Aerial view of the pristine Gulf coast beaches in the panhandle of Florida


Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Pensacola to Apalachicola, is also known as the Emerald Coast, thanks to the brilliant blue-green waters found along its shores. | Photo courtesy of Visit Panama City Beach

The Pristine Beaches of COLA 2 COLA®

Pensacola to Apalachicola and Everything in Between

When it comes to destinations, there are many around the world that people will argue are the best. VIE’s inception as a regional magazine operating in Northwest Florida led to its original tagline, COLA 2 COLA®, referring to the roughly two-hundred-mile stretch from Pensacola to Apalachicola. As the magazine has grown nationally, it has branched out to cover people, places, and events around the world. But we believe our own backyard is still one of the best destinations, and this guide will share all the beauty, culture, and fun from COLA 2 COLA®!

Upper view of The Pearl Hotel's pool and rooftop lounge in Rosemary Beach, Florida at sunset

The Pearl in Rosemary Beach offers charming boutique accommodations and amenities, including a private pool and beach, a restaurant, and a rooftop lounge. | Photo courtesy of The Pearl

The Westernmost ’Cola

By Sloane Stephens Cox

Consider yourself a world traveler whose wanderlust is constrained by limited vacation time? Northwest Florida, particularly the stretch from Pensacola to Destin, offers an extensive array of happenings and hot spots that rival some of the most elite retreats. During one short stay, you can satiate your inner foodie, fashionista, history buff, and outdoorsman by exploring the bustling downtown areas, bucolic settings, and pristine beaches.

Downtown Pensacola

Pensacola natives who haven’t returned to their hometown in recent years might steer you straight to the world-renowned white-sand beaches and away from downtown, recalling dilapidated buildings and sleepy streets they would not dare walk after dark. Ignore their advice!

Making a beeline for the beach is tempting, but you won’t want to bypass the burgeoning urban oasis on the north shore of Pensacola Bay. Downtown Pensacola is in the midst of a remarkable renaissance, and now it can add the accolade “2017 Greatest Place in Florida” to its other coveted claims, which include “America’s First European Settlement.”

The city’s welcoming nature and “refreshing blend of historical resolve and cosmopolitan progress” are among the many reasons for the recent win, according to the American Planning Association, which bestowed the award after a public poll.

Start your stay in one of nine spacious guest suites at the Lee House. This boutique hotel in the heart of downtown boasts all the modern comforts and amenities of new construction while retaining the look and feel of the 1866 home that once graced the property. Spacious porches overlook Pensacola Bay, and the hotel is flanked by Fountain Park and Seville Square, the magnolia-canopied setting often abuzz with free concerts and family-friendly festivals.

Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, Emerald Coast, features great locations for shopping. Downtown Pensacola's Palafox Street is in the center of town and this images shows many people walking to shops and restaurants.

Palafox Street, lined with shops and restaurants, is the beating heart of vibrant Downtown Pensacola. | Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola

Stroll four short blocks west, past costumed docents leading tours of historic Victorian and French Creole cottages, to one of the “Ten Greatest Streets in America”—another epithet bestowed by the American Planning Association. Packed with posh boutiques, elegant eateries, and artsy exhibitions, Palafox Street is steps away from quaint museums, archaeological sites, and picnic-worthy parks. Its upscale ambience is similar to that of New York City’s swanky SoHo (short for South of Houston Street), so it’s no wonder that SoGo (south of Government Street) is the nickname given to Palafox’s shopping and dining district.

SoGo’s Scout is a must-see for any woman who wants to dress like a well-appointed A-lister in brands such as Self Portrait, Ulla Johnson, and Golden Goose. Owner and Pensacola native Julia Ussery’s rave-worthy résumé includes working as design director at Calvin Klein and styling celebrities such as Kate Moss for top runway shows. Ussery has an uncanny ability to glean your preferences and determine what looks best on you, minimizing your time in the dressing room and maximizing the time you have to hit other haute haunts.

Spacious porches overlook Pensacola Bay, and the hotel is flanked by Fountain Park and Seville Square, the magnolia-canopied setting often abuzz with free concerts and family-friendly festivals.

