NORTHWEST FLORIDA:
A MAJESTIC COASTLINE

BY STEVE WINSTON

North West Florida Tourism Guide

In Northwest Florida, lights are softer and cities are smaller and friendlier. The attractions are as often natural as they are artificial and the beaches, golf courses, shopping areas, hotels, cultural amenities and restaurants aren’t quite as crowded as some of the state’s larger urban areas. This is the one part of Florida where you’ll still hear plenty of “ya’lls.”

ARTS AND CULTURE

In Franklin County, easternmost in the Panhandle, Apalachicola is the best-known city. Once the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, reminders of those halcyon days of steamers and schooners, railroads and lumber mills remain. The city’s historic district has nearly a thousand historic buildings and sites from a bygone era. Along the waterfront, structures that once served as commercial fishing factories and warehouses have evolved into seafood houses and galleries, and old shrimp boats now reside for eternity.

Nearby Cape St. George Lighthouse had been lighting the way for mariners since 1852, until it collapsed into the water in 2005. Now it’s been rebuilt with a new museum. It’s no longer a working lighthouse (blame GPS), but you can’t tell the story of this region without relating the history of this structure.

Panama City has four very interesting neighborhoods in which to roam. Downtown is filled with galleries and arts facilities such as the Martin Theatre, the City Marina, the Visual Arts Center and the CityArts Cooperative. Historic St. Andrews still resembles the quaint fishing village it was in the “old days.” Downtown North serves as the cultural hub of Panama City’s African American community and Millville is named for its once-thriving paper-manufacturing and shipbuilding industries.

Holmes County has a population of only 20,000, however it boasts two noteworthy historic residences. Built in the 1920s by lumber baron George Orkney Waits, the Waits Mansion is a Mediterranean Revival home, recently restored and open to visitors. At the other end of the housing spectrum is the Keith Cabin, an authentic 19th-century rural homestead on which William Thomas Keith grew cotton and tobacco...and expanded his land holdings from 10 acres to 190.

The Beaches of South Walton are home to a vibrant arts community, anchored by the local Cultural Arts Alliance, and enhanced by the opening of the Foster Gallery in 2016. Every month, the vibrantly colored community of Seaside holds the First Friday Ruskin Place Art Walk, featuring live music, hors d’oeuvres and wine in the largest collection of art galleries on the Northwest Florida Gulf coast. Artists at Gulf Place is an art cooperative including potters, sculptors, painters, metal artists, candlemakers, photographers, folk artists and furniture-crafters, with workshops for kids. South Walton also boasts the Seaside Repertory Theatre, one of Northwest Florida’s premier professional theater companies.

In Okaloosa County’s Indian Temple Mound Museum, you can walk through 12,000 years of Native American life and admire one of the finest collections of prehistoric ceramics in the southeastern US. A more recent period of history comes alive at the Air Force Armament Museum, which takes you from the early biplanes of World War I to the SR-71 Blackbird—the fastest aircraft ever built. If Broadway shows and the Northwest Florida Symphony pique your interest, check the schedule at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center.

The town of Milton is filled with historic homes and storefronts leading to the Blackwater River waterfront, once the epicenter of thriving timber and shipbuilding industries here. At the old post office, you can ogle the antiques while eating lunch. And you can step back into the 19th century at the renovated railroad depot at the West Florida Railroad Museum.

At the western end of the Panhandle, the city of Pensacola boasts two significant distinctions. It was the first settlement founded by emigrants to America (although later deserted for a few years, thereby ceding to St. Augustine the title of first permanent settlement). And this city of only 52,000 is one of the few in the US with five professional performing arts companies. Pensacola’s iconic Saenger Theatre first opened its doors in 1925, and is now restored to her original glory, hosting dance and musical companies, theater and a Classic Movie Series.

ATTRACTIONS

Franklin County’s attractions highlight its natural beauty, such as the Apalachicola National Forest and the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, complete with fish tanks and interactive displays.

A long time ago, a Liberty County resident named E.E. Callaway claimed he had found the Garden of Eden in Liberty County. Maybe, maybe not. But the county does have a part of paradise in its share of the Apalachicola National Forest. It also has the Veterans Memorial Railroad’s three historic trains one of them with a coal-fired steam engine. And at the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, in neighboring Calhoun County, the way it was, is the way it is.

