Life is better at the beach — or so I am thinking as I look out on the swirling snow and frosty drifts of our Canadian winter, while dreaming about an escape to the white, sugary sand beaches along Florida’s Emerald Coast. Here, the communities of Panama City Beach, Pensacola, and Destin-Fort Walton possess a unique and engaging character that is an attractive alternative to the bustle of Florida’s more well-known centres.
Fishing, diving, snorkeling, golfing, dining, and shopping are all on offer, but it is the famous beachfront that these three communities share, a breathtakingly beautiful stretch of silky sand, that remains the region’s main attraction. Dotted with windswept dunes, the area’s distinctive quartz sand is blindingly white and soft as flour. Brushing up against the sands are the clear emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a welcome gulf breeze, and the golden touch of the ever-present sun reflecting off the water’s rippled surface.
Hang Out on the Pier at Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is situated where the Gulf of Mexico and St. Andrew Bay converge. I am up early to watch the sunrise over the sands from the end of its famous 1,510-foot (460-meter) pier. Locals are also early risers, claiming their own spot on the lengthy jetty to drop a hook, looking for king and Spanish mackerel, cobia, pompano, mahi-mahi, flounder, whiting, and white and speckled trout. Inland, Pier Park features an electric blend of commercial storefronts, beachy boutiques, and the Sky Wheel, which will take you up high for a beautiful overview of the park, pier, and beach.
Act like a local and head to Thomas Donuts and Snack Shop, a family-owned, beachfront donut shop, where you take your just-purchased donut out to the ocean for an Instagram photo, captured through the donut hole of the sand and surf beyond. Hey, it is a tradition. Perhaps a better Panhandle tradition is to order a Bushwacker, an adults-style milkshake full of boozy dreams. You might be tempted to have another, but we have plenty more to see and do.
At St. Andrews State Park, we rent some bikes and pedal amongst the dunes, stopping occasionally to stroll beside Cyprus-tangled wetlands in search of alligators and snakes. I am secretly thankful that the only creature we come across I can surely outrun, a turtle. In the evening we skirt the sand-spit park seaside aboard a sailboat on a peaceful sunset cruise. Bottlenose dolphins dance playfully in our wake as we sail alongside the expansive beach, while watching an iridescent sun melt into the emerald sea with a splash of orange, reds, and purples across the low-hanging clouds.
A Fish Rodeo at Destin-Fort Walton Beach
Destin is nicknamed “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” where deep-sea angling is huge. Just 10 miles off the city’s scenic harbour, the catch can be anything from sailfish and marlin, to shark and king mackerel. The entire month of October is dedicated to the Destin fishing Rodeo, an annual tournament that draws anglers from around the world.
This is a place of character and characters. Bruce Cheve is the official Weigh-Master for the rodeo. Meet him on the wharf on any given afternoon and he will regale you with fishing tales — like the time he spent a week fishing in seas so rough that he was left with a permanent stagger in his gait, thus drawing the attention of the local police. While in Destin, make sure to visit the fascinating History and Fishing Museum, which features a look through the variety of fishing vessels, from seine boats to what is available today. More than 100 fish mounts show the huge variety of locally caught fish.
Harbor Walk Village is located in the heart of the Destin Harbor, where paddleboard, kayak, and pontoon rentals are available, as well as parasailing, glass-bottom boat tours, world-class fishing, pirate-ship excursions, and dolphin cruises. You can also wander the bustling harborside wharf, feast on fresh oysters at the East Pass Seafood and Oyster House, take the ferry shuttle to the beautiful sandspit beach, pilot a jet-ski out into the protected inner harbor, or take a Parrot Head Yacht cruise to Crab Island.
With the Gulf of Mexico on its doorstep, it’s not surprising the region has an abundance of seafood eateries such as eponymously named Dewey Destin’s. The owner is the great, great, grandson of the Leonard Destin who gave Destin its name. Dewey’s is a popular ramshackle fish shack that attracts crowds to its wharf location. At the same pier where fishing boats used to unload their catch, now delectable seafood is handed to diners, while pelicans and gulls beg for handouts. Dewey Destin once worked on the boats.
“Fishing was much more fun in the day,” he admits. “But the restaurant makes more money.”
The Way to Beach in Pensacola
Besides its inviting beach, Pensacola offers greater than 460 years of rich history. Its shores welcomed the first European settlers to the New World in 1559. Downtown Pensacola has a theatre, parks, coffee shops, and fine-dining options. Keep your eyes focused overhead as well — the famous Blue Angels are situated here at the first U.S. Naval Air Station, and are often seen practicing their acrobatics in the sky.
Head downtown to Palafox Street on the third Friday of every month to experience Gallery Night, where food trucks, street performers, artists, and merchants converge, and the streets are transformed into pedestrian walkways with music, art, and food. Get cultured at the interactive Pensacola Little Theatre, where, as a member of the audience, you follow the characters through the action of the story as it weaves throughout the beautiful Clark Family Cultural Center. I must admit, I kind of fell for Juliet here, and almost tried to upstage Romeo. I will put my Oscar-worthy performance down to the wonderful drinks we had at The Well Cocktail Bar and the Perfect Plain Brewing Company beforehand.
You can laugh with a comedian at the Saenger Theatre or catch a band at Vinyl Music Hall. The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, Pensacola Opera, Ballet Pensacola, and the Pensacola Museum of Art are all conveniently located within walking distance. Also close is the Pensacola History Museum, and the Historic Pensacola Village which encompasses 8 1/2 acres and 28 properties.
On the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, the Gulf Islands National Seashore preserve offers beaches, camping, hiking trails, and a massive pre-Civil War fortress, Fort Pickens. The brick battlements once housed Union troops and interned the renowned Apache leader Geronimo.
All three Emerald Coast communities offer an amazing and expansive culinary scene. Beachfront restaurants abound, serving seafood as fresh as it can be. The Creole influence on the local cuisine remind you that you are near Louisiana, but the wide variety of experiences suit every taste, with restaurants ranging from fine-dining establishments to ocean-side crab shacks, and everything in between.
The three destinations also have an attractive assortment of accommodations and an abundance of interesting things to do, minus the frenetic nature associated with some of Florida’s more southern hot spots. And the Florida Panhandle is imbued with a southern hospitality, more like its neighboring deep-south states of Georgia and Alabama — that will have y’all returning home with a southern drawl and saying strange things like, “Well, butter my biscuit!”