Cruise Palafox’s brick walkways festooned with fenced-in flower beds and whimsical bike racks. The north–south stretch of more than ten blocks of storefronts showcases many creature comforts, from modern kitchen gadgets to artisanal olive oils, custom jewelry, funky home furnishings, and designer fitness apparel. Downtown businesses are popping up so quickly that even locals have a hard time staying abreast of the developments. One of the latest clusters is slated to open soon at One Palafox Place, a century-old landmark that has been completely renovated for living, working, shopping, and dining spaces.

For a serious case of furniture envy, take a one-mile detour northeast to another downtown shopping mecca: Duh for Garden and Home. Can’t stuff a hand-carved armoire, plush chaise lounge, or cascading shell chandelier into your car? The store can deliver it to you. Or you can choose from plenty of unique items that are easy to stash in your suitcase. Fall in love with found objects from around the world, from Turkish towels to leather flyswatters, before you even know what they are. Duh even offers a new French-bistro-style restaurant, Jo’s, along with men’s and women’s clothing, stationery, jewelry, and many more items that evoke a luxurious lifestyle. Shoppers won’t want their time in the serene sixteen-thousand-square-foot space to end.

Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast, Emerald Coast, has many beautiful golf courses right on the water. This image is of an aerial view of the Lost Key Golf Course in Pensacola, Florida.

Lost Key Golf Club is one of many top-notch courses in the Pensacola area with challenging water obstacles and beautiful coastal scenery. | Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola

Head back to Palafox to hone your cooking skills in a class at So Gourmet & Kitchenry or unwind Cirque du Soleil–style in an aerial yoga class at Pure Pilates. You can learn more about Pensacola’s nearly five-hundred-year history under Spanish, French, and British rule (Pensacola is known as the City of Five Flags), during a self-guided tour of buildings and museums in the nearby Historic Pensacola Village.

When shopping and sightseeing stir your appetite, Gulf-to-table restaurants await you on every block. Try the tasty mini tuna tacos on a bed of lump-crab guacamole at Nom Sushi Izakaya. Or grab an open-faced Spanish crab melt sandwich, homemade soup, and sweet soda bread at Carmen’s Lunch Bar, which was recently profiled in Forbes magazine. Both are intimate venues with impressive menus. From an outdoor table, you might catch a glimpse of a horse-drawn carriage, the Pensacola Pedal Trolley, or a group of Segway riders gliding past Plaza Ferdinand VII, where Andrew Jackson was sworn in as territorial governor.

Its upscale ambience is similar to that of New York City’s swanky SoHo (short for South of Houston Street), so it’s no wonder that SoGo (south of Government Street) is the nickname given to Palafox’s shopping and dining district.

For Southern cuisine with a contemporary twist, head a few blocks west to Union Public House. Signature dishes include grouper and shrimp corn dogs and mouthwatering wild boar sloppy joes. Diners wanting grab-and-go gourmet options can swing by the silver Airstream-style food trucks at Al Fresco on the corner of Main and Palafox Streets. For fancier dinner fare, make reservations at Jackson’s Steakhouse or Global Grill, which offers tangy jalapeño margaritas and consistently good tapas and entrées. Creative cocktails, stylish salads, and fresh fried oysters are only a few of the favorites at Restaurant IRON.

Catch one of the best sunset views on the bay at casual Jaco’s Bayfront Bar and Grille. The west-facing patio is the perfect place to enjoy a cold glass of wine and a warm Bella Mushroom Stack, which lies on a bed of pesto risotto and is topped with Kalamata olives, feta, and tomato cream sauce.

Executive chef Alex McPhail at IRON, restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, is prepping food for dinner.

Executive chef Alex McPhail at Restaurant IRON creates refined Southern cuisine with coastal flair. | Photo courtesy of Restaurant IRON

When the streetlights turn on, Palafox continues to hum with family and adult activities. Enjoy a production at the historic Saenger Theatre or a big-name concert at the small venue Vinyl Music Hall. Impress (or embarrass) your spouse, kids, and friends by hopping on a mechanical bull at Wild Greg’s Saloon, or challenge your brain by solving clues in one of three themed escape rooms at Escape on Palafox.

The bass is always pumping at Blend Lounge, which connects to World of Beer. If beer is your beverage of choice, quench your thirst at one of the local breweries, including the newest, Perfect Plain Brewing Company on Garden Street. Wine lovers can kick back in the breezeway at the Wine Bar, where street musicians’ tunes often echo down the arched tunnel of bricks.

