Northwest Florida Your Vacation Guide to Paradise
By James Ryan
One of the main reasons the publishers started VIE – People + Places was to showcase the uniquely beautiful Northwest Florida with its relaxed beach lifestyle and high quality of life. For years, the Panhandle has been somewhat overlooked—possibly even forgotten. Two of our region’s counties, Gulf and Franklin, make up that portion known as “The Forgotten Coast.” Even Dan Rather didn’t know that a portion of Florida was located in the Central Time Zone when, in 2000, he announced “Al Gore has won Florida!” But to the people of the Deep South, it has always been a favorite vacation location because of its pristine beaches, Southern hospitality, and proximity as a drive destination.
The underappreciated Gulf Coast has been getting a glimpse of the national spotlight over the past ten years. In May of 2010, it received its biggest shot in the arm with the opening of the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Bay County. It is now easier than ever for a new generation of visitors to come and explore the many things the Panhandle has to offer.
Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast region is made up of seven counties covering two hundred twenty-seven miles of beachfront, stretching from Pensacola to Apalachicola, or COLA 2 COLA. Each county has a vibe and feel all its own, but what ties it all together is the sugar-white sand, emerald green Gulf waters, and abundant bays and lakes for waterskiing, sailing, and fishing. From historic towns like Pensacola, Panama City, and Apalachicola, to buzzing activities in Destin and Panama City Beach, to the well-known resort communities that make up Scenic 30-A in South Walton, and the “old Florida” towns like Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe, there is a vacation here for each and every budget or occasion. Stay at one of the boutique-style hotels, a unique bed-and-breakfast, or a full-service resort with golf and spa. Dining experiences range from either world-class cuisine in award-winning restaurants or a simple shrimp po’boy with fries on a deck overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
The Pensacola area is primarily known for Gulf Breeze, Pensacola Beach, Downtown Pensacola, and Perdido Key. First established in 1559, it boasts a rich history as the first European settlement in the continental United States. It is known by many names: “The Western Gate to the Sunshine State” because it is the westernmost city in Florida or “The City of Five Flags” for the five different flags that have flown over the city—Spanish, French, British, Confederate, and United States. It is also known as the “Cradle of Naval Aviation” because it is the birthplace for the Navy’s flight program, home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team, visit blueangels.navy.mil and the National Naval Aviation Museum navalaviationmuseum.org , which is one of Florida’s top ten attractions and one of the largest and most beautiful air and space museums in the world—and it’s free!
When it comes to the arts, Pensacola is hard to trump. It is the only city between Mobile, Alabama, and Tampa, Florida, to offer the “big five”—opera, symphony, ballet, theatre, and an accredited museum for the visual arts. And, with festivals and art shows year-round, access is to be had by all to art in a multitude of styles, from edgy to traditional.
When in the Pensacola area, be sure to check out Portofino Island Resort, portofinoisland.com. Situated along eight miles of untouched white sand beaches within the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Pensacola Beach, Portofino Island offers the perfect balance of indulgence and natural beauty. Or, if the resort life is not adventurous enough, then rent one of the many vacation homes on this barrier island available through Southern Resorts Vacation Rentals, southernresorts.com.
Santa Rosa County
Santa Rosa County is located between its more active neighbors Escambia and Okaloosa Counties. Home to Navarre Beach, this quiet but beautiful stretch of Florida’s coast has led residents and visitors alike to declare it as “Florida’s Best-Kept Secret.” Though limited to just over twelve miles of beachfront, only four miles have been, or will be, developed with an easy mix of luxury condos, townhomes, and beach cottages. Enjoy aquatic activities along either the Gulf or the calmer Santa Rosa Sound. Travel a little inland to Blackwater River State Park, floridastateparks.org, a favorite destination for canoeists and kayakers. Blackwater River is one of the purest sand-bottom rivers in the nation, making this park a popular place for swimming, fishing, camping, and paddling. For lodging information at Navarre Beach, please look up Southern Resorts Vacation Rentals at southernresorts.com.
Also known as “The Emerald Coast,” Okaloosa County’s coast is highlighted by Ft. Walton Beach, Destin, and Okaloosa Island. With over 4.5 million visitors each year, it is easy to see why it is so popular. It is a cross between Southern coastal and beach chic. Centered around Destin Harbor, which has a reputation as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” this area offers a myriad of activities that the whole family can enjoy from first-class shopping at Destin Commons, destincommons.com or boutique-style retail shops, to chartering a deep-sea fishing trip or renting a boat to spend the day at Crab Island. Or golf at one of the many top-rated courses.
For those looking for the ideal vacation spot in the Destin area, look no further than the resort destination of Emerald Grande, emeraldgrande.com, Destin’s shimmering jewel overlooking some of the most spectacular turquoise waters and sugar-white beaches in existence. From the exciting HarborWalk Village, watch boats of all shapes and sizes navigate in and out of the Destin Pass. Add in some of the most spectacular sunsets you’re ever likely to see, and you’ll soon see why Emerald Grande is a place you won’t soon forget.
