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SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY BY THE SEA
Where sugar-white sands meet emerald waters, everything about a Florida vacation is different here. The northwestern region known as the Panhandle rests partly in another time zone, another temperature zone, another mindset. It’s as southern as cheese grits, yet as cutting-edge as the US Navy Blue Angels that fly out of Pensacola.
Eons ago, quartz particles flowed down the Apalachicola River from the Appalachian Mountains. A clear, green sea ground them to shining white granules that squeak underfoot like new-fallen snow. While Florida’s Atlantic beaches are brown sugar, the sand that rims the Gulf of Mexico here is saltshaker white.
The area also boasts its share of sites that are the oldest, newest or largest. Holding 12,000 years of Native American history, the Indian temple mound at Fort Walton Beach is one of the continent’s oldest archaeological sites. Other standouts include Historic Pensacola Village, where living history interpreters create a live tableau of bygone gardening, candle making, quilting and cooking. The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola houses the largest collection of naval warbirds in the world. One of the nation’s best stand of rare and ancient Torreya conifer pine trees can be seen in Torreya State Park.
Beaches hold the spotlight but serious nature lovers find additional treasures in pristine woods and inland waters. Rare and endangered flora and fauna are found in the state parks, where spring and fall migrations attract a who’s who of exotic birds. Hike to waterfalls and explore fern-filled sinkholes. At Marianna, visit the only Florida state park to offer tours of dry caves.
Now that some of the state’s trendiest resorts have come to the Panhandle, tourists are less likely to dismiss the area as the Redneck Riviera. The Forgotten Coast, a term trademarked in the 1990s by the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, is now used to refer to the coastline between Mexico Beach and St. Marks. A cosmopolitan citizenry includes naval officers from around the nation, Canadian snowbirds, who enjoy low-season rates during the winter, and international students at the University of West Florida and West Florida State College.
Once a summer playground for southerners, Northwest Florida is now an uptown year-round destination.
Two exciting additions are coming into the Florida State Parks system. Kids and their parents can take part in the updated Junior Ranger program similar to that available at national parks. Sign up, get your ranger credentials and see how many activities you can accomplish to earn a badge or pin. The parks now also offer geo-caching.
It’s great news for kids of all ages that the Miracle Strip Amusement Park at Panama City Beach continues to add new rides. A southern icon from 1963 until it closed in 2004, the park reopened under new management and continues to grow. Nostalgia buffs will love that many of the rides from the old park were found and restored by the new owners. Acquisitions include the 1964 Allan Herschell Carousel and the Tea Cups ride from 1978.
Seaside, a pioneer in new urbanism it calls the “simple, beautiful life,” established the Seaside Institute in the 1980s. New in the community’s lyceum area is the Seaside Institute Village consisting of a cluster of buildings devoted to education for both day visitors and boarders. Courses range from photography and writing to wellness programs.
Anchoring a city-size vacation community, the splendid Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf & Spa has a new look following a four-month, US$13-million renovation in 2014. The Hilton stands on the 2,400-acre Sandestin Resort, which includes a spread of shops, restaurants, recreation facilities ashore and afloat, and offers a wide range of accommodation. Its Village of Baytowne Wharf is the site of many special events, tournaments, concerts and festivals including the popular Gumbo Festival.
The new Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach Hotel has dazzling water features, a choice of dining venues and the chain’s famous Kids Suites with bunk beds and kid-friendly decor. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach has introduced a Kids Safari for children ages three and up. For an added fee, a 30-minute tour provides a behind-the-scenes peek at the park’s sea creatures and keepers.
The role of naval aviation in the space program is central to the new Apollo exhibit at the National Naval Aviation Museum, where a Lunar Module replica anchors the new display. Included are a replica Apollo spacesuit in a lunar landscape with “footprints” and a storyline explaining the Navy’s role in recovering command modules.
