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Gulf Gastronomy

The Gulf may be America’s tastiest coastline.

Among the foodie experiences found along the Gulf Coast region are festivals that celebrate seafood, real-life shrimping trips, tours to taste most famous hot sauces and dining with feet in the sand.

Here’s a look at some of the culinary experiences for groups that visit the Southern states along the Gulf Coast.

Annual National Shrimp Festival

Gulf Shores, Alabama

The four-day Annual National Shrimp Festival is held the second weekend of October along the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The shrimp that’s served a variety of ways by 50 local and regional food vendors comes directly from the Gulf of Mexico at this annual event. In addition to plenty of food, there’s live music on two stages and local craft vendors with coastal artwork for sale — much of it showcasing shrimp.

Contests are also part of the mix. On a nearby beach, contestants build sand sculptures. High school vocalists compete in a singing competition. A Miss Shrimp Festival is crowned during a pageant.

The festival began in 1971 with a goal of bringing visitors to the beaches after Labor Day and it appears to have succeeded. The festival averages 250,000 in attendance every year and was named the 2016 Alabama Tourism Event of the Year by the Alabama Department of Tourism.

“Our festival is unique because we are just steps away from the beach,” said Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “You can enjoy fresh shrimp with your feet in the sand.”

South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival

Miramar Beach, Florida

Sample a taste of Florida and beyond at the South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival. For four days in mid-April, guests enjoy tastings and a culinary village that features food and wine pairings, celebrity winemakers and chef demonstrations. As they tackle more than 800 wines offered for tasting, guests can meet wine industry insiders and often the winemakers.

In the evening, the Craft Beer and Spirits Jam features live music, cocktail samplings and local craft beer vendors. Located on 40 acres alongside Grand Boulevard at Sandestin — a resort known for its shopping and dining district — the festival attracts locals along with visitors.

“We’ve found that guests enjoy strolling the culinary village for bites to eat and drink and stop in at the adjacent stores for some shopping too,” said Karen Morris, director of sales for Walton County Tourism. “It is a really great event for guests and our merchants too.”

Named one of the South’s outstanding food and beverage festivals by USA Today, the festival welcomed more than 5,500 wine and food fans in 2023. Past event participants have included James Beard Award winners Emeril Lagasse and Norman Van Aken.

Proceeds support the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation. Since it was founded in 2005, the organization has donated more than $18 million to Northwest Florida charities by hosting wine and culinary events.

Tabasco Brand Factory Tour and Museum

Avery Island, Louisiana

Things heat up in Avery Island, Louisiana, during stops at the Tabasco Brand Factory and Museum, where the McIIhenny family has made Tabasco sauce for over five generations. Self-guided museum tours visit the pepper greenhouse, the barrel warehouse and the Tabasco Country Store. As they learn about how peppers are grown and processed, visitors also learn the history of Avery Island and of Tabasco sauce.

The adjacent Tabasco Restaurant 1868 serves authentic Cajun dishes, Southern comfort food and has a ‘build your own Bloody Mary’ drink menu. Different varieties of Tabasco hot sauce can be sampled on dishes like spicy chicken wings, chicken and sausage gumbo or signature Tabasco chili. Reservations are recommended for the museum, and group discounts are available for parties of 20 or more.

Included with admission is Jungle Island, a 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary with nature trails. A bus route makes it possible to do a driving tour.

Shrimping with Biloxi Cruise Company

Biloxi, Mississippi

Get ready to set sail with the Biloxi Cruise Company on a shrimping trip through protected area waters between Mississippi’s Deer Island and the Biloxi shoreline. On 70-minute cruises, up to 49-passengers can learn first-hand about the history of the shrimping industry and see what it takes to catch shrimp in the Gulf. They see how and where nets are cast and can have a hands-on lesson in casting methods. They also see what creatures, including shrimp, are caught in the fishing nets. Shrimping cruise tour hours vary by season, with three sailings each day.

Group packages include a shrimp boil lunch, a tour of the nearby Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum and a guided tour of Biloxi. The museum covers the history of the seafood industry through exhibits, artifacts and photography. Guided, customized tours are available for groups of 10 or more.

Galveston Oktoberfest

Galveston, Texas

Texas’ three-day Galveston Oktoberfest celebrates everything German. The festival begins with a “tapping of the keg” but is about way more than beer. There’s a multi-course German dinner of German and Polish-style sausages, contests for the best German costume and tastiest German chocolate cake, and tests of strength with the Bavarian sport of Masskrugstemmen — a challenge to see who can hold a beer stein the longest. Music floats in the background as German bands perform traditional music throughout the day.

The First Lutheran Church of Galveston is the festival’s official location, and the event covers two blocks surrounding the church. The Galveston Island Trolley Downtown Loop offers easy access to the event with a stop at the festival entrance.

In addition to group rates at area hotels, the Lutherhill Galveston Retreat Center can accommodate groups of up to 48 people 10 blocks from the beach.