Northwest Florida:
A Unique SENSE OF PLACE

BY SANDRA FRIEND

North West Florida Visitors Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

With an inviting mix of seaside resorts, historic cities, and rural charm, Northwest Florida offers vacationers "the other Florida," a region unhurried and definitely Deep South in its warmth and hospitality.

Grand live oaks line cotton plantations and wheat fields along rural roads, while coastal US 98 connects two of Florida's oldest settlements—Pensacola and Apalachicola—with younger communities like Seaside and Rosemary Beach. Most of the region sits in the Central Time Zone, unlike the rest of Florida, which helps define the unique sense of place.

Emerald waters, shimmering white sand beaches and rolling dunes provide a perfect playground on the gentle shores of the Gulf of Mexico, with Panama City Beach in the middle of the region, a major destination for beachgoers throughout the South. Seafood is still harvested fresh from shallow bays, bayous and estuaries, with shrimp, oysters and scallops starring on coastal menus.

Inland, Florida's tallest ridges are topped with forests of towering longleaf pines, punctuated by sparkling freshwater springs for swimming and lazy creeks for kayaking and tubing.

Located west of the Florida peninsula and the state capital of Tallahassee, east and south of Alabama, and south of Georgia, this long, narrow corridor is easily accessed via Interstate 10.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

A walk through Historic Pensacola Village reveals the melting pot of cultural influences that shaped early Florida settlements. A guided tour ushers you into homes ranging from a simple 1805 French Creole cottage to an 1890s captain's home. The Museum of Commerce feels like a stage set from the 1920s, complete with a streetcar and carriages along a city block, while the interactive Museum of Industry offers the sights and sounds of fishing, timbering and railroads. Nearby, the National Naval Aviation Museum is the home of the Blue Angels, the US Navy's aerobatic squadron.

At Florida Caverns State Park, Florida's only show cave gets you beneath the rocky surface of Northwest Florida and into a world of sparkling stalactites, shimmering rimstone pools and delicate soda straws.

BEST DRIVE

Keep the windows down for a drive along the Big Bend Scenic Byway, connecting Apalachicola with Carrabelle and points east. The views across calm Gulf waters and shimmering bays are almost as good as the fresh oysters at seafood shacks like Captain Snook's in Eastpoint.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Four fortresses once protected the deepwater port of Pensacola, the first European port in Florida claimed for Spain in 1559 by Don Tristán de Luna. Explore the Spanish influence at Fort Barrancas, site of a series of Spanish and English forts since the 1700s. A maze of brick passageways surrounded by sea and dunes, the more extensive Fort Pickens, completed in 1834, served the American military through the 1940s.

In Apalachicola, you can tour historic homes or you can sleep in them. Founded in 1831, this port city is part of America's National Trust and easily explored on foot. Free tours of the Raney House offer insights into the plush delights of a cotton merchant's life, while a stay at the Coombs House Inn lets you luxuriate in the finery of a lumber baron's legacy.

Home to Florida's oldest library and the "Southern Chautauqua," founded in 1885, the town of DeFuniak Springs is an architectural delight. Centered on a perfectly round lake, the historic residential district—bordered by the original Chautauqua meeting hall and a downtown with a renovated railroad-era hotel—the Hotel DeFuniak showcases Victorian architecture.

FAMILY ATTRACTIONS

Get to Florida's Gulfarium for up-close encounters with the mammals found along Florida's Gulf Coast. With Southern Star Dolphin Cruises, search for dolphins in the sea. Play pirate on the Sea Dragon or slip down the waterslides at Shipwreck Island, where flumes and floats surround a half-million-gallon wave pool. Lions and tigers take center stage at Zooworld in Panama City Beach, a community that's home to a host of family entertainment, including Hidden Lagoon, a big go-kart and mini-golf complex.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Follow Scenic 30A to play along one of the most rare shorelines in the world, defined by Florida's coastal dune lakes. Found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and along Northwest Florida's coast, these unusual freshwater lakes tip into the sea when full. Kayak, paddleboard or hike around these lakes at places like Topsail Hill, Grayton Beach and Camp Helen State Parks.

Paddle past waterfalls and bubbling springs on an adventure along Econfina Creek or take an inner tube—and the kids—to quiet Turkey Creek for a gentle afternoon on the water. At Adventures Unlimited, getting away from it all means cabins and camping, rope courses and zip lines, and plenty of paddling in Blackwater River State Forest, one of the largest wild spaces in the region.

SHOPPING VENUES

Go wild for retro style in Fort Walton Beach, where the antiques district offers dozens of boutiques, thrift stores and specialty shops.

NIGHTLIFE

Downtown Pensacola is the center for evening enjoyment at venues like Play, where playing Skee-ball while sampling microbrews is part of the scene at this adult "barcade." Vinyl Music Hall serves up music acts and the Saenger Theatre trots out comedians, musicals and the Pensacola Symphony. Walk down Palafox for an array of dining options from sushi and Mexican to top-rated Jackson's Steakhouse.

After dark at Panama City Beach, the party still goes on. Alive with the rhythms of the night, the condo-lined waterfront rocks at venues like Club La Vela. It's America's largest nightclub, with its themed dance spaces and VIP rooms.

RESORTS

Play the Jimmy Buffet way—with cheeseburgers in paradise and a cool drink by the pool—at the new Margaritaville Beach Hotel on Pensacola Beach. For family gatherings, Seaside, a perfectly-planned oceanfront community (as seen on The Truman Show), provides a relaxing getaway.

WHAT'S NEW

Renovations at several historic lighthouses have opened them up for public tours. The Crooked River Lighthouse provides a panorama of Carrabelle Beach, while the Cape San Blas Lighthouse peers out over the Gulf waters and St. Joseph Bay. The reconstructed Cape St. George Light is now the most prominent feature on St. George Island.

Orlando Sanford International Airport
SeaWorld
Royal Shell
Orange Lake
Crystal River
Mexico Beach
Navarre Beach
Florida Keys
Florida Southern College
Franklin County