Travel

Every time a disaster strikes, we who are seemingly untouched by the crisis always wonder what we can do to help those who are most affected by it. This time, luckily, the solution is easy: Go to the Gulf coast and eat fresh seafood! My family just got back from a long-anticipated and much-planned week at St. George Island, near Apalachicola, Florida, and ate our way through as much fresh seafood as we could find: Shrimp, oysters, crab and scallops were the stars, along with grouper. The water was gorgeous, the beaches beautiful and the rental houses full, as always. But, sadly, due to the oil leak, there are beaches where that’s not the case and people are hurting. If you still have some vacation time this year, head down to the Gulf. You’ll be treating yourself at some of the most gorgeous spots around — and helping boost an economy and industry that desperately needs some help.

Gulf Coast

This is the Gulf Coast my family loves — serene white beaches, startlingly clear water and nature peacefully humming along, doing its thing without any interference from us. But we’ve sort of messed that up lately. Coastal communities in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana are in hurricanne-like crisis mode as oil gets closer from the recent BP deepwater drilling rig explosion that killed 11 people and is leaking more than 200,000 gallons of crude a day. Nobody can predict for sure what’s going to happen. But it for sure is not good. Read the Pensacola, Florida, News Journal at http://www.pnj.com/ ; the Biloxi, Mississippi, Sun Herald at http://www.sunherald.com/; and the Mobile, Alabama, Press-Register at http://www.al.com/press-register/ for the latest oil-spill news and volunteer opportunities.

St. Patrick’s Day

Irish things I like:

1) Pretty much any sort of food that has any sort of Irish connection. Particularly if it’s chocolate and/or fried. Or bread. So I hit the jackpot this year at Kalou’s Corner Market and Cafe in Huntsville, Alabama, which was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with these treats. Who could resist a shamrock-shaped chocolate-covered chocolate brownie? And then there were two intriguing types of Irish beer bread — rye and cheddar. This bread was moist, dense, light and tender all that same time — and my bread-loving family did not let a crumb go to waste. Details at http://www.kalousmarket.com/

2) Guinness beer, but only for the first two or three sips. That’s about all I can handle.

3) McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, Florida. This is my favorite Irish pub ever. Okay — I know that you know this is the only Irish pub I’ve ever been in. But it’s still my favorite. It’s on my must-go list every time I’m anywhere close by. This is the place that’s papered in customers’ dollar bills. McGuire’s has its own brewery and serves wonderfully fresh-tasting beers,ales, porters and stouts. And for my dollar bills, the best dishes are on the appetizer menu — boxtys (fried mashed potatoes), seared fresh tuna over mashed garlic red potatoes and the Irish Bleu Chips, which is homemade potato chips with blue cheese. And if you detect a theme of fried and mashed potatoes here, you are so right. Check it out at http://www.mcguiresirishpub.com

4) Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. I knew this was a memoir of a boy’s Irish childhood, but I didn’t read it until recently because I mistakenly thought it was sweet and heartwarming and sentimental — sort of the literary version of “Oh Danny Boy.” It’s not. It’s spare and harsh and ugly — and I couldn’t put it down. You won’t be able to, either.

Travel

When the gray and cloudy days of winter seem as if they’ll go on forever, just remember that somewhere the sun is shining and the sky is blue — and sometimes that somewhere is just a few hours away. Some friends and I were lucky enough to get an early spring break this past week when we gathered for some girls-only time at Perdido Key, Florida. We stayed at Needle Rush Point, and if you are looking for a non-high-rise Gulf Coast vacation spot, you need to check it out. It”s comfortable and homey and just right for hanging around, talking and laughing and eating and not doing much of anything else — which is exactly what we needed. Needle Rush is on the Gulf and also across the street on the bay/river side, which faces famed and exclusive Ono Island. We tried our best to spot some of the rumored celebrities who might or might not have houses over there, but the only folks around were locals and snowbirds — retirees who’ve had enough of winter and come south to enjoy the sun. Of course, it still seemed chilly to us Alabamians, but when you can walk along the beach and eat fresh seafood, who’s complaining? Check out Needle Rush Point at http://www.needlerushpoint.com/

Food

When winter is getting to you, isn’t it lucky to have friends with beachfront condos? Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mary Bonnie! She invited some of us to share one of her weeks at the Gulf coast condo she and her husband have — and just in time, too, since here in Alabama we’ve had enough snow and ice and cold to last us, thank you very much. We had a great time and I’ll tell you all about it, but first I want to give you a Florida wildlife report. No, not that kind of “wild life.” The nature kind — well, our version, anyway. One night we went to the Shrimp Basket in Perdido Key, Florida, when we all spied the most realistic statue of a blue heron ever and were in the midst of speculating why someone had placed such a statue so close to a parking space when suddenly the “statue” blinked its eye and we all jumped — and reached for our cameras. We got the distinct impression that the heron was posing for us and waiting for us to notice he (she?) had given us his (her?) best side for photography purposes. We didn’t see any dolphins/porpoises in the water while we were there, but we did spy an osprey perched high up in a tree next to its nest one day and walked along the beach with hundreds of twittering (in the non-online sense, of course) sandpipers. The weather was clear and sunny and gorgeous while we were there — too cold for us to get in the water although I did see a couple of energetic teenagers brave the waves one day. The sunsets were stunning — I caught a bit of the light in this photo. And the Shrimp Basket was great! Nothing fancy — just fresh good seafood and friendly service. It’s where the locals hang out and is about half the price of touristy seafood places (Crab Trap, we’re talking to you!). I had the blackened shrimp and fish with new potatoes, cole slaw (with shrimp in it) and hush puppies. Plus, I saved one of my oh-so-good raw oysters to show you. Other orders at our table were fried oysters, fried shrimp and tuna dip — everything was perfect. Check it out at http://www.shrimpbasket.com. There are locations all along the Alabama/Florida Gulf coast — just watch out for blue herons in the parking lot.

Food

Pensacola, FloridaFresh crabcakesI love crabcakes. When we go out and there are crabcakes on the menu, I’m getting them, no question. My idea of bliss? The Crab Cake Cook-off in Pensacola, Fla., where restaurants offer their best crabcakes for sampling. Imagine tasting 20 or so creatively yummy crabcakes one one evening. Paradise! (Also: Thank goodness for Protonix. ) Some of our favorites included a less-is-more version that crab cakeswas all fresh lump crab, a thin and crunchy cake with a wonderfully smoky Pensacola seafoodCajun type of sauce (I couldn’t convince the chef to share his secret recipe) from Appetite for Life catering and a tasty effort with roasted corn and mango salsa from 600 South restaurant. My husband and I also were impressed with the Crab Trap, which went over-the-top with a bonus fried softshell crab. The cookoff raises money for the non-profit ARC Gateway, which serves developmentally disabled children and adults, so it’s win-win-win for everybody. Read more at http://www.pnj.com/article/20090708/LIFE/907080311/1053/NEWS12/The-claws-come-out