Northwest Florida:
A SLICE OF SOUTHERN Hospitality

BY STEVE WINSTON

North West Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

There’s a place in Florida that’s different . . . different, in fact, than anywhere else in the state.

It’s a place where you can find a hundred miles of white-sand “sugar” beaches without the crowds. It’s a place that’s more “southern” than “Floridian” in its traditions and its manner, where “southern hospitality” is a fact of life, not just a slogan, where nouvelle cuisine is spiced with shrimp ’n grits, and where small-town charm long gone from most other tourist destinations exudes.

Located about 600 miles from South Florida, Northwest Florida is much closer to Birmingham, Alabama, or Atlanta, Georgia, than it is to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. In fact, it’s not even in the same time zone as the rest of Florida!

It’s a place with plenty of things to see, do and experience, however you can expect a relaxing ambiance and a heartfelt welcome from the local folks. And the pleasures are often sweeter and the prices usually lower.

If you’re seeking a place where the beaches are world-class, the waters are crystal clear, and the surprises are limitless, consider Northwest Florida.

WHAT’S NEW

Pier Park is already Panama City Beach’s premier shopping destination. So once the Pier Park North addition opens in the spring of 2014, there will be more than a million square feet of stylish shopping, dining and entertainment here. Nearby, the Aaron Bessant Park Amphitheater opened in April 2013; bring a lawn chair and enjoy great music!

The Pearl, the only five-star lodging in Walton County, opened in South Walton in summer 2013.

Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone in Fort Walton Beach is expected to open in the spring of 2014. Families will be able to take on zip lining, “sky trails,” ropes courses and mini-golf, all surrounded by the beauty of Okaloosa Island. Also in spring 2014, Jimmy Buffet will open a colorful Margaritaville restaurant in the shops of Destin’s HarborWalk Village.

In summer 2013, the city of Pensacola Beach launched its Footprints In the Sand Eco Trail, which takes you past abundant wildlife (including sea turtles) ecosystems warmed by sea breezes.

In Pensacola, the largest city in Northwest Florida (pop. 54,000), Bayfront Stadium opened in late 2012. It’s where you can watch the Pensacola Blue Wahoos baseball team take on their opponents in the Southern League. Pensacola is also welcoming a host of new restaurants along downtown’s Palafox Street.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Panama City Beach boasts the Gulf World Marine Park and the Man in the Sea Museum, both of which offer up-close and personal looks at the waters and wildlife off these shores. At WonderWorks, which appears upside down from the outside, science and fun come together in an interactive wonderland with a hundred hands-on exhibits.

In the Santa Rosa County town of Milton, you’ll find the Museum of Local History, which is located in the Imogene Theater, a vaudeville-era showpiece that’s been restored to its original glory. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a joy to tour.

Pensacola may be the only city of its size in America to have five professional arts companies, representing opera, ballet, symphony, theater and the visual arts.

Pensacola’s soul, however, lies in its past. This city’s roots go back to 1559, when the Spanish first arrived. Since that date, it’s actually flown the flags of five different countries—Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederacy and the US.

You can’t walk very far in Pensacola without bumping into an historic landmark. Fort Barrancas, for example, is a Royal Navy redoubt built in 1763 on the beautiful Gulf Islands National Seashore. There’s also Historic Pensacola Village, an authentic 1700s settlement, as well as the Historic Pensacola Lighthouse & Museum, built in 1859, where a climb up the 177 winding steps offers a stunning view from the top. Then, of course, there’s the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the training center for just about anyone who ever sat in the cockpit of a US combat plane, and home to the world-class National Naval Aviation Museum where you can strap yourself into the cockpit of a classic fighter.

Nearby Pensacola Beach is the site of Fort Pickens, completed in 1834 and housing Native American prisoners from 1886–87, the most famous of which was the Apache chieftain Geronimo.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

The Fort Walton Beach/Destin area is known as “The Emerald Coast” because of the emerald-green waters offshore over the summer months. Beaches along much of the northwest coast consist of sugar-white quartz, which was somehow transported from the southern Appalachian Mountains by ancient geologic upheavals and feels like soft powder.

In addition to this geologic wonder, the South Walton area has the dune lakes ecosystems. These brackish (half salt water, half fresh water) lakes change composition, size and shape according to the whims of the tides. You needn’t get out of the car to see them, either; scenic Route 30A passes over and around the dune lakes.

Take a Buccaneer Pirate Cruise in Destin’s beautiful harbor, where you’ll see mock battles and even have a chance to swab the decks.

From Pensacola, drive to Perdido Key on the Gulf Islands National Seashore for a picnic in paradise. And if you’re in the area in July, Pensacola Beach offers the biggest event of the year in Northwest Florida—the Pensacola Beach Air Show, featuring jaw-dropping aerial acrobatics you’ll never forget.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

Northwest Florida is sprinkled with interesting eco parks, where you can picnic with the family amidst natural beauty and silence.

In South Walton, there’s a special town called Seaside, a planned community with pastel cottages and white picket fences and an ambiance that’s long gone from most other places. Nearby, Seagrove is a slice of Old Florida while Santa Rosa County’s Blackwater River State Park is a sweet spot for hiking, biking, birdwatching and horseback riding.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Wherever you eat, don’t leave Northwest Florida without sampling the local Apalachicola oysters!

Across from Pier Park in Panama City Beach, the Hook’d Pier Bar & Grill features beachfront dining and an amazing selection of freshly caught seafood at very reasonable prices.

South Walton offers an interesting array of dining contrasts, ranging from upscale restaurants such as Seagar’s, located on the beach in the Hilton Sandestin, to informal spots such as Stinky’s Fish Camp, where food comes fresh from the sea to your table.

