted U.S. Hwy. 98 featuring those old-school neon “vacancy/no vacancy” signs.
All of this was tolerated by the locals because of the shot in the arm to their local economies.
Of course, every few years, a hurricane would come along and mess things up.
In my lifetime, hurricanes Frederic in 1979, Opal in 1995 and Ivan in 2004 stick out as times when reset button had to be pushed and a hurried rebuilding effort would take place to get things ready for tourist season.
It has been nearly a decade, however, since the last major hurricane and during that time the region has experienced tremendous change. That evolution has been aided by the rise of what has been called the New South, which is for the lack of a better term, a more sophisticated Southerner.
The area known as the Redneck Riviera, given its proximity by automobile, is still a Southern vacation destination of choice, especially based on the increase of the volume of traffic that streams into Florida from Georgia and Alabama to points north brought on by the improvements to thoroughfares.
All of this has led to demand for the development of amenities for those with higher standards.
Thirty years ago, planning for the tiny little hamlet of Seaside, Florida’s much-ballyhooed transformation began. The resulting planned community ultimately became a vacationing spot for the affluent. It is Norman Rockwell meets Southern Living, but with the Florida beachside vibe.
Those pastel cottages with screened-in front porches and widow’s walks overlooking streets made of brick pavers that went for $100,000 in the 1980s are now listed in the millions. Although that wasn’t the intent of the founders of Seaside, who foresaw a community for which the rich and the poor would live side by side, it has become the reality.
That reality apparently became the rule and not the exception. On the 20-mile stretch on Route 30A in Walton County, where the community is located, the Seaside theme is imitated over and over and over again.
Suffice to say, you won’t see very many Confederate flags or Hooters restaurants along this stretch. High-end retail including chic wine shops and organic produce stands with exorbitant mark-ups have replaced convenience stores advertising Marlboro cigarettes and discount prices on 30-packs of Icehouse beer.
It’s a development that has been contagious.
A little further down the road, the centerpiece of the “Redneck Riviera,” Panama City Beach, has made efforts to clean up its act. Many of those old tourist trap motels and condos built just long enough to withstand the next hurricane have been given facelifts with fake stucco and new paint.
Some of the old dive and biker bars for which Panama City Beach was long known have been knocked down and replaced by chain restaurants and Starbucks.
Locals and frequent visitors to Panama City Beach will tell you as much. They admit there is an effort underway to steer it away from its reputation as a wild, no-holds-barred and trashy vacation spot. From the looks of things, there is still some work to do, but inevitably it probably will happen.
When you’ve lost Panama City Beach to de-redneck-ification efforts, will it still be fair to call this stretch the “Redneck Riviera?” There are any number places on the map that would give that section of the Gulf Coast a run for its money on that one — Myrtle Beach, S.C., Daytona Beach, Fla. and Tybee Island, Ga.
As long as the Flora-Bama is still standing, this section on the Gulf Coast will still hold first place for that title. The South will certainly rise again in Pensacola Beach a handful of weeks during the season. But in the next few months, when the thousands of winter tourists descend upon the Alabama and northwestern Florida beaches, it won’t be your mama and daddy’s “Redneck Riviera.”