The population explosion at the Gulf Breeze Zoo continues to wow visitors, who delight in seeing the two little kangaroos and a giraffe born here in 2013. In 2014 the zoo welcomed its first spectacled owl chicks, and at press time a mama zebra was expecting.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos are giving baseball fans something to cheer about. The Double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds has moved to Pensacola, playing in minor league baseball’s Southern League. Games in the showplace Pensacola Bayfront Stadium are action-packed reminders that the city has long been a steppingstone to the major leagues. Pensacola baseball alumni include such immortals as Ted Williams, Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
ARTS AND CULTURE
Glorious seas, skies, sands and woodlands here have attracted scores of resident artists, many of whom have their own studios or galleries. Several Panhandle communities host gala Art Walk celebrations seasonally or throughout the year. Galleries keep longer hours, wine may be served, restaurants post special menus and music plays throughout the art districts as visitors browse, shop and mingle. Sometimes gallery night is part of a larger celebration in a street scene of food kiosks and performers. Apalachicola holds its Artwalk & Wine Festival annually in March. In Seaside, live music and art demos are offered the first Friday of the month at Ruskin Place and Central Square. Fort Walton Beach holds its Art Walk the third Friday. Artists along the Destin Boardwalk display their creations on third Sunday afternoons. Downtown Pensacola Gallery Nights are on Fridays but dates vary.
John Gorrie Museum State Park in Apalachicola is a modest site, but well worth a stop to view a replica of the ice-making machine invented by Dr. Gorrie to cool his patients during a yellow fever epidemic. The larger discussion here, shown in interpretive displays, is the important role yellow fever, malaria and other tropical agues played in the early Americas.
One of the region’s most intriguing cultural enclaves is in the time-warp hamlet of DeFuniak Springs, founded in the 1880s. Leaders of a quaint education movement of the 19th century known as Chautauqua, after its origins on Lake Chautauqua in New York, established a winter home on the scenic shores of what was then called Lake DeFuniak.
Revisit the early 1900s, when live vaudeville was giving way to movies, at the Museum of Local History in Milton. It’s housed in the stately Imogene Theatre, built in 1912 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Milton also has a railroad museum in a typical depot waiting room built in the 1880s to serve the Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad. The Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site in Milton preserves remnants of one of the largest antebellum water-powered industrial complexes in the Old South. Operations included a sawmill, lumber mill with planning and lathing machines, gristmill, a bucket factory, shingle mill, cotton textile mill and an experimental silk cultivation operation.
History buffs know Pensacola was settled earlier in the 16th century than St. Augustine but lost the right to call itself the nation’s oldest city when the original settlement on Pensacola Bay was abandoned. The city center is now built on the site of an early fort. Spanish culture survives in place names, architecture, cuisine and historic markers. The city, which served under five flags, had a brief French occupation and Britain’s Royal Navy built Fort Barrancas in 1763. Culturally aware, Pensacola has its own ballet, symphony, theater and art museum.
Costumed characters toil daily in Historic Pensacola Village, taking on the roles of candle makers, quilters, bakers and merchants who lived here centuries ago. The Museum of Commerce is a street scene of typical 18th- and 19th-century shops.
Opened in 1925 in downtown Pensacola, the Saenger Theatre, a relic of the golden age of Hollywood, has been restored to its original Spanish Baroque/Rococo magnificence. Ongoing programs include classic movie showings and a Broadway series, plus a busy schedule of classical and pop performances.
The Mattie Kelly Arts Center at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville provides a showcase for visiting artists as well as local talent, including the Northwest Florida Symphony and Northwest Florida Ballet.
With more than 200 miles of beaches along the Gulf coast, not to mention excellent beaches on bays, lakes and rivers, Northwest Florida is the ultimate beach vacation destination. The question is, which beach? If you’re staying in beachfront accommodation, a beach is on your doorstep. If not, you’ll need to find public beaches, perhaps with parking. Many are shown on free tourist maps available at hotels and other visitor stops, as well as on tourism websites listed here.
