When it comes to vacationing in Florida, the images of Pensacola and Apalachicola probably don’t jump immediately to mind, with the southern Gulf and Atlantic coasts, as well as Orlando, hogging the tourism spotlight. But the allure of the Florida Panhandle’s “Emerald Coast” is growing, with the attraction of miles of unspoiled white-sand beaches and the lack of a “scene” that drives visitors south to Miami. This very lack of a strong identity as a destination is what keeps those in the know coming back to an area that provides a lot of choices—from the commercialization of Panama City Beach to the wild, lonely expanses of undeveloped beachfronts. Florida’s panhandle has it all. It’s just a matter of choosing the environment that suits your temperament. Here are some best bets.
The military presence in this small city is palpable, and the Blue Angels practice runs from the Pensacola Naval Air Station on the coast add an exclamation point when flying (mid-March through mid-Nov.). This is where Florida meets the Old South, and the city’s historic roots run deep. It offers a complete vacation experience with bountiful seafood and popular nightspots.
Downtown, centered on Palafox Street, lies north of the waterfront. Take a guided tour of 19th-century homes and the 1832 Old Christ Church at Historic Pensacola Village, or stroll beneath the oaks to the wooden gazebo at Seville Square.
Shop Downtown Pensacola
The downtown area is blossoming on all fronts, with an explosion of growth and quaint shops along colorful crepe myrtle-lined streets. Anchoring a corner on Palafox are The Bodacious Olive, with its profusion of culinary oils, and SoGourmet, which offers cooking classes. Not to miss are the shops at The Artisan, just across the street. You’ll find everything from clothing to hip home goods with a Southern twist. And down the street, augment your beach attire at Indigeaux Denim Bar & Boutique, a fun jeans, accessories and clothing shop filled with stylish and beach-inspired pieces to spice up any wardrobe.
Across the Pensacola Bay Bridge is the mostly residential peninsula of Gulf Breeze. Cross one more bridge, the Bob Sikes (toll $1), to reach magnificent Pensacola Beach, the ultimate destination for most visitors. Dig your toes in the sand. Repeat.
Santa Rosa Beach
Traveling east on U.S. 98 along the coast brings you to Santa Rosa Beach, just one of 16 distinct beach neighborhoods in South Walton County, each with its own traditions, charm and visual style. The community of Santa Rosa Beach offers luxury beach houses, upscale dining and the unique artist colony known as Gulf Place. Santa Rosa Beach provides several entrances to Point Washington State Forest, a 15,000-acre preserve with more than 10 natural communities. In fact, all of South Walton is renowned for natural scenic beauty, turquoise waters and sugar-sand beaches.
At Point Washington’s Eden Gardens State Park, the Wesley House’s stately columns and wrap-around porch transport you to its turn-of-the-century heyday. Ancient oaks and ornamental gardens decorate the grounds, and a notable collection of Louis XVI furniture accents the home’s interior. Bike the paved roadway to the park’s beach and fishable dune lakes; go off-road cycling or hiking inside the 15,000-acre forest.
Gulf Islands National Seashore and Perdido Key protect some of the beach’s most fragile and magnificent assets: wispy sea oats, sand dunes and nesting birds and sea turtles. Enjoy hiking, crabbing and surf casting; fishing charters are always available. The island is easily accessible by car from downtown Pensacola.
Located along the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and Panama City, Grayton Beach carefully balances history and culture. Sand dunes resemble snow-capped hills guarding quiet sands, and dense pines and oaks shroud aged wooden homes conjuring up a time when the pace here was even more easy-going. Explore the trails and shores of Grayton Beach State Park, a 400-acre sliver of paradise featuring pristine beaches and a rare coastal dune lake. In town, colorful cottages all in a row conceal galleries and whimsical boutiques near much-talked-about restaurants.
A charming fishing town, maybe a little more Cape Cod than Deep South, Apalachicola offers terrific seafood, lovely waterfront parks, enchanting inns and the opportunity to glimpse the Florida Panhandle’s oyster, timber and fishing history from ground level. Within easy range of Apalachicola, you will find miles of pristine beaches on St. George Island and, elsewhere, an endless supply of protected shallow bays, excellent fishing, and acres of national and state forests to explore.
Located east of Apalachicola, the fishing village of Carrabelle would blend nicely into the Florida Keys. Its port offers safe harbor to pleasure boats and fishing vessels. Oh, you prefer a more intimate relationship with the Gulf? Then visit nearby beaches on St. George Island, Dog Beach, Dog Island and one right on the edge of town. Also plan to stop at the Crooked River Lighthouse, three miles west of Carrabelle. This iron and steel lighthouse has stood on this spot since 1895.
Where to Stay
Coombs Inn and Suites
An aggregation of three Victorian houses into a comfortable B&B in the heart of “downtown” Apalachicola. Walking distance to all attractions. Rooms from $80/night. Sixth St., Apalachicola
The Dunes of Seagrove
Excellent family resort right on the Gulf. Huge pool. Condos from $230/night in winter.
396 Lakewood Dr. Santa Rosa Beach
Margaritaville Beach Hotel
A four-star gem on Pensacola Beach, reopens early spring 2017 following renovations. A full-service family resort. Rooms from $219/night. 165 Fort Pickens Rd., Pensacola Beach
The Old Carrabelle Hotel
Casual rooms in a 19th-century property overlooking the Carrabelle River in the town of Carrabelle. It offers a glimpse of “old Florida.” Units from $87/night. 201 Tallahassee St., Carrabelle
WaterColor Inn & Resort
Impressive beachfront resort with several restaurants and golf availability. Rooms from $314/night with advance booking. 34 Goldenrod Circle, Santa Rosa Beach
Where to Dine
Another Broken Egg
This is your breakfast stop in Grayton Beach. Plenty of options for all tastes. 51 Grayton Uptown Circle, 850-231-7835
Café 30 A
Expect some of the best seafood prepared along the entire coast. Excellent service and extensive wine list. 3899 E. Scenic Hwy. 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach, 850-231-2166
An old-timey diner with really great coffee. Order your blue-plate special at the counter and go ahead, have that vacation milk shake. This should bring back memories. 88 Tallahassee St., Carrabelle, 850-697-9550
The Grand Marlin of Pensacola Beach
A bustling restaurant, where you can dine fancy inside or more casually on the deck. Seafood is always tops and make sure to check the catch of the day. 400 Pensacola Beach Blvd., 850-677-9153
The Owl Café
Your “go to” establishment for shrimp and grits, as well as many more old-fashioned favorites. You are in oyster waters, so give a dozen a try. 15 Avenue D, Apalachicola, 850-653-9888