A “Glamping” Retreat

Nestled among the cotton fields, rolling farmlands, and longleaf pines in nearby Milton is a swank sanctuary called Coldwater Gardens. Named after the spring-fed creek that runs along its eastern border, the eco-agro-tourism resort boasts 360 acres that include sprawling gardens, a luxurious lodge, cushy cabins, and “glamping” (short for “glamorous camping”) tents. The lodge’s clean, contemporary lines evoke the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, who happened to be a close family friend of the owner.

A mod treehouse-style cabin even has a hot tub on its deck, and the glamping-area bathhouse won a prestigious state award for its dapper design. The six-hundred-square-foot cabins have mod furnishings, open kitchens, spacious bathrooms, generous screened-in front porches, geothermal heat and air-conditioning, comfortable king-size beds, pull-out sofas, instant hot water, and landscaped yards. From three of the cottages, guests can enjoy a fiery sunset over a cotton field.

Shot of a beer from Perfect Plain Brewing Company, located in downtown Pensacola, Florida. The clear glass has their logo in black and is sitting on a black counter top at the bar

Pensacola’s craft beer scene has grown in recent years, with Perfect Plain Brewing Company the latest addition to a collection of local breweries and bars. | Photo by Steven Gray, courtesy of Perfect Plain

The quiet getaway, which has managed to maintain a low profile in the rural North Santa Rosa community, is the perfect place to escape digital overload, though Wi-Fi is always available. Only four miles away is the Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center, where you can traverse a challenging ropes course, soar over treetops on about a mile of zip lines, or head down the water in rental canoes and tubes.


Landlocked beach lovers shouldn’t have to settle for ocean-sound mobile apps and seashell screensavers. It’s time to take a trip to some of the award-winning beaches of Pensacola, Navarre, Fort Walton Beach, and Destin—all of which are still relatively well-kept secrets.

Trying to determine which location has squeakier sand, bigger dunes, or the best spot to sprawl out on a beach towel is impossible and probably unnecessary, since picture-perfect places abound along the Emerald Coast, as the area is called. But, if you drive over the Destin Pass, you’ll almost certainly see water with clear turquoise color and clarity only the Caribbean can rival.

From the top of the pass, look north to catch a glimpse of the many boats that drop anchor on Crab Island, the famous underwater sandbar that used to be an island. Floating on the water’s surface during summertime is Crab Island Water Park, an inflatable playground that kids love. Destin’s Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park is also a family favorite with a lazy river, a wave pool, and forty play areas.

Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum is a beautiful two-story, white building with wrap around porches. The Lighthouse is location at NAS, which is the Navy base in Pensacola, Florida

Visitors can climb the 177 steps at the historic Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, built in 1859, for a grand panoramic view. | Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola

Popular watersports are available for rent everywhere. Options include stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, paragliding, surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing. Adrenaline seekers can experience hydroflight, one of the latest trends in watersports, on a Flyboard at Destin Power Boats and Fort Walton Beach’s Power Up Watersports. The water-propelled hoverboards take riders on a thrilling excursion as high as thirty feet above the water.

Of course, even sunny Florida has its rainy days. When bad weather occurs, consider roaming the 350,000-square-foot military and aerospace museum in Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum displays more than 150 restored aircraft, and kids can even hop into the cockpit of a retired Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet. The oldest and largest of its kind, the museum is among the most visited in Florida, and admission is free.

When bad weather occurs, consider roaming the 350,000-square-foot military and aerospace museum in Pensacola. The National Naval Aviation Museum displays more than 150 restored aircraft, and kids can even hop into the cockpit of a retired Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet.

Interact with dolphins at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach or charter a dolphin cruise with one of many operators, including Destin Snorkel. Deep-sea fishing adventures are also popular. The Gulf is known for its savory red snapper, so head out during snapper season in early summer to catch fish you can cook in your upscale Sky Home’s kitchen at Pensacola Beach’s Portofino Island Resort.

Other stylish places to stay include The Henderson in Destin and the Hilton Pensacola Beach, which offers a bountiful Sunday brunch. For live music, cold adult beverages, and an island vibe, swing by the Sandshaker Lounge on Pensacola Beach, which claims to be the home of the original Bushwacker cocktail. Or, sit under one of many thatched roofs at Navarre Beach’s Juana’s Pagodas, which is also a hot spot for sandy volleyball games and watercraft rentals.

View of the Pensacola Beach during a Blue Angels show with a large crowd of people on the shoreline watching the plane fly by.