No visit to Northwest Florida should end without a horseback ride on the beach, particularly in dream-like spots such as Cape San Blas. If you prefer your water inland (with oars or on a tour boat), head for the Dead Lakes, a unique ecosystem that’s part-swamp, part-river, part-lake, and all pristine wilderness.

In Panama City Beach, the Man in the Sea Museum covers the history of diving and the Navy’s “Man in the Sea Program,” which showcases SEALAB I, the Navy’s first-ever underwater habitat.

Panama City, too, lives on the water. Ashley Gorman Shell Island Cruises take you out to snorkel with the dolphins. And the Betsy Ann Riverboat, one of America’s last remaining sternwheel paddlers, will take you for a trip back in time with a crew in period costumes and themed dinners such as Murder Mystery and Live Blues.

The Beaches of South Walton have family fun spots like the Seacrest Wolf Preserve, where you can interact not only with wolves, but also with foxes, raccoons, skunks and Pecos the Coyote. At the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, there’s a working beehive, a birdwatching station, a rescued snapping turtle, and several species of snakes and frogs.

The Destin/Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island area, also known as the Emerald Coast, offers attractions such as the Gulfarium, where you can frolic in the water with rays and dolphins. If your kids love dinosaurs, head for Wild Willie’s Adventure Zone, with mini-golf, hamster ball pool, a trampoline, 30-foot rock-climbing wall, laser maze, arcade, incredible 4-D movie theater, and, yes, dinosaurs.

Santa Rosa County’s Gulf Breeze Zoo showcases over 50 acres of animals from around the world, and the Navarre Beach Marine Science Station combines hands-on learning and entertainment.

Historical Pensacola Village is the site of the original Spanish and British forts in a city over which five flags have flown. In the Pensacola Lighthouse, built in 1859, climb the 177 steps for a dramatic panoramic view of the Gulf coast.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

Florida Panhandle beaches are world-renowned. You can play on more than 227 miles of them. White, fine-grained, sugar-sand beaches stretch from Apalachicola in the east to Pensacola in the west. And often, they’re so uncrowded that you may come to think of them as your own private beaches!

The Apalachicola National Forest proffers 564,000 acres of camping, picnicking, hiking, biking, boating, hunting and fishing. Inside this silent green wonderland lies the Fort Gadsden Historic Site, interpreting the history of Native and African Americans in this region during the early 1800s. Offshore, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is a 12,492-acre barrier island accessible only by boat; the only residents you’ll see are nesting bald eagles and loggerhead sea turtles, and, if you’re lucky, a red wolf.

Torreya State Park is situated on the bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River, with excellent hiking and camping facilities. In addition, the Ochlockonee and Chipola Rivers are ideal for kayaking and fishing.

If you’re looking for the most spectacular sunsets you’ve ever seen, head for St. Joe Beach and Beacon Hill. Here, a shoreline leading to the horizon offers million-dollar views of the Gulf sun, blazing with color as it sets behind the silhouette of St. Joseph Peninsula.

From there, it’s a short drive to Panama City Beach where outdoor enthusiasts can hike and birdwatch along scenic trails, camp along the shore, enjoy unparalleled boating, fishing and diving, take kayaking tours, go off-road cycling, try stand-up paddleboarding and more. And, with everything from airboat adventures to glass-bottom boat tours and marine rescue programs, there are many ways to experience and observe the surrounding wildlife. At the newly opened 2,900-acre Panama City Beach Conservation Park, visitors enjoy boardwalks and 24 miles of unpaved trails, which are connected with other trail systems known as Gayle’s Trails through the beach area. On the eastern edge of Panama City Beach, St. Andrews State Park is ranked among the top 10 beaches in the US and is one of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in Florida. Across from the mainland, Shell Island is a peaceful spot to relax or snorkel and the area surrounding the island is home to one of the largest concentrations of bottlenose dolphins in the country. Shuttle boat service to the island is available during the spring and summer months. Other locations worth checking out include Pine Log & Point Washing State Forests, Camp Helen State Park and the Florida Trail at Econfina Creek.

Gulf Islands National Seashore is one gigantic playground, which includes the barrier islands of Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.

Among the best beaches in Northwest Florida is the pristine five-mile stretch along the charming little town of Mexico Beach, where the beach consists of fine, white quartz crystals, which give the water its gem-like color. Then there’s the Emerald Coast, voted “No. 1 Beach in the South” for 14 consecutive years.

Heading inland, Florida Caverns State Park is home to the only guided cave tours in the state. Nearby is the Bellamy Bridge, said to be haunted by—who else?—the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge. Visitors in this area enjoy paddling, birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding, and some of the best bass fishing in the state. For an incredible cave-diving experience, check out Cave Adventurers to book dive lessons or trips at Merritt's Mill Pond.

ENTERTAINMENT

If you’re talkin’ Florida Panhandle cookin’, you’re talkin’ fresh seafood. One of the best places to find it is in the town of Eastpoint, across the bay from Apalachicola and St. George Island. Eastpoint is lined with rustic seafood houses, serving freshly harvested Apalachicola Bay oysters just hauled in by the weathered skiffs outside. And the oysters come with an extra dose of friendliness as many of these restaurants are now into the fourth generation of family ownership.

Panama City offers a variety of nightlife options, among them the multi-venue musical jam called “Music Matters.” Corner Pocket is a billiards hall that serves the largest variety of craft beers and wines in Panama City as well as some great karaoke to go along with it. You can boogie all night at Dance Life Dance Studio. And if you prefer to hear your music sitting down, you can listen to it at concerts performed around town by the 200-person Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews.

Neighboring Panama City Beach is a flip-flops town during the day however, when the sun goes down, its partying side comes out. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge is a branch of Nashville’s world-famous honky-tonk, and Club La Vela is actually the largest nightclub in America. You can hear live music at places like Spinnaker Beach Club and Pineapple Willie’s. And keep your throat moist, because in this town, there’s a good chance you’ll be using it for karaoke at night.

In the town of Bonifay, you can find good food and sports at Sam’s Place, and pool tables and camaraderie at La Cue Billiards. Come fall, Hammack Farms & Corn Maze is the perfect family evening out. There’s a five-acre corn maze, a mini-hay-bale maze for the kids, hayrides, pumpkin patch, petting zoo, a playground, and a down-home-fun atmosphere.

The picturesque seaside town of Destin may bring back memories of that famous ’50s song, Harbor Lights. HarborWalk Village and the Harbor Boardwalk are the most romantic strolling spots in town, with great shopping and cool boutiques, galleries, restaurants, bars and clubs, pub crawls, live music, and dancing amid those harbor lights and lapping waters.

In Pensacola, nightlife often revolves around performing arts companies like the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Opera, Pensacola Ballet and the Pensacola Little Theatre, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the southeastern US. The Seville Quarter is a huge venue offering seven rooms of nighttime entertainment, with DJs, pool tables, dance club, restaurants, live music and dueling pianos. And downtown’s Palafox Street is an exciting strip lined with restaurants, bars and clubs.

LGBT SCENE

While the Florida Panhandle doesn’t have the population base to be in the vanguard of social change, there is certainly an evolving—and growing—LGBT scene here. And there are more events on the calendar and LGBT-friendly businesses, it seems, with each passing year.

It’s now estimated, for example, that LGBT visitors pump more than US$25 million annually into the Pensacola economy. In 2012, the city staged its first “STAMPED: Pensacola LGBT Film Fest.” (STAMPED” notes a recent period in which LGBT visitors to the area stamped their dollars to show how much they contributed to the local economy.) That event is now a fixture on the fall calendar. Gay Memorial Day Weekend in Pensacola, on the other hand, has been around for a while. It started informally in the 1980s, and is now an annual event drawing thousands to the beach for a holiday weekend of parties and fun. The weekend attracts big crowds to late-night circuit parties with well-known DJs and to informal tent parties right on the beach. The friendliest beach, Pensacola Beach, is on County Road 399, two miles past the Gulf Islands National Seashore sign.

The LGBT community is also active in Panama City. In fact, this community has the only PFLAG chapter (Parents of Family/Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in its area. PFLAG-Panama City held its first LGBTQ Film Festival in October 2016, and it will become an annual two-night event on the calendar every autumn. There’s a formal reception on opening night, and the festival is dedicated to providing cinematic experiences that promote deeper understanding and good filmmaking. Screenings take place at a few different venues, and all are catered.