Panama City Beach is known for its nonstop energy, especially in March when students arrive for spring break. For a quiet picnic, the best beaches are the remote and pristine sands on Dog Island, Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park and T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. For families, the beaches at state parks are always a good choice. So is the Florida District of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a snowscape of beaches with bicycle and hiking trails, ranger-led nature programs, historic forts and spots for swimming, snorkeling and fishing.
One of the nation’s most credible beach experts is Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, a professor at Florida International University, also known as Dr. Beach. T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, St. Andrews State Park and Grayton Beach State Park are among his picks in this region.
The best shelling is not on the most popular beaches but in sheltered bays and on remote sand spits. Horse conchs might be found on the north side of Shell Island while Crooked Island Sound is a happy hunting ground after a storm. So are Mexico Beach and Cape San Blas. At marinas that offer day cruises, such as Capt. Anderson’s Marina in Panama City Beach, ask about shelling cruises that sail to beaches accessible only by boat.
DINING AND NIGHTLIFE
From fine dining to raw bars, Northwest Florida holds many pleasures for foodies. Plenty of eateries still offer the traditional shore meal of fried grouper, French fries and cole slaw. Apalachicola gave its name to sweet, succulent oysters, favored by many local chefs and served by the bushel at rustic raw bars throughout the region. Stinky’s Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach is known for “oysters all day, all ways” and a host of seafood specialties such as crawfish pie and catfish meunière.
For the south in your mouth, the area abounds in soul food favorites. Hole in the Wall Seafood in Apalachicola is known for southern, soul fare and seafood with a Creole accent. At Five Sisters Blues Café in Pensacola, you can sample such Dixie favorites as fried chicken, cornbread, pulled pork, fried okra and collards.
Luxury reigns at Havana Beach, the happening place for cocktails in The Pearl resort in Rosemary Beach. Thursday through Sunday, sing along at the piano bar. Gourmet food is served indoors, or you can enjoy small plates on the veranda.
Good taste reigns for all palates at the Firefly Bar and Library Lounge in Panama City Beach. An extensive menu offers options for children and early dining plus a variety of choices of soups, starters, sushi, pizza and specialty entrees, martinis and samplers. A comprehensive menu at Cuvee Bistro in Destin spans from crisp-crusted pizzas to duck, venison, steaks and a signature black pepper yellowfin tuna. The Cubi Bar Café in the National Naval Aviation Museum serves food and is also a museum exhibit based on the famous Cubi Point Officers’ Club that hosted naval aviators in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. It’s plastered with memorabilia from the original Plaque Bar.
The newest buzz on Pensacola Beach is the Casino Beach Bar & Grille, a Caribbean-style hangout at the foot of the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier. The iconic McGuire’s Irish Pub has locations in Pensacola and Destin.
All-day family fun is a definite promise at WonderWorks in Panama City Beach. More than 100 hands-on activities include its Ropes Course, Laser Tag, the Hurricane Shack with winds up to 71 mph and a bubble lab that generates giggles for all ages.
The Betsy Ann Riverboat at St. Andrews Marina in Panama City is a true sternwheeler. Miniature golf is always a hoot for families, especially when it’s the original Goofy Golf dating back to 1959 on Panama City Beach. Mini-golf by the same name is also found in Fort Walton Beach.
The Track Family Recreation Center in Destin is raw entertainment, a non-stop carnival with rides, bumper cars, mini-golf, a bungee jump, arcade games and much more. Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park in Destin is the place to cool off in summer with thrill rides and slides.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach showcases dolphins and other sea creatures, and kids love feeding the penguins. Day cruises are offered out of most major marinas in the region, with the focus being on dolphin-watching, shelling, diving, snorkeling or fishing.
Known as Florida’s Playground, Santa Rosa County brings together centuries of history and challenges. Explore Florida’s Playground Trail, made up of 12 sites connecting Navarre Beach, named one of the top 25 beaches in the US by TripAdvisor, and historic Milton. Following beautiful signage, begin at the Navarre Beach Marine Science Park, with an educational marine science station, a sea turtle conservatory as well as Gulf and near-shore reefs. Then follow a variety of sites along the beachfront, including the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier, the longest in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, and the Gulf Breeze Zoo, with more than 50 acres featuring hundreds of animals from around the world. At the Gulf Breeze Zoo, start with a 15-minute train ride and get a close-up view of wild animals roaming free. A boardwalk stroll provides a bird’s-eye view of the 30-acre habitat. Children can pet farm animals, meet with a zookeeper to learn about animals and feed a giraffe. Next, make your way to historic Milton, the Canoe Capital of Florida, and the Blackwater River State Park, for a variety of kayaking, canoeing, tubing and zip lining experiences.
The Pensacola Children’s Museum in Historic Pensacola Village has blossomed into a sensation filled with hands-on exhibits for kids. As kids play, they learn about the city’s multi-cultural past, its lumber and maritime industries, military history and the Native Americans who had a thriving community here in the 13th century.
The ultimate family experience for both amusement and learning is the National Naval Aviation Museum. Older children are sure to be wowed by the MaxFlight 360 flight simulators. Unlike arcade games, they’re the real deal. The museum is also the home of the Naval Flight Academy, which offers six-day programs for youngsters.
Drive US 98, the 157-mile-long stretch referred to as the Emerald Coast Route or the Gulf Coast Highway from historic Apalachicola to Gulf Breeze for almost non-stop views of shining waters and white sands. Although the trip can be done in a day, every hamlet offers a story and every lay-by beckons visitors to take a video and send an Instagram. The unhurried visitor can detour from the main highway to explore stunning St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula. Both are slender sand spits, alight with scenery but require backtracking to get back to US 98. Traffic gets denser around Panama City and Panama City Beach, both ideal locations for lodging and attractions.
Continuing west, drop down to State Road 30A at Inlet Beach for a beachfront ramble through vacation communities including Seaside and a visit to picturesque Grayton Beach State Park. Destin is a quaint village known for its fishing fleets and Fort Walton Beach offers sightseeing plus urban shopping, dining, lodging and attractions. Here, there’s a chance to leave US 98 again for a leisurely drive to Okaloosa and Santa Rosa Island. If you’re on a fast track you may prefer to stay with US 98. There will be other bridges later that can take you out to Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Depending on tourist traffic, shore roads can be slow going, and the only way back is to retrace your route through the same, dazzling scenery.
The fast lane through this region is Interstate 10, an alternate route with its own appeal. The route follows the Old Spanish Trail, blazed more than 400 years ago by Spanish traders traveling between St. Augustine and Pensacola. Just off the highway are the hospitable small towns of Chipley, Bonifay and DeFuniak Springs and such natural treasures as Ponce de Leon Springs, Falling Waters and Florida Caverns state parks, and the 189,848-acre Blackwater River State Forest.
Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Destin is the largest in the region with 110 stores. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is a city-size resort with a pedestrian village filled with shops and places to dine. The area’s natural beauty attracts artists specializing in all media from watercolor to fusion glass, textiles, jewelry and shell art. Places to find prominent galleries include Seaside and other communities along State Road 30A.
Portofino Boardwalk on Pensacola Beach is a typical Florida shopping, dining, entertainment, beach and water sports complex, well worth a whole day or entire evening. The Shell, a landmark amphitheater, is always a photo-op backdrop and often the setting for concerts. Arrive on the free trolley or ferry. Visitors may also come by boat and tie up at the dock, or drive in and park at the public beach.
Pensacola’s sprawling Cordova Mall, which has dozens of familiar chain stores, is anchored by a Dick’s Sporting Goods and an upscale Dillard’s.
