Northwest Florida:
Explore Hidden Treasures

BY SANDRA FRIEND

NorthWest Florida Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

FFor seaside serenity and outdoor recreation, there is no finer getaway than Florida's Northwest Region. Known for broad sand beaches and the emerald-green waters that lap its Gulf Coast shoreline, some of its larger cities have roots dating back to the first settlements along the Gulf of Mexico. Smaller communities—some thoroughly modern and others with laid-back personalities—offer a true sense of place. The great majority of the region sits in a different time zone than the rest of the state and has a long history of being separate from mainstream Florida. Sometimes called "the other Florida," this sweep of land exudes a Deep South flavor and hospitality to match.

Located west of peninsular Florida and the state capital of Tallahassee, the region is bordered by the Gulf Coast in the south, Alabama in the west and Georgia to the north. Contained within this long, narrow corridor are vibrant towns, quaint communities, sprawling beaches, pine forests, bucolic countrysides, rural roads lined with oaks dripping Spanish moss, major rivers such as the Apalachicola, rich coastal estuaries and a host of freshwater springs.

WHAT'S NEW

Opened in May 2010 near Panama City Beach, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport is the first international airport to be built in the United States in the past 10 years (iflybeaches.com). Poised to be the region's major gateway offering easy and convenient access to the area and its Gulf Coast communities, the airport is currently served by Delta and Southwest Airlines.

Soar with Florida Zip Line Adventures over forest canopies and clear, sand-bottomed streams while seeing Florida from a whole new perspective. Trips include a combination of zip-lines and sky bridges with three levels of difficulty (floridaziplineadventures.com).

CITY LIGHTS

For glitzy neon and flashy nightlife, head to the shores of Panama City Beach (visitpanamacitybeach.com) where the sound of lapping waves serves as backdrop to music emanating from a variety of nightlife spots. Much like a younger Miami Beach, the condo-lined waterfront is conducive to spending quality time with friends, family and new acquaintances.

A compact and easily walkable city, Apalachicola's "foodie" culture is built on its seafaring traditions (apalachicolabay.org). Here, oysters, crab, fish and shrimp have been harvested for generations and the continuous bounty from Apalachicola Bay means good eating at a dozen different dining venues. Apalachicola Bay oysters, for instance, are often ranked among the best in the world by chefs and food lovers alike.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

With hundreds of miles of beachfront to choose from, whether the choice is T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula (floridastateparks.org/stjoseph) for its wild shore or popular Pensacola Beach (visitpensacolabeach.com), spending lazy days on the Gulf Coast sand is a vacation indulgence.

Blackwater River State Forest (fl-dof.com/state_forests/blackwater_river.html) has excellent rivers for canoeing and kayaking tours orchestrated by Adventures Unlimited (adventuresunlimited.com).

Slip into a freshwater spring and learn to scuba dive at Vortex Spring dive resort (vortexspring.com) or go for a day-float tubing down a wilderness waterway with Bear Paw Adventures (bearpawescape.com).

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

The Gulf Coast city of Pensacola dates back more than four centuries when Spanish conquistador Don Tristan de Luna landed there in 1559 with a contingent of soldiers, priests and settlers. An important deepwater port during Spanish rule and into the Civil War period, present-day Pensacola boasts a vibrant downtown where various cultures mingled over the centuries to create a unique blend of architecture: Spanish fortresses, French ironwork and British colonial homes are all part of the mix. Historic Pensacola Village and the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum are the best places to learn about the history and culture of Northwest Florida (historicpensacola.org).

Representing the grandeur of antebellum plantation life, the focal point of the Eden Gardens State Park is the Wesley Mansion, an elegant 1898 plantation house set alongside a bayou amid ornamental gardens and grand oaks. Today the home features the second-largest-known collection of Louis XVI furnishings in America, thanks to New York heiress Lois Maxon who purchased the home in 1963 (floridastateparks.org/edengardens).

In a community isolated by the sweep of Apalachicola Bay, exploring the quaint small town of Apalachicola is one of the region's best cultural immersions. Founded in 1831, it is one of America's top National Trust sites whose primary lodgings are all historic properties (apalachicolabay.org).

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Serving as the base of the Blue Angels (blueangels.navy.mil), the US Navy's aerobatic squadron, Pensacola Naval Air Station is also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum (navalaviationmuseum.org), a huge attraction for aviation enthusiasts.

Venture beneath Florida's surface on the only cave tour in the state at Florida Caverns State Park, a historic landmark and geological wonder (floridastateparks.org/floridacaverns).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

Scenic highway 30A (30a.com) is the gateway to a string of coastal resort communities, such as Seaside (seasidefl.com), ideal for family getaways and the epitome of perfect planning and modern urbanism. Surrounded by nature but with all the amenities of an upscale resort, WaterColor Inn & Resort (watercolorresort.com) is a beachfront gem. Centered around a vibrant shopping and dining complex, Sandestin Resort (sandestin.com) offers not just beach access but also activities on its bayside.

SPECIAL EVENTS

Florida's oldest maritime event, the Florida Seafood Festival (floridaseafoodfestival.com) takes over Apalachicola in November. In early March, the Gulf Coast Renaissance Fair in Pensacola is an "eat, drink and be merry" event featuring jousting knights, magicians, falconers, Arabian dancers, jesters and jugglers (gcrf.net). A Northwest Florida favorite is the Sandestin Wine Festival in April. It features more than 600 wine vintages, many of them hard to find, for tasting and purchase (sandestinwinefestival.com). A parade extravaganza on March 5, 2011 marks the end of Pensacola's annual Mardi Gras season that begins in late February.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

An hour west of Tallahassee, learn how to press sugar cane or shape a horseshoe at the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement (ppmuseum.org), a living history complex showcasing Florida's pioneer past. At Panama City Beach, join a pirate crew on the Sea Dragon (piratecruise.net) or ride a wild slide at Shipwreck Island Waterpark (shipwreckisland.com) where flumes and floats surround a half-million-gallon wave pool.

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