Each summer, locals and tourists gather on Pensacola Beach to watch the annual air show put on by the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron. | Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola

Beach restaurants can sometimes be hit or miss, but here are some locals’ recommendations: TC’s Front Porch open-air café, a converted gas station in Navarre; Destin’s Louisiana Lagniappe, the Donut Hole, and Dewey Destin’s seafood, popular for its juicy fish sandwiches; Fat Clemenza’s brick-oven pizzeria in Miramar Beach; and The Grand Marlin in Pensacola Beach.

If you can’t get enough of the fresh seafood, stop in the spacious seafood market Joe Patti’s in downtown Pensacola to have some shipped to your home—not that you will ever want your Northwest Florida vacation to end! and are available on the web to help you plan your next vacation!

Read more about the pristine beaches from COLA 2 COLA® when you explore our guide to South Walton County and Panama City Beach here and the guide to Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, and Apalachicola here!

Destin to Panama City Beach

By Sallie W. Boyles

Of all the places so joyfully explored and then shared within the pages of VIE, Florida’s Emerald Coast, our home base, forever shines in our eyes. Breathtaking scenery and fabulous ways to enjoy life exist right outside our doorstep, from Panama City Beach to Destin, and the only way to see and experience as much as possible is to dive right in.

Mother Nature’s Finest Work

At the heart of this region, twenty-six miles of powdery white beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, repeatedly glorified as Mother Nature’s finest work, remained largely overlooked until visionaries put South Walton County, Florida, on the map in the 1980s. Seaside, thoughtfully designed with architecture to evoke the beach cottage town of bygone years, was the area’s first New Urbanist community. Branded as Scenic Highway 30-A (or just 30-A), the stretch boasts sixteen coastal neighborhoods, old and new, and each emanates a distinct character and charm. Eco-friendly planning with ways to get around on foot and by bike not only facilitate a slower pace and village lifestyle, but the intention to preserve nature also means that the main attractions—beaches, state parks, and forests—remain unspoiled.

Rivaling the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the beaches of South Walton and throughout Northwest Florida have crowned the lists of numerous travel guides. From late spring through early fall, the clear emerald-tinted waters invite swimming, snorkeling, and floating for hours on end. Tranquil waves near the shore further entice first-timers and pros alike to grab Jet Skis, kayaks, sailboats, paddleboards, and other water toys.

Despite much publicity, South Walton’s most exceptional phenomena—fifteen coastal dune lakes—often remain hidden in plain sight because people don’t realize how rare and awesome they are. Averaging five feet in depth, the shallow basins (also existing in New Zealand, Australia, and Madagascar) formed at least ten thousand years ago when winds blew sand inland from the beach. Rainwater collected there, as did water from the Gulf, which periodically breached the sand berms. Over time, the back-and-forth flow of rain and seawater produced a brackish ecosystem that supports freshwater and saltwater species. Havens for flora and fauna, the coastal dune lakes also beckon ecotourists and any who crave solace. Many explore via kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP).

By no coincidence, the YOLO (an acronym for “you only live once”) Board originated in Santa Rosa Beach. “The dune lakes not only offer a constant inspiration to share with our many visitors but also, for me, a way to continually develop options to get out and explore them to their fullest,” says Tom Losee, YOLO Board cofounder. He also founded RUN/SUP, a company that encourages people to enjoy the gifts of nature while getting fit. Along with renting SUPs to locals and visitors, RUN/SUP provides cross-training and maps out courses. “We are truly blessed to have such a stunning example of nature’s beauty in our own backyard,” Tom adds.

View of coastal dunes and Western Lake at the Grayton Beach State Park in Walton County, Florida

Western Lake at Grayton Beach State Park is one of fifteen rare coastal dune lakes found along the beaches of Walton County. | Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

Another unique happenstance of nature, this one involving the continental shelf (the underwater ledge that borders every land mass), explains the prevalence of dolphins and big-game fish in this part of the Gulf. Nicknamed the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, Destin is remarkably close to deep, deep water. Upon entering the Gulf of Mexico via East Pass from Choctawhatchee Bay, the clear, desert-like shallows and white, sandy bottom transition quickly to rocky outcroppings and dark silt, a welcoming environment for amberjack, mackerel, porgy, snapper, and triggerfish. The real excitement, however, occurs twenty-four miles out at what is known locally as the Edge, where the continental shelf plunges to four hundred feet. In those depths, marlin, billfish, grouper, tuna, and wahoo congregate. Many anglers have set world records in Destin, home to the Cobia World Championships (March to May), the Crab Cruncher Classic (April), Sandestin’s Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic (June), and the Summer Open Fishing Tournament (August).

