Northwest Florida:
A SPECIAL PLACE IN TIME

BY SANDRA FRIEND

North West Florida - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

With its rural landscapes, vast pine forests, historic cities, and beachfront communities, the sweep of Florida's Panhandle from the Apalachicola River to the bayous of Alabama has its own special place in time. Much of it sits in the Central Time Zone and is home to some of the state's oldest settlements.

Well before Florida became part of the United States, this region had its share of explorers. In 1513, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León rambled through the region searching for gold, finding instead the deep waters of Pensacola Bay. Don Tristán de Luna established one of the New World's first European settlements in 1559 along its emerald shores.

Northwest Florida is a region of firsts. Where Gulf breezes shaped grand live oaks, Naval Live Oaks, a preserve set aside for cultivating the trees for shipbuilding in 1828, still stands today. Arcadia Mill, the state's first water-powered industrial complex, processed lumber and textiles. In 1851, air conditioning was invented by Dr. John Gorrie in Apalachicola, the state's first port city of significant size. Florida's first railroad served the community of St. Joseph, now Port St. Joe. The bricks of Highway 1, Florida's first cross-state road, are still visible near Milton. Florida's fishing industry thrives here, with the state's oldest seafood restaurants still serving up fresh harvests of shrimp, oysters, scallops, and fish caught just offshore.

A long, linear region that touches Georgia and Alabama, Northwest Florida is easily accessed from Interstate 10. To savor a slower drive through the rolling ridges, follow U.S. 90 or S.R. 20; U.S. 98 connects oceanfront and bayou communities along the Gulf of Mexico.

WHAT'S NEW

In Marianna, access the haunting Chipola River with ease at Hinson Conservation & Recreation Area. Riverfront caverns invite inspection as you canoe beneath ancient cypresses and oaks. Follow the lazy bends of the river from above while hiking or biking the Chipola River-Jackson County Greenway. Mountain bikers have room to roam at Conservation Park in Panama City Beach, a 2,900-acre preserve within a mile of the beach. More than 24 miles of wooded, marked riding routes provide access for wildlife watching.

Scramble ropes and canopy bridges at Baytowne Adventure Zone, where the zip line swoops across a lagoon at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Sky trail ropes, a euro-bungy, and a kids' playground round out the family fun.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Four fortresses once protected the deep-water port of Pensacola, the first European port in Florida claimed for Spain. 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. The nearby National Naval Aviation Museum is the home of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy's aerobatic squadron.

Experience pioneer life in Florida on a visit to the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement in Blountstown, where a collection of 18 historic buildings sets a backdrop for living history on a Florida farm. Watch milk bottled right at the source at the Ocheesee Creamery, a rural dairy.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Head into the cool depths of the earth at Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, home of Florida's only cave tour. Developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the underground route leads you past rimstone pools, sparkling stalactites and delicate soda straws.

On a guided tour through Historic Pensacola Village, visit homes ranging from a simple 1805 French Creole cottage to a grand Victorian from the 1890s. The Museum of Commerce feels like a stage set from the 1920s, complete with a streetcar, while the interactive Museum of Industry offers the sights and sounds of fishing, timbering and railroads.

Love lighthouses? Follow coastal U.S. 98 for tours with a view. The Crooked River Lighthouse stands inland near Carrabelle, while the Cape St. George Light dominates the barrier island of St. George Island. Towering adjacent to the sea, the Cape San Blas Lighthouse has resident bald eagles peering from the pines. Since 1859, the Pensacola Lighthouse has guided sailors to the deep waters of Pensacola Bay. All of these lighthouses offer moonlight tours in addition to daytime climbs.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

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 continuously operating library and the "Southern Chautauqua," the town of DeFuniak Springs, founded in 1885, 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 the renovated railroad-era Hotel DeFuniak—showcases Victorian architecture.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Apalachicola oysters are their own food group, served up with sprinklings of parmesan, chives, or "raw as you like" at restaurants scant feet from the water. Try them at Captain Snook's or The Hut in Eastpoint, or Papa Joe's, Boss Oyster and the Apalachicola Seafood Grill in Apalachicola. In Fort Walton Beach, check out Angler's Beachside Grill (a favorite for families with young children) and Staff's, serving up shrimp since 1913.

At The Grand Marlin in Pensacola Beach, the source of each seafood delight is noted on the menu. 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 Street for dining options ranging from sushi and Mexican to top-rated Jackson's Steakhouse or walk a couple of blocks to savor the venerable waterfront Pensacola Fish House.

Make the family smile with a visit to Thomas Donuts in Panama City Beach, where breakfast—not just donuts—comes hot and fresh. After dark, 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.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Northwest Florida is the "in spot" for sport fishing, with Destin claiming to be the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village." With deep water not far offshore, sailfish and cobia are prime catches.

Milton is Florida's canoeing capital, and for good reason. It's where Coldwater Creek and Juniper Creek combine their waters into the clear, sand-bottomed Blackwater River in the heart of Blackwater River State Forest. Adventures Unlimited offers paddling and tubing trips, with cabins and camping on-site at a base camp for outdoor excursions.

More than 250 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail rambles through the wild spaces of Northwest Florida. Backpack for a week over the rolling ridges of Nokuse Plantation and Eglin Air Force Base beneath ancient longleaf pines, or dip into shorter sections for day hikes.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Try a taste of the Caribbean at Pier Park, a themed open-air mall just a block from Panama City Beach, complete with amusement rides. Browse downtown Pensacola's galleries for inspired creations.

Stroll Apalachicola to find unique treasures on every block, from fish sculptures to handmade chocolates, sponges harvested from the Gulf, dressy apparel and nautical antiques. Go wild for retro style in Fort Walton Beach, where the antiques district offers dozens of boutiques, thrift stores and specialty shops.

SCENIC DRIVES

Follow Scenic 30A to discover one of the rarest shorelines in the world, defined by Florida's coastal dune lakes. Connecting 15 beach communities along 18.5 miles of the Gulf of Mexico in South Walton, Scenic 30A offers views across these pine-edged oceanfront lakes and access to the beach at dozens of points along the way, including the New Urbanism center of Seaside and the dunes of Blue Mountain Beach.

In the Apalachicola National Forest, the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway immerses drivers in the wilds of one of Florida's most botanically rich regions. 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 the seafood shacks.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Climb for the sky at Florida Zip Line Adventures, where 14 zip lines connect sky bridges, observation towers, and an aviary amid lush forests over Coldwater Creek in Milton. Get to Fort Walton Beach's Gulfarium for up-close encounters with the mammals found along Florida's Gulf Coast. With Southern Star Dolphin Cruises in Destin, search for dolphins in the sea. Play pirate on the Sea Dragon or slip down the waterslides at Shipwreck Island on Panama City Beach, a family vacation community that's home to Hidden Lagoon, a massive go-kart and mini-golf complex. Lions and tigers also take center stage here at Zooworld.

INSIDER'S TIP

Northwest Florida is one of the best places in North America to see carnivorous pitcher plants, with six varieties found in pine forest bogs. Late March to mid-April is the best time to observe the blooms. Tarkiln Bayou State Park, Garcon Point Preserve, Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park, Blackwater River State Forest, and the Apalachicola National Forest are hot spots for these botanical beauties.

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