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Cape San Blas on the Gulf Coast.
Cape San Blas on the Gulf Coast.

A tour of the Gulf Coast scrubbed (almost) clean Add to ...

More important, it's about a 30-second walk from the water to the sight I've really come to see: a plate full of oysters. At That Place Off 98, you can get them raw on the half-shell, Rockefeller style (spinach, garlic, Parmesan), southern fried (breaded, served with horseradish), Apalach (garlic, bacon, mozzarella), or – I didn't make it through the rest of the list. I had already ordered. Not that you have to pick just one. A dozen raw cost just $7.75.

The only problem is that eating on the coast requires a strange kind of self-control. In a cornucopia of food, stomach space becomes a precious commodity, to be rationed only to the most appealing of flavours.

And yes, oysters are prime material. But so is the locally harvested bowfin caviar. And the blackened swordfish. And the alligator po'boy. And the shrimp and grits – a meal that is great at breakfast and better if you repeat it for dinner. And the grouper sandwich. And the filet of fried catfish, with a side of wood-smoked ribs, served in a to-go bag so it can be savoured on the beach. And the platter of brilliant-red boiled crawfish.

And the mother of them all: a meal at King Neptunes' Seafood Restaurant, in Gulf Shores, Ala., where I return after the Florida venture. It starts with crab bisque, then moves to a plate full of royal reds, a kind of large deepwater shrimp served with full head and shell. Closing duties belong to the New York cheesecake, rolled in corn flakes, deep-fried and crusted with pralines. It's the kind of dessert that requires compromise: Either you forfeit the last bites of a towering culinary achievement, or you risk potentially serious medical damage. There must be a hospital nearby, I reason.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between how well-travelled a road is and how interesting it is. This is true at Cape San Blas, Fla., where a small strip of pavement leads to an aging lighthouse that offers a full moon hike to the top. It's true along another great southern waterway, the Mississippi, where a dead-end road leads to a centuries-old leprosarium. It's true when the road turns rough and uneven alongside gulf waters in the state of Mississippi, where a hurricane-devastated region has yet to rebuild the skeletal remains of many houses and a hand-painted church sign boasts: “Katrina was big but God is bigger.”

And, I figure, it will be true at Fort Morgan, which lies at the end of a great sandy finger of Alabama shore, away from the madness that has erupted in Gulf Shores. The region's first post-spill season has officially begun, and the madhouse has returned. Bikinis are back at the beach. Children play in the water. The streets are clogged. Lines snake out of restaurants. Patios are jammed. A DJ calls out the jitterbug over throbbing club music.

But with the narrow road beckoning, I head west, past the dunes and oak trees to Fort Morgan. It's a U.S. Civil War site, the failed Confederate defence against David Farragut, the U.S. Navy admiral famous for uttering some version of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” It is, today, an open canvas for reimagining the past, with open rooms that invite exploration and walls that, when I climb them, look out on waters blanketed with fog.

A trail leads to the water's edge. I follow it. It is quiet in the fog. A fisherman pulling a cooler and gear stops to clean away sand before loading it into his car. I stop to ask what he has caught. Nothing but two stingrays, he says, speaking through a tracheotomy with a deep rasp. Then he points to the tires he has been cleaning.

“That's oil,” he says. “It's terrible.”

It takes me a moment to understand. Oil? As I lean over, I see that a sticky black substance has caked onto the tires.

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