In Panama City Beach, LGBT social life revolves around the Splash Bar, an aptly-named—and very splashy—spot where this community comes together to party.

ROAD TRIPS

The town of Mexico Beach boasts some of the best side trips in Northwest Florida. The Dead Lakes State Recreation Area, 23 miles away, offers perhaps the best freshwater fishing in the state, along with unusual vistas due to the stumps and dead tree trunks sticking out of the water. Another “natural” day trip from Mexico Beach is St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by water. Here, you’ll see an incredible variety of wildlife, among them many species of birds, Sambar deer and the endangered red wolf. A good starting point is Indian Pass, an historic trading post and, supposedly, the site of Spanish buried treasure.

The Washington County town of Chipley has its fair share of interesting historical buildings in the South Third Street Historic District, such as the imposing County Courthouse. And you can take an extraordinary look at early life here at the Washington County Historical Museum.

South Walton has 16 beach neighborhoods that make for a beautiful drive along the coast. You’ll drive along Scenic 30A through a variety of distinct neighborhood styles—so distinct, in fact, that you’ll know when you’re going from one town into another. The area’s upscale aura is evidenced by its many artists and galleries, funky local boutiques, and farm-to-table dining philosophy. This route also offers numerous opportunities to kayak on coastal dune lakes, play golf at a PGA-quality course, and bike along the 18-mile Timpoochee Trail.

The Chautaqua Vineyards & Winery is a nice day trip from the Emerald Coast. You can tour the winery and learn the ABCs ?of grape-growing, pruning, harvesting, crushing and bottling. You’ll be able to taste some of the wines that have earned Chautauqua over 140 awards, from dry wines and southern favorites to sweet muscadine and blueberry.

SHOPPING

In the tiny Jackson County town of Graceville, you’ll find the Service Drugstore, the oldest continuously operated pharmacy in Florida. There’s a captivating old-time ambience here, with original apothecary cabinetry, hardwood floors and pressed-tin ceiling, not to mention the old-fashioned milkshakes, ice-cream floats and hand-dipped ice-cream cones whipped up at the 1950s soda fountain.

Reid Avenue in Port St. Joe is a half-mile-long stroll back into the Old South. Outdoor gear? Books? Jewelry? Local pottery or artwork? Luxury spa treatment? It’s all here, along with restaurants running the gamut from Italian and Southern to Chinese and Mexican. At the Salt Air Farmers’ Market, on the first and third Saturdays from April through November, you can find clothing, antiques and timeless treasures along with the fresh produce.

As you drive through the charming little town of Mexico Beach, you’ll come to Frost Pottery Garden, with imported pottery, great kites for the beach, wind chimes, jewelry and local artwork. The Shell Shack offers gifts plucked from one of Florida’s most beautiful beaches, and Toucan’s gift shop features great gifts for the folks back home.

The Little Village in Panama City has an offbeat collection of outdoor shops. At The Little Mustard Seed, wander through three stories overflowing with custom furniture, handmade soaps and lotions, jewelry, and a thousand items that have been revived, renewed and restored. The town’s historic St. Andrews neighborhood has shops that have been featured on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Across the water in Panama City Beach, Pier Park is an “outdoor shopping and lifestyle center” with a wide variety of items to buy, eat or ogle. The Market Shops, on the Beaches of South Walton, offer outdoor shopping accompanied by musicians and artists. In Rosemary Beach, a planned town built in the mid-90s on the principle of “New Urbanism” (much like its neighbor Seaside, which preceded it by 15 years), the French Quarter, with its balconies and vividly colored buildings and curling wrought-iron railings, is a delightful place to while away an afternoon shopping and dining.

In Destin, HarborWalk Village has an old-time feel, with vendors, artists and street performers outside, and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. On The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, ?you’ll find five restaurants and some shops. Nearby Fort Walton Beach is filled with boutiques, restaurants and galleries—even a brewery. Hunt for bargains at Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Miramar Beach, and the Fort Walton Beach Antique/Flea Market District has treasures you never knew you needed until now.

And if you have a yen to bring home something new from Pensacola, head for the shops on Palafox Street.