For a one-of-a-kind, in-or-on-the-water experience, hop aboard a boat, a Jet Ski, or a SUP and head to Choctawhatchee Bay, immediately north of Destin Bridge, to Crab Island. At one time, the topographical feature was a tiny, crab-shaped island. Today, it’s an immense sandbar beneath about three feet of water and a heavenly spot for swimming, floating, shelling, fishing, and socializing.

Island is also a misnomer for Shell Island in Panama City Beach. Technically, the seven-mile barrier between the Gulf of Mexico and Saint Andrew Bay is a peninsula best reached by boat (pontoon rentals are popular) or ferry. Pack the necessities—food, water, sunscreen—to visit this utterly wild sanctuary. Instead of concession stands, you’ll encounter snowy sand dunes, a coastal scrub forest, and an inland lake, all supporting many different species: deer, ghost crabs, loggerhead and green sea turtles, and even the Choctawhatchee beach mouse.

Two couples on a double date drinking wine and eating dinner in a screened in porch in a restaurant that's right on the lake in Walton County, Florida

The area from Destin to Panama City Beach is truly blessed with incredibly talented chefs who prepare fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood at a wide selection of award-winning restaurants. | Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

To combine nature with shopping and dining, the Timpoochee Trail may be just your speed. Eighteen and a half miles long, the paved bike path, named in memory of a Euchee Indian chief, runs parallel to Scenic Highway 30-A from Dune Allen Beach to Inlet Beach. Bikers who stay on the trail not only pass through all of 30-A’s villages but also reach dune lakes, state parks with trails and camping, and beach access points.

Glorious Food and Spirits

Gone are the days when the menu choices in Northwest Florida boiled down to one question: fried, broiled, or boiled? An invasion of talented chefs, gathering inspiration from the abundance and variety of fresh land and sea ingredients, now pepper the region with innovative dishes. Many blend insights from traveling and studying abroad with traditional Southern recipes they’ve known since childhood. Different venues add flavor as well, so your well-rounded culinary exploration must incorporate a range of eateries: food trucks, beachside cafés, and fine dining establishments.

When on the go, The Meltdown on 30A, parked on Seaside’s Airstream Row (or food truck central), makes a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich for which you’ll want to wait in line. If you’re wondering who’s responsible for such decadence, the answer is acclaimed Chef Jim Shirley, owner of several other top restaurants in the area, including the Great Southern Café and The Bay.

For a crowd-pleasing pick, Bud & Alley’s, a Seaside icon, is hard to beat. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an idyllic spot that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, the hospitable eatery (owned by Dave Rauschkolb, a local who’s regularly on-site) welcomes casual diners to take a seat, even in their wet bathing suits. Bud & Alley’s—which also has an adjacent Taco Bar and Pizza Bar—was named to Florida Trends Golden Spoon Awards Hall of Fame in 2017. Can’t decide what to order? Go for the crab cake, which is oh-so delicate and mouthwatering!

Wooden boardwalk in between the trees at the Conservation Park in Panama City Beach, Florida

Conservation Park in Panama City Beach includes boardwalks and miles of flatwoods trails that are perfect for hiking and wildlife viewing. | Photo courtesy of Visit Panama City Beach

The name may prompt you to go elsewhere, but count on Stinky’s Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach for fresh-from-the-Gulf, expertly prepared fare. “All ways,” a theme at Stinky’s, means that entrées, including the fresh fish of the day, are offered multiple ways, and selections, like the oyster bar’s amusing variations, are quite imaginative and rich in flavor.

Of all the restaurants in Florida, only Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood (Sandestin) and Cuvee 30A (Inlet Beach) received Wine Spectator’s 2017 Best of Award of Excellence for their representations of wine-growing regions and quality presentations.

“When Bud & Alley’s first opened in January 1986,” says Rauschkolb, “there were only five restaurants, including us, on 30-A. It’s been an honor to be one of the pioneers of the culinary revolution that is now a rich tapestry of outstanding restaurants and quick-bite offerings. Of course, it’s wonderful for those people visiting here but even more so for those of us who get to live here. With every new opening, it always seems like another jewel in the crown of South Walton. One thing is for sure: opening a restaurant on 30-A doesn’t guarantee success, as the quality bar is quite high, and we certainly all benefit from that.”

