By Bree Sposato
August 03, 2009

The Gulf Islands—a string of seven scenic barrier isles with white sand beaches, nature trails, and historic fortifications that stretch from the southwest corner of Mississippi to the east end of Florida—have finally reopened after suffering severe damage in 2005 from Hurricane Katrina, and are ready for visitors. About $42 million in all—$23 million for facility and infrastructurerepairs (trails, buildings, campground, cleanup, etc.) and $19.1million for all the roads—was spent on clean-up and repair efforts.

While each island has something to offer, our favorite is quiet Santa Rosa Island. Start your trip on U.S. 98 and take it to the new Naval Live Oaks Visitor Center (850/934-2600) in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where you can peruse books about local natural history. After crossing a three-mile bridge, head west on Fort Pickens Road for seven miles until you reach the 1829 stronghold; after, you can spend the afternoon on the snow-white beach, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, snorkel off the pier to spot seahorses, pinfish, and the remains of the USS Massachusetts, a 1920s battleship. From there, pick up J. Earle Bowden Way, a winding road along the Gulf of Mexico with views of bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the distance.

Bree Sposato is an editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure.