A coastal road trip across the Florida Panhandle reveals the less-visited side of the state with dazzling blue-green surf, sugar-white beaches, friendly locals and a distinctly Deep South vibe
We pulled into the bridge’s tollbooth lane, pleasantly stuffed from our dinner of fresh batter-fried snapper, hush puppies, coleslaw and turnip greens. “Well, hello, y’all,” the cheery tollbooth attendant greeted us. “So what did y’all do over there on the bayou? Did you go have dinner?” Rather astonished (a tollbooth attendant making conversation?), we answered, well, yes, we had gone out for dinner. “Oh, where’d y’all go?” she continued. “Nick’s Seafood? Mmmm-hmmm, yes, that is sooo good,” she said after we told her. “Now y’all be careful up there on the bridge with all that wind,” and she waved us off with a smile. We turned to each other and said, “Only in the South!” Indeed, the Florida Panhandle is the Deep South, a truly different culture from the rest of the state.
The soft cadences of Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama are everywhere, and most restaurants offer sweet tea, grits and gumbo. In fact, locals say that the farther north you go in Florida, the farther south you get. This area is much closer to Alabama and Georgia, both geographically and culturally, than it is to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Miami or the playgrounds of Orlando. The off-seasons of autumn and spring offer substantial discounts at hotels, restaurants and shops, along with less humidity, highs of about 80 degrees, soothingly warm ocean water and no crowds.
This is a Florida few know, other than Southerners. It’s a Florida of exquisite tropical beaches, incredibly lush natural vegetation and unspoiled villages. It’s a Florida so apart that a large portion of it observes Central Time, while the rest keeps Eastern Time.
These are among the least-developed and cleanest beaches in the world, consisting of unspoiled sand dunes, vegetation and wildlife. The beach sand is amazing: clean, as white as sugar and seemingly more powdery, and pleasantly cool, even when the afternoon sun is relentless. The water is marvelous: Coca-Cola-bottle green and so clear you can see tiny seashells on the bottom and little fish playfully darting around your toes. The good news for parents of small children, as well as those intent on just relaxing, is that the water is almost always calm, and undertows and rip currents are rare.
This part of the gulf is famed for its deep-sea fishing, with abundant cobia, snapper, grouper, blue and white marlin, and more. Seventeen fresh- and saltwater lakes and Choctawhatchee Bay add to the already abundant recreational waterfront. Inland areas are heavily wooded with pine forests and hardwood hammocks. Best of all, this region has a wealth of well-run, beautifully situated RV parks (see “Where to Camp on the Florida Panhandle” on page 26).
We started our Panhandle journey in Franklin County in the western portion, near Tallahassee. Right away, driving south on Route 319, we noticed hand-lettered signs for boiled peanuts — an acquired taste for some, but we loved the warm, salty and addictive snacks right away, buying small bags at roadside stands throughout our trip. We also saw charming signs for down-home barbecue joints (Austin’s Smokin’ Butt-Hut in Fountain) and produce stands (Fresh ’Maters). One enterprising vendor’s sign advertised “We Need the Bucks!”
Carrabelle is a delightful small town with no traffic lights, no heavy industry and no crowds. What it does offer are gorgeous white-sand beaches, abundant seabirds and frolicking dolphins, a lovely river walk and wharf area, several historical sites and the outstanding Carrabelle Beach RV Resort.
If you’re a history buff, don’t miss the small but worthwhile Carrabelle History Museum and the Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum, telling the story of the troops that trained here for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The Crooked River Lighthouse, with its Keeper’s House Museum, is a pleasant spot to climb and peruse your surroundings for miles around. Carrabelle, considered the Gateway to the gulf, has a natural deepwater harbor and easy access to three rivers, attracting kayakers, sailors and other boaters.
About 15 minutes down the road, we reached the pretty little hamlet of Apalachicola. With a rich maritime heritage, a working waterfront, famed oysters and more than 900 historic sites, Apalachicola charmed us into a blissfully slow pace. We enjoyed walking the wide, tree-lined streets and viewing the working waterfront, the old brick-and-granite cotton warehouses and little shops and cafés. A must-visit is the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, which runs full-moon boat tours each month and features a maritime library and exhibits, as well as a wooden boat school, paddle and sail training, kayaking and various lectures.
Crossing two bridges, we found the sublime, quiet barrier island of St. George with just two small markets, a few shops and five or so small restaurants (a Subway is the only chain establishment). The gorgeous St. George Island State Park is 9 miles long, with wide white-sand beaches, clear green waters, a large population of seabirds and a 60-site campground. Visitors can access 4 miles of beach along the park’s main drive. The last 5 miles are accessible only on foot or by special permit for four-wheel-drive vehicles. St. George is the place to take in nature, climb the lighthouse and get away from the overbuilding often found in other beach towns.
Moving on from Franklin County, we continued west on Highway 98, mostly hugging the coast but also meandering into small rural areas like picturesque Port St. Joe for a succulent barbecue lunch (with plenty of sweet tea!) and some exploring at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park at the tip of Cape San Blas. The cape is a 17-mile-long barrier peninsula known for its spectacular blue-green waters and excellent shelling. A short detour from 98 will take you to Wewahitchka, made famous in the 1997 film Ulee’s Gold. This town has harvested its renowned Tupelo honey for more than a century and hosts the annual Tupelo Honey Festival, taking place on May 16, 2015 (www.tupelohoneyfestival.com).
We passed on to bustling Panama City, long famed for its college spring break crowds. The largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola with 50,000 residents, Panama City Beach is another splendid white-sand paradise, part of the so-called Emerald Coast. Nestled between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, Panama City is part military city, part industrial hub and part beach getaway. Nearby Panama City Beach is where you’ll find a bevy of arcades, theme parks, restaurants and bars, clubs, waterparks and even a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium. You can catapult yourself from a giant slingshot, perform karaoke or swim with dolphins.
In South Walton County, just beyond Panama City, 16 beach communities along State Route 30A have committed to preserving their pristine environment, serenity and quality of life. These communities offer 26 miles of a Florida some might think no longer exists, with 15 coastal dune lakes (your chance to try standup paddleboarding), as well as white sand and turquoise gulf waters. South Walton County hosts the sixth annual 30A Songwriters Festival, January 16-18, 2015, with more than 200 shows in 25 venues (www.30asongwritersfestival.com).
One of the oldest towns on the Panhandle coast, founded in the mid-1880s, Grayton Beach is home to turn-of-the-last-century weathered cypress homes with palm-tree-studded lawns, wide porches and hammocks swinging in the shade. Recent years have increased Grayton’s popularity, displacing many of the surfers and beach bums who formerly lived here. Prices have increased in accordance with the newcomers, but Grayton’s charms are still here for all to enjoy.
Rosemary Beach, established in 1995, reminds some of Europe, others of the Caribbean, and still others of St. Augustine or New Orleans — that’s because its designers and architects modeled the city on all four destinations. Upscale and quietly elegant, Rosemary Beach has homes with wraparound porches, Spanish-style courtyards and gas lanterns, as well as posh shops and inviting bistros.
Seaside is an irresistible 80-acre neighborhood reminiscent of a New England watercolor painting. Home to pastel-painted cottages surrounded by porches, gazebos and picket fences, Seaside was immortalized in the 1998 movie The Truman Show. Bike paths, boardwalks and beach pavilions add to the cozy neighborhood feel, while concerts and Shakespearean plays take place in the outdoor amphitheater.
Sandestin, just west of Highway 30A, is the largest of the developments in this area. Overlooking both the gulf and the Intracoastal Waterway, it features 72 holes of golf on award-winning courses and a wide variety of accommodations, restaurants and shops. On our visit, we were lulled by the pleasant din of cicadas, crickets, frogs and toads.
Grayton Beach State Park has nearly 2,000 acres of pristine coastal vegetation, massive dunes, more than 4 miles of hiking and biking trails, a coastal lake, pine flatwoods, a marsh area and a spectacular beach.
Topsail Hill Preserve, a 1,600-acre state park, is said to be the most pristine and environmentally protected piece of coastal property in the state. If you visit the Robinson Crusoe-like beach, you may not see another soul there, other than the dolphins and turtles that come to play.