SPAS

The quiet Jackson County town of Marianna has some excellent day spas. At Simply You Med Spa, there are medical and health-boosting treatments in addition to aesthetic and massage regimens. And if you’d like to come home from your Northwest Florida vacation looking a little better or a little slimmer, Chipola MedSpa offers medical spa services ranging from medical skin care and laser services to weight management and nutrition counseling.

Port St. Joe’s SpaPur offers a special combination of treatments for both the body and the mind.

Panama City’s Bliss Pedicure Spa and Nail Service lists several innovative services, such as a hot-stone pedicure or an Ice Cream Pedicure (with a sherbet-flavored sugar scrub), along with manicures, facials and massages. And the ambience at Indigo Earth Spa is inspired by the beauty and the serenity of nature, with custom, natural apothecary-based services such as organic facials and hydrotherapy soaks using botanicals, salts, muds and essential oils.

Michael and Erin Jordan own Vivo Spa Salon in Rosemary Beach, known for luxurious high-end treatments that leave you feeling refreshed and revitalized. Just down the road in Panama City Beach, Pure Massage, which specializes in invigorating deep-tissue treatments, garners raves from clients. And Dream Day Spa offers goodies such as the Hot Stone Massage, the Couples Massage, and—even better—the Champagne Lunch and Chocolate DREAM Couples Massage.

Bella Day Spa & Hair Studio, in Fort Walton Beach, is a local favorite for hair, makeup, waxing, massage, nails, skin care and beauty products while It’s All About You Massage & Day Spa offers relaxing massage and spa treatments, along with facials, manicures and more. In Destin’s Float Brothers Float Spa, you’ll have the chance to experience suspension in perfect tranquility in a floatation pod, containing epsom salt water the same temperature as your skin, without feeling the pull of gravity, and without sight, sound or touch distractions. This process is proven to produce health benefits, and you’ll walk out feeling like a million dollars.

After enjoying the attractions of Pensacola, you may want to head for Still Waters Day & Medical Spa, where you can get traditional massages and facials as well as medical aesthetic treatments such as botox or laser.

ALL IN A DAY

THE EMERALD COAST

Begin your day with a half-day fishing trip, dolphin cruise or sailing adventure and be soothed by the emerald-green waters of the Gulf. Venture over to The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island where you can lunch on fresh seafood with beachfront views of the sugar-white sand and the Okaloosa fishing pier. In the afternoon, stroll downtown Fort Walton Beach’s Heritage Park and Cultural Center, comprised of the Indian Temple Mound, 1912 Camp Walton Schoolhouse and Garnier Post Office Museums.

FRANKLIN COUNTY

Authentic Florida thrives in ?quiet coastal communities like Apalachicola, St. George Island, Carrabelle, Eastpoint and Alligator Point. Enjoy quiet, pet-friendly beaches on St. George Island and Alligator Point. Climb historic lighthouses. Camp, paddle or hike along wooded trails and quiet sloughs. Watch commercial fishing boats unload their daily catch or charter a trip with an oyster fisherman to learn how to catch your own. Explore the area’s historic charm, boutiques, galleries and museums. End with fresh local seafood served at more than 30 area restaurants and seafood markets.

PANAMA CITY BEACH

At Zen Garden or Finn’s Island Style Grub, start your day with gourmet coffee and a yoga session or a quick surf check. From there, explore 27 miles of beautiful beaches. Try snor-keling or paddleboarding at St. Andrews State Park, or catch a boat to Shell Island, a seven-mile-long natural barrier island. Explore diving history at the Man in the Sea Museum, before shopping at Pier Park. Catch the sunset from Schooner’s restaurant, where the nightly event is celebrated with a cannon blast!

SANTA ROSA COUNTY

Enjoy the sugar-white sandy beaches of Santa Rosa County. Fish from the Navarre Beach Pier (Gulf of Mexico’s longest) or visit the Gulf Breeze Zoo, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station or Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. Tour Coldwater Gardens near Milton. See why this part of Florida is known as the Canoe Capital of Florida with Adventures Unlimited. Canoe, kayak and tube along Coldwater Creek past secluded sandbars, through the pristine ecosystem of Blackwater River State Forest, or soar on its zip line canopy tour.

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