Quiet plea­sures & South­ern charm

Travel Guide to Florida - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY STEVE WINSTON

Wel­come to the quiet side of Florida where you’ll find some of the most beau­ti­ful beaches in the world, all lapped by clear, emer­ald-green wa­ters. Delve into North­west Florida’s col­or­ful his­tory, fam­ily at­trac­tions, down-home cookin’ and unique lit­tle shops, all laced with friendly peo­ple with South­ern ac­cents.

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 his­tor­i­cal district has nearly a thou­sand 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 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 one note­wor­thy his­tor­i­cal res­i­dence. The Keith Cabin is 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 fur­ni­ture­crafters, with work­shops for kids. South Walton also boasts the Sea­side Reper­tory Theatre, one of North­west Florida’s premier pro­fes­sional theater com­pa­nies.

At the Indian Tem­ple Mound Mu­seum in Fort Walton Beach, 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 short drive north of Fort Walton Beach, 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 his­tor­i­cal 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 im­mi­grants 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, par­triver, 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 takes 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 Heart of the Emer­ald Coast, of­fers at­trac­tions such as the Gul­far­ium, where you can frolic in the wa­ter with rays and spend time ob­serv­ing dol­phins. If your kids love di­nosaurs, head for Wild Willy’s Ad­ven­ture Zone, with mini-golf, a tram­po­line, 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.

In Es­cam­bia County, 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 worl­drenowned. Frolic on more than 227 miles of white, fine-grained, sugar-sand beaches stretch­ing 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 play­grounds!

The Apalachicola Na­tional For­est prof­fers 564,000 acres that are per­fect for 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.

Sit­u­ated on the bluffs over­look­ing the Apalachicola River, Tor­reya State Park of­fers 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 Wash­ing­ton 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, Per­dido Key and Okaloosa Is­land.

Among the best beaches in North­west Florida is the pris­tine five-mile stretch in 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 many years.

Head­ing in­land, Florida Cav­erns State Park is home to the only guided dry 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 cave­div­ing 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.” The Corner Pocket is a non-smok­ing pool hall with the largest se­lec­tion of craft beer and the county’s only owner-op­er­ated Cicerone es­tab­lish­ment. The Place Down­town in the his­tor­i­cal district of Panama City fea­tures karaoke and trivia nights and hosts per­form­ers from the Ukulele Orches­tra and the Gulf Jazz So­ci­ety.

Neigh­bor­ing Panama City Beach is a flipflops 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 down­home-fun at­mos­phere.

The pic­turesque sea­side town of Destin may bring back mem­o­ries of that fa­mous ‘50s song, Har­bor Lights. Har­borWalk Vil­lage and the Destin Har­bor are the most ro­man­tic strolling spots in town, with great shop­ping and cool bou­tiques, gal­leries, fam­ily restau­rants and at­trac­tions, 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.

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 scenery 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.

For some­thing truly unique, check out the first Un­der­wa­ter Mu­seum of Art (UMA) in the U.S. off Gray­ton Beach State Park, where a col­lec­tion of seven un­der­wa­ter sculp­tures were in­stalled in the sum­mer of 2018 as ar­ti­fi­cial reefs to pro­vide an­chor points for marine life to in­habit.

The Chau­tauqua Vine­yards & Win­ery is a nice day trip from the Emer­ald Coast. You can tour the win­ery and learn the ABCs of grape­grow­ing, 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 hand­dipped ice-cream cones whipped up at the 1950s soda foun­tain.

Reid Av­enue in Port St. Joe is a half-mile­long 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 Fe­bru­ary through De­cem­ber, you can find cloth­ing, an­tiques and time­less trea­sures along with 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. His­toric Down­town Panama City is home to the El­e­gant En­deav­ors An­tique Em­po­rium and Main Street An­tiques, which have been featured on dif­fer­ent shows. Ev­ery Satur­day, head over to the St. An­drews Farm­ers’ Mar­ket.

While you’re there, step aboard Just the Cook, a su­per cool food boat, which has been show­cased on the Food Net­work as hav­ing one of the top 16 cooks in Amer­ica.

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 wrought­iron rail­ings, is a de­light­ful place to spend an af­ter­noon shop­ping and din­ing.

In Destin, Har­borWalk Vil­lage has a vi­brant at­mos­phere, 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 Destin Com­mons, 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.

100

OPPOSITE TOP LEFT: Pen­sacola Light­house. OPPOSITETOP RIGHT: Fish­ing on St. Joseph Bay in Gulf County. OPPOSITE BOTTOM LEFT: Wa­ter­front din­ing in Panama City. TOP: Glamp­ing at Cold­wa­ter Gar­dens in Mil­ton. ABOVE LEFT: Re­lax­ing on Pen­sacola Beach. ABOVERIGHT: Pad­dling through the Cy­press stumps of the Dead Lakes in We­wahitchka.

OPPOSITE TOP: Sali­nas Bay­side Park Pier. OPPOSITE BOTTOM: Pad­dle­boarder in Panama City Beach. ABOVE LEFT: Out­door gear at Blue­wa­ter Outrig­gers in Gulf County. ABOVE RIGHT: Shop­ping in St. An­drews.

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