Annual celebrations of food, wine, and other spirits also cultivate refreshing trends that raise the bar for deliciousness. Wine reigns at Sandestin Wine Festival at the Village of Baytowne Wharf (April), South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival at Grand Boulevard’s Town Center in Sandestin (April), Rosemary Beach Uncorked (October), and Seeing Red Wine Festival in Seaside (November). Craft beer is the star at UNwineD, a March festival at Aaron Bessant Park in Panama City Beach. Beer aficionados also love October on the Gulf with the Baytowne Wharf Beer Fest at Sandestin and Oktoberfest in Panama City Beach.

Beach Music

Where there’s a beach, there’s music. On the Emerald Coast, live bands play year-round, and some of the biggest names in music perform at noteworthy annual festivals. Panama City Beach hosts two chart-topping three-day events: Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam is a country music festival on Labor Day weekend with Grammy-winning headliners, industry icons, and up-and-coming acts. Meanwhile, SandJam (yes, the party is in the sand) presents live performances from alternative rock bands (think Imagine Dragons and Kings of Leon) in the spring. Festivals sell out to attendees from all over the country and abroad, so be sure to purchase tickets and reserve rooms in advance.

Aerial view of the crowd watching a country music show at Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam festival in Panama City Beach, Florida

Since 2013, the annual Pepsi Gulf Coast Jam festival has brought award-winning country music artists to Panama City Beach for incredible concerts and fun. | Photo courtesy of Visit Panama City Beach

“One of the reasons I started these festivals in Panama City Beach is that I consider this a true destination,” says Rendy Lovelady, executive producer of both events. “When we do surveys, people tell us they come for the beach, the food, and the music. And we attract a gumbo of people who want to hear different kinds of music—alternative, country, and singer-songwriter. This region is also a real melting pot of talent.”

A talent component of both festivals heightens the excitement among fans and performers by showcasing new, original artists who compete on the stages of regional venues in the weeks and days leading up to the main event. The winning act then opens the concert on the final day. Competitors from all over participate, although many are local. “More and more, this area’s becoming a real incubator for new, up-and-coming acts,” Lovelady notes. “Panama City Beach is definitely a live music city. I live in Nashville and can tell you there are as many possibilities in this area to enjoy great live music.”

And don’t miss the 30A Songwriters Festival, which brings many of those Nashville songwriters who have penned hit tunes for huge artists to the beaches of South Walton for intimate performances each January.

Shopping by the Seashore

Northwest Florida has also become a shopping destination to rival any great city for art, fashion, food and spirits, and much more. For all the popular stores and brands, you could spend an entire day at Destin Commons, Grand Boulevard and Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Miramar Beach, or Pier Park in Panama City Beach, but you should also visit the locally owned establishments. Independent merchants are hallmarks of communities like Alys Beach, WaterColor, Seaside, Seacrest, Rosemary Beach, and Grayton Beach.

Even if shopping is not your passion, a gem or two will undoubtedly catch your eye. Assorted treasures include high-fashion footwear, trendy accessories, designer apparel, handcrafted jewelry, children’s fine clothing, sporting equipment, amusing toys, cool souvenirs, Southern gourmet treats, one-of-a-kind furniture, coastal home accessories, and original art.

Side view of the outside of The Alys Shoppe in Alys Beach, Florida

From Pier Park in Panama City Beach to Destin Commons, there is no shortage of great shopping in the area. The Alys Shoppe, pictured here, offers high-end designer clothing, accessories, and more. | Photo by Brett Bulthuis

The Emerald Coast is home to a diverse community of artists. Don’t miss the gallery of Mary Hong, who uses glass shards to create mesmerizing mosaics reflecting local scenery. Andy Saczynski is a contemporary mixed-media assemblage artist who recycles objects like wood, paint, and musical instruments for his whimsical and coastal-inspired work. Gordie Hinds paints in a nostalgic, Hemingwayesque style to capture snapshots in time, especially life on the Gulf, as well as his love of baseball, dogs, and the great outdoors.

“We have some really great artists down here,” Hinds says. “If acquiring original art is important to you, or if you’re looking for that one piece that does something good for your soul each time you look at it, then there’s a good chance you’ll find it—or the artist to create it for you—here. That said, it’s easy to meet and talk with us about our work.”