Outstanding spa services and surroundings are found at Serenity by the sea in the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, InnSpa at the WaterColor Inn & Resort on Santa Rosa Beach and Serenity Spa at the Bay Point Wyndham Golf Resort & Spa in Panama City Beach. Guests at chichi beach communities such as Seaside and Rosemary Beach have a wonderful choice of day spas, many of which offer luxury services. The Pearl, a posh resort in Rosemary Beach, offers a signature facial with crushed pearls. Enjoy your treatments in the spa or in a poolside cabana.
The Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village in Destin is a full-service resort with a lavish spa. Guests and non-guests can buy membership in the fitness center on the second floor overlooking the Gulf.
The Escape Wellness Spa in Pensacola is one of the area’s largest, offering a wide range of treatments including skin care and prenatal massage. Also in Pensacola, Still Waters Day and Medical Spa offers a relaxation room, couples’ and deep-tissue massages and laser hair removal.
UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY
This region’s heyday was during the Victorian era, when opulent homes were built to house lumber and cotton barons. Today some of these mansions, such as Noble Manor in Pensacola, are bed and breakfasts.
Apalachicola’s Gibson Inn, built in unpretentious Florida Cracker style, is in the heart of town. Old-world style also graces the boutique Hotel DeFuniak. It’s two blocks from the lake and sits directly on the Southern Tier Route for bicycle riders who are undertaking the St. Augustine to San Diego challenge.
Bay Bares Park in Youngstown (northeast of Panama City) is a campground member of the American Association for Nude Recreation. Tent and RV sites are available.
Ranging from rustic to modern, rental cabins are found in state parks including St. Joseph Peninsula, Three Rivers, Topsail Hill Preserve and Grayton Beach. A wide choice of campgrounds ranges from primitive sites in government parks to lavish RV resorts.
Becks Lake Fish Camp & Wildlife Refuge in Cantonment isn’t a traditional farm stay, but it is a working farm that welcomes visitors to pitch a tent or hook up an RV, pick crops, paddle the river and go fishing in a pristine, outback setting.
Caribbean-style all-inclusives aren’t easy to find in Florida, but the Henderson Park Inn, a bed and breakfast in Destin, comes close by offering “everything” except dinner.
Look for rental fat-tire wheelchairs (and sometimes strollers) in most major beach areas. Conventional wheelchairs can’t navigate the soft sands.
Turtles come ashore to lay their eggs on Panhandle beaches from late May through early July. Nighttime turtle walks in beach areas are led by experts. Don’t intrude on turtle-nesting sites; it’s against the law.
Easily overlooked because it’s part of the larger Heritage Park and Cultural Center, the Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach includes a Native American temple mound and relics said to date back as early as 14,000 BC.
Keep an eye on the almanac for phases of the moon, then do a search for “city name”+ “full-moon party.” They’re usually found at beach landmarks, such as the Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola Beach and the Cape St. George Lighthouse on Little George Island.
Unlike downstate Florida, this area can get frosty. Some attractions are closed in winter and most others have varying schedules so be sure to check ahead.
In small-town America, automobile “cruises” were sometimes the only recreation for young people on Friday and Saturday nights. By silent agreement, cars would just show up to rev their engines, crank up their speakers and cruise slowly up and down Main Street. Such cruises still rumble informally in many Panhandle communities. Some have become large festivals where visitors can mingle with other car buffs. One of the largest is in downtown Panama City where Friday Fest cruises on the first Friday of the month, February through November, feature hundreds of cars as well as bands and vendors covering a six-block area.
This area of the Gulf offers world-class fishing with a wide choice of guided charters and boat rentals. The least expensive way to go “out to sea” is simply to walk out on fishing piers where a modest fee is charged for anglers and a token fee for observers. Locations include Panama City, Navarre, Pensacola and Gulf Shores.
For Civil War groupies, Northwest Florida offers significant sites. The Battle of Marianna in 1864 saw more than 25 percent of the male population killed, wounded or captured. Battlefield tours can be arranged. Fort Pickens in Santa Rosa Beach was occupied by Union forces through most of the war. A historic marker in Bagdad remembers the Skirmish on the Blackwater.