I’ve covered my aversion to flying with babies before, but my wife and I don’t want to stop traveling. That means a heavy dose of road trips for a little while, anyway. Last month, we took our first lengthy road trip with Ashok, then 8 1/2 months old. Our short weekend getaway in November gave us an idea of what to expect. But this would be a much longer drive, to the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Gulf Shores isn’t THAT long a drive from Dallas in absolute terms. It’s about 650 miles, and you can get there in about 10 hours. But with a baby? Not a chance we’re doing that in one stretch. So we decided to take the long way down.
Trip Report Index:
- Introduction: 2 Moms, a Baby, and 1,624 Miles
- Creole Nature Trail of Louisiana – A Virtual Driving Tour
- Short Takes: A Baby Friendly Tour of New Orleans
- Review: Hotel St. Marie, New Orleans
- Review: Phoenix All Suites Hotel, Gulf Shores, Alabama
- Sun, Fun, Sand, and Seafood on the Redneck Riviera
- Back in Time: The Historic Homes of St. Francisville, Louisiana
- Review: Magnolia Bluffs Casino Hotel, Natchez, Mississippi
Meanwhile, my mom has been kind enough to help us out with baby duties. I thought it only fair to invite her on an all-expense paid beach vacation. She graciously accepted. Hey, two moms are better than one, right? Plus, the extra hand would be greatly appreciated by a couple of new parents.
You may be thinking, what’s the points and miles connection with this trip? Well, I used the expenses to help meet the minimum spend on my new SPG Amex. So I did get 35,000 Starpoints out of the deal, without actually setting foot in a Starwood hotel. Just goes to show, life is all about points and miles, even when it’s not about points and miles. Otherwise, this isn’t a typical trip report. If you’re looking for premium class air travel and hotel point redemption strategies, stop reading. What I hope to show is that when neither of those are an option, you can still earn points for later. That, and provide some advice for others thinking of road tripping across the country with the little ones.
The Driving Plan
As I mentioned, we decided to take the long way to Alabama. Like, the REALLY long way. We’d stretch one day into four, stopping at Lake Charles and New Orleans on the way. In addition, we’d be taking the scenic route along the Gulf of Mexico much of the way.
So why Lake Charles? Because I’ve long wanted to check out the Creole Nature Trail, a scenic byway through the marshes and coastal prairies of Southwest Louisiana. The stretch along the Texas – Louisiana border also allowed for a quick stop at the beach. This would be Ashok’s first look at the beach, and give us all a chance to stretch our legs. Lake Charles also marked the 400-mile point, which we figured out was Ashok’s limit on our first trip.
We’d then take the scenic route through Cajun Country to the Big Easy for two nights. New Orleans used to be a frequent destination for us. My dad loved the city, so we’d tag along whenever he went. However, I haven’t been back since before Hurricane Katrina hit. A reintroduction to an old friend with my son seemed a perfect idea.
Then, we’d crawl along the old highway along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts to Gulf Shores. Located just 15 miles from the Florida border, we planned to sneak across the state line once. Hey, we wanted to give Ashok bragging rights about number of states visited before his 1st birthday. Florida would make it 8. A visit to Gulf Islands National Seashore would also mark one more National Park off the list.
Compared to our meandering eastbound route, the return would be a quicker direct route, with just one overnight on the way in Natchez, Mississippi. The highlights: a planned visit to a plantation near Baton Rouge, and a visit to my hometown of Rusk, Texas to visit family.
The Hotel Plan
So as I mentioned, there’s not much to this trip from a hotel points perspective. Part of this is just the nature of the beast. Smaller cities like Lake Charles and Natchez aren’t exactly swimming with premium points options, after all. And let’s face it, you’re probably not dying to read reviews of roadside Comfort Inns. That left two options for points, New Orleans and Gulf Shores.
Starting in New Orleans, we wanted to stay in the French Quarter. As a Hilton guy, the chain, amazingly, doesn’t have a hotel in the French Quarter itself. Initially, I’d planned to pick a hotel on Canal Street or St. Charles, an easy walk to the Vieux Carre. But then a Kayak search turned up an interesting option – the Hotel St. Marie, an independent boutique just half a block from Bourbon Street. Best of all, $143 a night got us a large room with a view of the flowered courtyard. I figured the courtyard might make a useful baby distraction (Ashok loves flowers), so we decided to go with that.
Meanwhile, in Gulf Shores, the issue proved more vexing. A three-night stay in a beach resort area would seem the perfect place to earn or use points. The problem: the Redneck Riviera as it’s called offers little in the way of chains. That’s either a feature or a bug, I suppose, depending on your point of view. The only options: a Best Western in Gulf Shores, and a Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn, and Holiday Inn Express in nearby Orange Beach. Or we’d have to go all the way to Pensacola Beach for a Hilton, which added another hour to the trip. Any of which would run close to $200 a night. None of those struck me as worthwhile options. Plus, we really wanted a kitchen to make things easier with the baby, and none of those hotels offered rooms with one.
Why the lack of big name hotels? The area is dominated by vacation rentals. In general, those aren’t my thing. When I’m on vacation, I really don’t want to have to make my own bed, for one thing. But I came across a unique option – the Phoenix All Suites Hotel. It’s billed as a hybrid between a hotel and a rental, with things like partial maid service and a 24-hour front desk. And I could get a kitchen, and a view of the Gulf, all for about $50 a night less than what the chains offered. Sold. And I’m thinking this view from our balcony will sell you, too.
The only bummer: because a property management company runs the Phoenix, I couldn’t use the Citi Prestige fourth night free benefit. Even then, three nights at full price still worked out cheaper due to the price difference. As it turned out, getting home a day early made things a lot easier anyway.
A Preview in Pictures
While I’ll save Ashok’s first time beach reaction for later, the Creole Nature Trail itself does make for nice sightseeing.
Next stop: New Orleans. We ended up not doing quite as much as we planned. But when you’re staying in the French Quarter, there’s lots to see just on a leisurely afternoon stroll.
And of course, a couple of days in New Orleans meant food. Lots of food, from beignets and chicory coffee for breakfast…
…to barbecue shrimp and poboys during the day…
Meanwhile in Alabama, we enjoyed a gorgeous sunny beach day our first day.
Ashok also made a new friend at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.
Clouds moved in the next day, leaving us a still pretty but moody beach instead.
And of course, we kept on eating. Yes, it’s true, we Southerners like our food fried.
On the long way home, we passed a collection of gorgeous old homes in the genteel Southern town of St. Francisville, Louisiana.
Then we wrapped things up with a visit to my old hometown. It appears it’s Ashok approved.
As always, the post list is subject to changes, and the entire report will take several weeks to complete. Enjoy the ride!