For lodging reservation information, consider Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, destinvacation.com, and Crye-Leike Destin Getaways, destingetaways.com, for your perfect home, condo or townhouse when staying in Destin.
Another treasured coastal destination of COLA 2 COLA is the Beaches of South Walton, a collection of fifteen charming beach communities scattered over twenty-six miles of pure white sand. At the western end of the county, stay at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa (hiltonsandestinbeach.com) —the largest full-service beachfront resort hotel in Northwest Florida, combining spacious accommodations and endless recreation with a AAA Four-Diamond restaurant, world-class amenities, an award-winning spa and access to championship golf courses. Shop at Silver Sands Factory Stores, premiumoutlets.com, the nation’s largest designer outlet, or experience Grand Boulevard’s unique mix of exclusive shops, fine dining, state-of-the-art office space, and contemporary accommodations.
Traveling to the east along the eighteen-mile stretch of Scenic 30A, where a restriction keeps building heights below fifty feet, Walton County is home to an eclectic mix of funky beach bars, world-class restaurants, old Florida communities, and New Urbanist towns with distinctive architecture—all against a backdrop of top-rated golf courses. There are several state parks where biking, hiking, and kayaking abound; and the area is proud of their ten rare coastal dune lakes, which appear only in a few places in the world. Eden Gardens State Park floridastateparks.org, in scenic Point Washington, is a beautiful 163-acre park at the tip of Choctawhatchee Bay that boasts a turn-of-the-century mansion with spectacular grounds and moss-draped live oaks—some more than six hundred years old.
When planning a stay in South Walton, please visit Sunburst Beach Vacations at sunburstbeachvacations.com, or Beach Rentals of South Walton at brswvacations.com, specializing in vacation homes and condos that accommodate anywhere from two to twenty people.
Bay County hot spots include Panama City and Panama City Beach. It was recently featured on MSN’s Top Ten Housing Markets of the Future due to the addition of the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. The first major airport opening in the United States since 9/11, air traffic in June of 2010 was already up nearly 200 percent as compared to flights logged in at the old Bay County airport the previous June. This projection should only increase if Southwest and Delta airlines continue to offer more non-stop flights that open tourism to new markets.
Panama City offers the historic downtown area with its collection of antique shops, eateries, and nightlife. With the eco tours of nearby Econfina Creek and the award-winning St. Andrews State Park, the area boasts one of the most popular outdoor recreation spots in all of Florida. The park sits on more than one and a half miles of beachfront, offering swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking and canoeing, two fishing piers, a boat ramp, concessions, and campsites. Known as the “Wreck Capital of the South” to diving enthusiasts, Panama City is ideal for diving, thanks to the many wrecks and reefs located in shallow, crystal clear waters.
Recognized as the “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches,” Panama City Beach offers a wide variety of places to stay and things to do. These include the relaxing Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort and Spa, hmarriott.com, overlooking the protected waters of St. Andrews Bay, complete with two golf courses—one of them being the only Jack Nicholas–designed golf course in Northwest Florida. The resort also features a full-service marina, a spa and salon. Or stay at one of six full-service Gulf-front resorts featured by the Resort Collection of Panama City Beach, resortcollection.com. If you are looking for a full-service management company that offers multiple options, please look up Oaseas Resorts at visitflorida.com and Counts-Oakes Resort Properties panamabeachrentals.com, where they can help you meet your vacation needs.
Gulf and Franklin Counties
In the early ’90s a Florida tourism group forgot to include information on these two counties on their map, thus prompting a local tourism group to create their own brochure and map—calling the area “The Forgotten Coast.” The area is a throwback to the “old Florida” lifestyle and is made up of towns like Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Cape San Blas, Apalachicola, and St. George Island. Here there are no high-rises, only miles and miles of pristine coastline and protected bays. Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park, located on Cape San Blas, was ranked by Dr. Beach in 2002 as America’s number one beach—an uncrowded family paradise with affordable beachfront rental homes, historic inns, and charming shops. And, you can even bring the dog along because the beaches are pet-friendly!
These small towns aren’t without history; Port St. Joe, known as the “Constitution City,” was where, in 1838, delegates of territorial Florida drafted the state’s first constitution. Port St. Joe also has a welcoming new marina that can service all your boating needs. Apalachicola is famous for its oysters, harvesting over 90 percent of the oysters in Florida and 10 percent nationwide. Its streets are lined with moss-draped oaks and Victorian homes dating back over one hundred years, when it was once a bustling seaport town. Here you’ll find a gentle mix of trendy shops, restaurants, galleries, and meticulously kept hotels and inns. When staying in Apalachicola, please visit the Coombs House Inn, coombsinnandsuites.com, bed-and-breakfast.
Come see why over seventeen million people a year visit Northwest Florida COLA 2 COLA. The weather is predictably sunny for three hundred twenty days out of the year. The area features activities the whole family can enjoy, an abundance of championship golf courses, history, arts & culture, and a multitude of state parks. Don’t forget the visor and sunscreen.