On trips to the Panhandle when our kids were small, we somehow missed Pensacola but were now pleased to find the same gorgeous beaches as on the entire Panhandle, sophisticated urban dining and culture, and a rich military and naval heritage. Pensacola has an Old World feel to it with lovingly restored homes, filigreed balconies, brick streets, flowering bushes and wide walkways lined with enormous live oaks and magnolias. This area was the first major settlement attempt in America by the Spanish, 450 years ago.
We spent time touring Historic Pensacola Village next to the Seville Square Historic District and the posh boutiques and lively bars of Palafox Street, home to a plethora of local businesses. We also visited Plaza Ferdinand, where in 1821, General Andrew Jackson claimed Florida from Spain and declared Pensacola the capital of the new Florida Territory. A bust of Jackson denotes the spot.
Our next stop was the National Naval Air Museum, which screens a thrilling IMAX film on the Blue Angels and includes the Cubi Bar Café with its memorabilia from the Officers’ Club in the Philippines. We also toured the Pensacola Lighthouse and fascinating Fort Pickens, a massive pre-Civil War brick fortress where Apache Chief Geronimo was imprisoned, an interesting and little-known tale.
Just a short drive away is Perdido Key, with 16 miles of beyond-beautiful beaches. At Santa Rosa Island’s Pensacola Beach, a 1,471-foot-long fishing pier stretches into the emerald waters of the gulf.
Nicknamed the City of Five Flags for having been ruled by England, France, Spain, the Confederacy and the United States, Pensacola is famed for being the training ground of Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviators. You’re sure to see military types wherever you go, and their presence adds a cosmopolitan diversity to the city.
This part of Florida offers a true getaway, not just because of the exquisite beaches and frolicking dolphins or the wealth of recreational activities. It’s because it’s one of the increasingly few spots in the country that still feels “different,” with a unique culture, ambience and grace.
Where to Camp on the Florida Panhandle
Carrabelle Beach RV Resort
A pet-friendly place, Carrabelle Beach RV Resort has direct beach access and a boat club for rentals, charters, fishing and relaxing on the shaded observation deck. All 58 pull-through RV sites include full hookups, a picnic table, Wi-Fi and cable. Facilities include a swimming pool, a convenience shop and a game room with foosball, billiards and TV. Streets are narrow, and many sites have a slope, so leveling blocks may be needed.
850-697-2638 | www.rvcoutdoors.com/carrabelle-beach
PANAMA CITY BEACH
Emerald Coast RV Beach Resort
On 25 manicured acres in the heart of Panama City Beach, Emerald Coast RV Beach Resort features two large ponds with fountains and 157 RV sites with full hookups, Wi-Fi and 75-channel cable television. Pets are welcome, and guests can take advantage of the basketball and volleyball courts, the saltwater pool and a new pool house with bathrooms, a laundry room, a fitness center and a game room.
800-232-2478 | www.rvresort.com
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Within this coastal state park is Gregory E. Moore RV Resort with 156 full-hookup campsites, a swimming pool, shuffleboard courts, bathrooms and laundry facilities. Pets are welcome at the RV sites. The camp store sells supplies, snacks and drinks, and beach carts and kayaks are available for rental. Guests can hop the tram or walk or bike a half-mile to the white-quartz beach.
850-267-8330 | www.floridastateparks.org/topsailhill
Pensacola Beach RV Resort
On the bay side of narrow Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola Beach RV Resort is a short walk from the boardwalk with its many shops and restaurants. A walkway across the road leads to the white-sand beaches of the gulf. This tidy, pretty RV resort offers a large clubhouse, Wi-Fi and 72 concrete sites equipped with power, water, sewer and cable hookups. The resort has 19 waterfront sites and one pull-through.
ST. GEORGE ISLAND
St. George Island State Park
With its white-sand beach, this 60-site state park campground has water and electric hookups, two bathhouses and a central dump station. Pets are allowed in the camping area. Six large picnic shelters are equipped with grills, tables and nearby restrooms. This barrier island offers opportunities for swimming, shelling, canoeing, boating, hiking and nature study. Two natural boat ramps provide access to the bay for small craft. Anglers can fish for flounder, redfish, sea trout, pompano, whiting, Spanish mackerel and other fish off the beach or in the bay.
850-927-2111 | www.floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland