Florida: coast by coast – Part I – The panhandle

Pelicans at jetty in storm

Pelicans gather around the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW)

Also known as The Emerald Coast –

Florida is a huge state by all standards. It covers 58,677 square miles, and has 1,197 miles of shoreline. Its promotion experts divide the state into five distinct districts, each with unique flora, fauna, and tourism features. From the buzz and glitz of Miami on the east coast, to the indolence of the Okefenokee swamp in the north, and on westward to the Emerald Coast of the Panhandle, it is steeped in history and gorged with an abundance of exciting things to see and do for all ages.

The Drive Begins

Working east from the Alabama border, Pensacola is the first major city, home of the Naval Air Station. If your timing is right you might catch the Blue Angels practicing their breathtaking maneuvers. The city itself has many things for visitors to enjoy, especially relating to the military.

The one hundred mile stretch eastward along the gulf shore to Panama City is known as The Emerald Coast. Between vacation spots such as Fort Walton Beach and Destin, the road passes through miles of military installations. You won’t find any places to stop, but it is a pleasant ride among the pine forests. A sign or two cautions you not to trespass beyond the fence as there is “unexploded ordinance” in the woods.

Stepping inland a few miles from the Gulf, the naturalist and kayak paddler will find many bays and streams to explore. There are several outfitters to satisfy every wish for appropriate gear (including bug repellent) to venture forth. Guides are available for fishing as well as plant and animal study. There is “nature” galore in these parts: alligators, bears, deer, and an abundance of birds to thrill the watchers.

sloop

Sloop running before the wind.

Between the mainland and the beaches, the Intracoastal Waterway offers more-or-less protected water for sail and power boats to travel between marinas at the several cities. Opportunities to charter both bare boat and captained fishing boats abound.

Panama Beach and Panama City

Panama Beach and Panama City are two very active spots to poke around. Most of the resorts are in the Beach area, but some of the best seafood restaurants are on the mainland. The local boats bring in such treats as crabs, oysters, yellow fin tuna, grouper and dolphin.

The dolphin have had a name change to mahi mahi because too many people, especially children were horrified to think they were being served Flipper. They weren’t. Flipper’s a mammal. The dolphin fish, when freshly caught has beautiful rainbow coloring but it only shimmers a few minutes before it pales. The flavor lingers on.

The fish dolphin

dolphin fish

Accommodations are plentiful; everything from a rustic tent or cabin to a first class hotel. You won’t find the super-luxe hostelries here, but there are plenty of chain hotel/motels. It’s a good idea to do an online search before you go or else you are likely to do what we did: settled for an overpriced, so-so chain only to wake up the next morning, drive around the corner and see a lovely Victorian B&B.

That was in Panama City. The night was saved though by being tipped off about a great seafood restaurant. Since our travels are by the seat of our pants, never knowing where we’ll end up for the night, we hadn’t done any research. Our best tips come from locals: gas station attendant, clerk at the local drug store.  The question is simple, “Where’s the best place to eat in town? And that is how we found The Captain’s Table. I had yellow fin: sheer delight.

When ready to press on…

the traveler has two choices. One is to continue along the coast to Port St. Joe, then turn north and follow the rim of Apalachicola Bay. This is the beginning of The Big Bend – an enormous, but shallow body of water separating the mainland from the Forgotten Coast.

The other is to turn due north on FL-77 to the Ecofina Water management area. Here the environmentalist will find a rustic camping experience for the nature lover. with “hands on” opportunities.

Florida's Forgotten Coast

Heaven for lovers of peace, quiet and nature.

The section of shoreline between Panama City and Port St. Joe is called The Forgotten Coast by the residents, and they like it that way. The vacation atmosphere gives way to a slower pace and more restrained architecture. One pleasant stop is at Mexico Beach, a small town hosting an excellent campground for RVs, Rustic Sands Resort. They also rent several sturdy log cabins near the recreation center and a good sized swimming pool. Rates are reasonable, the hosts are friendly; a good spot to take a few days’ breather.

This is northern Florida, so don’t expect to loll about in your bathing suit in the early spring. Their high season is summer, when the vacationers pour down from Alabama and Georgia. Spring and fall are perfect however, for those who like to hike, fish, or explore the bayous and add new birds to their “Life List”.

Advance to Florida: coast by coast – Part II, The Big Bend

All photos © Gail Hunter

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