From western Louisiana down to the Texas coastal bend, beaches are wider and browner than Florida's. The gulf can look brownish-green due to rivers emptying into it, but it gets bluer the farther south you go. Here's my assessment of 5 popular beach towns:
—Holly Beach, La.
Once a hopping spot on the western corner of Louisiana, the so-called Cajun Riviera was wiped out by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and again by Hurricane Ike in 2008. It's now just a few small streets with lonely trailers and houses.
The beach is wide and beautiful. Holly Beach is adjacent to the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. The nearest store is 20 miles away. You can rent one of eight trailers on the beach in the summer for $75 a day from Eric Monceaux (www.cajunriviera.com, 337-569-2318): "I'm pretty much the only game in town," he says.
—Crystal Beach, Texas
Most beachfront property on the Bolivar Peninsula in East Texas was destroyed by a 20-foot storm surge from Ike. But Crystal Beach is in vigorous rebuilding mode, with some nice beachfront homes ready to rent. Crystal Beach is a short, free ferry ride from busy Galveston (www.crystalbeach.com, 409-684-5940).
In 2008, Ike flooded the town so badly even residents had to stay away. But it has made an amazing recovery. Locals may see what's still undone, but tourists will notice only that hotels are open, and beaches, water parks, bars and restaurants are bustling.
Galveston is both a cruise and commercial port. Its elegant island architecture is mixed with kitschy attractions and too many high-rises, but there is lots to do. Coolest museum is the Ocean Star — a real retired oil rig. Tons of vacation rentals and hotels (www.galveston.com, 866-505-4456).
—Port Aransas, Texas
Port A, as the locals call it, is an exuberant spring break spot, a slightly ramshackle beach town featuring huge souvenir shops that stock skimpy bikinis and raunchy t-shirts.
As on all Texas beaches, you can drive on the wide, tan sand. Drive south and encounter tamer areas of Mustang Island, where Winter Texans from the north have found nirvana. Lots of vacation rentals (www.portaransas.org, 800-452-6278).
—Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Pristine Padre Island National Seashore runs for 110 miles. The seashore here is gorgeous, with blue, big waves crashing on beaches on the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. Find hotels, restaurants and other signs of civilization on the island's far north end and in nearby Corpus Christi, but once in the park it's just you and nature. Don't confuse Padre Island with South Padre Island, the well-known beach resort 160 miles south (www.visitcorpuschristitx.org, 800-678-6232).