Milton is known for the Old Post Office Antiques & Piano Café, which features good food and a superb collection of nautical antiques.

In Destin, head for Rosemary Beach, where Courtyard Wine & Cheese offers a notable wine collection, cheese and fondue specialties, live music, and an outdoor courtyard.

Pensacola Beach’s dining landmark, Frank & Lola Love Pensacola Café in the Margaritaville Hotel specializes in Cajun-style dishes and seafood. One of Pensacola’s liveliest spots is McGuire’s Irish Pub and brewery, where the Irish specialties are great and the music will have you tappin’ your toes.

Downtown Pensacola has a popular spot called the Fish House, an upscale dockside-dining establishment that overlooks beautiful Pensacola Bay. Near Seville Square, the cozy Dharma Blue on South Alcaniz Street offers a truly unique dining experience for lunch or dinner. Known for its full sushi bar, available nightly, it also features a wide selection of fresh seafood entrees as well as steaks, pastas and game. Other choices include the award-winning Jackson’s Steakhouse, housed in an 1860s-era building and renowned for its flavorful, wet-aged beef cuts, and Carmen’s, a popular lunch bar.

If you’re talking about the ol’ southern influence, you won’t find it any stronger than at the colorful Flora-Bama Lounge, right on the Alabama state line. A family place by day, it’s a popular gathering spot with live music in the evening.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Northwest Florida lives outside. And why not? The sun shines 300 days a year here. You’ll run out of time long before you run out of things to do. Fish off piers, on lakes or on board ocean charters. Hike in state forests and parks. Kayak among the barrier islands. Cycle along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. View wildlife at any of the eco parks. Dive around the world’s largest artificial reef, the USS Oriskany. Snorkeling, paddleboarding, wave-running, surfing, swimming, parasailing, Snuba-ing (a cross between diving and snorkeling), aqua triking (giant bicycles that float on the water), sailing, golfing or strolling along those sugar-sand, white-powder beaches are just some of the activities waiting for you. Let your toes sink into the sand and feel its warmth embrace your soul.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Shopping in this slice of Florida runs the gamut from fashionable malls to one-of-a-kind boutiques and everything in between. In Panama City Beach, shop ’til you drop at Pier Park and at the cute little shops along the beach.

On the Emerald Coast, Historic Downtown Fort Walton Beach has an interesting variety of shops, as does Uptown Station. And you’ll find all sorts of charming little boutiques in Milton’s Historic District. South Walton offers the shops, restaurants and amusements at the Village of Baytowne Wharf at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the Silver Sands Premium Outlet in Miramar Beach, and the galleries in small towns along Route 30A.

Downtown Pensacola offers a vibrant retail and dining scene, especially along Palafox Street, as does the Portofino Boardwalk on Pensacola Beach.

BEAUTIFUL DRIVES

One of the best drives in this region is Highway 98 along the Emerald Coast. And in South Walton, one of the best drives isn’t a drive at all . . . it involves taking a beach-cruiser bicycle for a ride along the Timpoochee Trail.

Along the Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway, you’ll see huge oaks and magnolia trees, quaint restaurants and beautiful Escambia Bay.

An excellent drive takes you from Perdido Key to Pensacola Beach and across a three-mile-long bridge. Make it a point to drive along the Gulf Islands National Seashore—especially at sunset. It’ll take your breath away.

FAMILY ACTIVITIES

Northwest Florida is filled with fun—and funky—family things to do. For instance, one of America’s first mini-golf courses was built on Panama City Beach in 1959, and the Original Goofy Golf is still here, with sphinxes, buddhas and rocket ships.

The younger set will love the Heritage Park & Cultural Center in Historic Downtown Fort Walton Beach, where there’s an Indian burial mound museum, a 1912 schoolhouse and a circa 1918 post office museum. Fort Walton Beach is also home to perhaps the area’s biggest attraction. The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park offers an exciting look at the marine life and ecosystems around this area.

South Walton has a premier attraction, too, in the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, which provides insight into the region’s rich diversity of marine and animal life. And at any of the area’s five state parks, you might spot black bears, coyotes, red wolves and sea turtles.

Featuring white beaches fringed by sand pines and scrub oak, boardwalks, swimming, a playground, a nature trail and pavilions, Henderson Beach State Park in Destin is a great spot for a family picnic.

Or spend the better part of a day observing animal life at the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Santa Rosa County.

Then there’s fishing off a pier, a time-honored southern tradition that can be enjoyed at countless spots along the Northwest Florida coast.

INSIDER’S TIPS

Timing is everything. Which means it might be a good idea to think about visiting in the autumn, rather than during the peak summer season. Shops and restaurants are less busy, the weather is perfect and prices are lower.

The best place to “go local” in Santa Rosa Beach is The Red Bar. It’s, as some locals say with delight, a “total dive” and they love it for its eclectic decor, live music and great food.

Destin’s shopping, dining and entertainment mecca of HarborWalk Village is rated highly as “Best Place to be Seen” and “Best Place to Watch a Sunset” by readers of Emerald Coast Magazine; “Coolest Place to Take the Kids” by On the Coast Magazine; and “Best Place to Propose” by the Northwest Daily News.

The best fishing spot in Santa Rosa County is the pier at Navarre Beach while the Portofino Boardwalk in Pensacola Beach is a great place for people-watching. Joe Patti’s Seafood has been a Pensacola landmark since the 1930s, and it’s still one of the largest in the Southeastern US. Seafood comes straight from the water to the market. Locals enjoy picking up some steamed shrimp, bread and cheese for a picnic in a park.

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