In addition to visiting artists and seeing their work in galleries, collectors have their choice of art festivals: Art in the Park (WaterColor) and ArtsQuest (Sandestin) in spring; the West Indies Market (Rosemary Beach) from spring to midsummer; Baytowne Art Walk (Village of Baytowne Wharf) and Festival of the Arts (Destin) in late summer and fall. Rather than displaying canvases, Digital Graffiti (Alys Beach) in May colors the town’s white walls with a kaleidoscopic nighttime light show.

Cottages, Castles, Inns, and Resorts

Variety also pertains to the area’s lodging. Pitch a tent at one of the beautiful state parks or get pampered at the best hotel. A rental could be a quaint cottage, a chic condominium, or a veritable castle by the sea. When choosing, compare the advantages of making your reservation directly with a homeowner versus a property manager. At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, for instance, hotel and condo guests (those who book via Sandestin) receive generous access to amenities and other perks. Notably, the Baytowne Marina at Sandestin also rents boat slips with resort privileges.

For the ultimate luxury home away from home, pristine Alys Beach is the neighborhood for you. Its spacious homes and vacation units are well appointed and perfect for a peaceful, isolated retreat year-round. Stop by charming Fonville Press for a coffee and breakfast before spending the day walking along a private beach or enjoying your cabana at the exclusive Caliza Pool. Shopping is on tap at NEAT Bottle Shop and Tasting Room, Ann Hartley boutique, and the Alys Shoppe, which is packed with high-end designer clothing, accessories, home goods, and Alys Beach merchandise.

Aerial view of The Pearl Hotel's pool and rooftop lounge in Rosemary Beach, Florida

An aerial view of the pool and rooftop lounge at The Pearl in Rosemary Beach. | Photo courtesy of The Pearl

Although a family-friendly theme plays along the coast, some retreats, such as The Pearl in Rosemary Beach, cater to grown-ups. By piling on the luxury in an intimate setting of only fifty-five rooms and suites, the elegant hotel, complete with spa, pool, grill, rooftop bar, and private beach, earns numerous accolades. A few distinctions bestowed in 2017 included Four Stars from Forbes Travel Guide, Four Diamonds from AAA, and Reader’s Choice #8 of Top Hotels in Florida from Condé Nast Traveler.

A Destination for All Seasons

Every season in Northwest Florida has its own set of virtues. Summer is the best time for swimming and diving into activities; everything is open. Quite a few visitors fall in love with autumn and spring, when temperatures and humidity levels moderate, creating the most delightful setting for outdoor festivals. Winter, too, wins the hearts of those who treasure the deep-blue skies, the peaceful, quiet beaches, and the calm that descends after the holidays. That’s precisely why so many lovers of nature, food, music, and art become permanent residents; they were once vacationers who couldn’t bear the thought of leaving.

Head to and for more information and trip-planning ideas!

Read more about the pristine beaches from COLA 2 COLA® when you explore our guide to Pensacola and Destin here here and the guide to Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, and Apalachicola here!

View of the gorgeous blue, Gulf of Mexico waters and fisherman fishing off of a large pier in Panama City Beach, Florida.

Anglers can take advantage of four exceptional fishing piers in Panama City Beach. The identical Russell-Fields Pier and M.B. Miller Pier are often referred to as City Pier and County Pier, respectively, while Saint Andrews State Park has Tiller Pier on the Gulf side as well as a fishing pier on the Grand Lagoon. | Photo courtesy of Visit Panama City Beach

Small-Town Florida on the Coast

By Jordan Staggs

Unlike the bustling towns of Pensacola, Destin, and Panama City Beach, the eastern end of our ’Cola to ’Cola area offers a chance to slow down, get to know Old Florida, and experience the natural landscapes the way they were intended—unspoiled by man.

Unfortunately, due to Hurricane Michael—a Category 4 storm which made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida, on October 10, 2018—most of the area recently saw major destruction. Please join us in praying for our ’Cola to ’Cola neighbors in the towns of Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, Panama City, Lynn Haven, St. George Island, Marianna, Blountstown, Youngstown, Callaway, Wewahitchka, and other affected areas. The people of Northwest Florida greatly appreciate any effort to help relieve hurricane victims during this time and in the months and years ahead as they work to rebuild their lives.

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Visit,, and to stay updated on relief and restoration efforts.

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