When planning a trip to Florida, which destinations come to mind? Theme park madness in Orlando? Partying all night long in Miami Beach? Quirky kitsch in the Florida Keys? Quiet beaches on the southern Gulf coast?
It might not be the first destination you think of, but the Florida Panhandle is absolutely worth a visit.
People say that in Florida, the further north you go, the more southern it gets, and that’s certainly true for the Panhandle, where Southern manners, food and style reign supreme. Here are three top places to visit along the Florida Panhandle.
What’s there to be said about Pensacola? It’s on the western edge of the Panhandle, bordering Alabama. It’s a city on the smaller side, with a population of 50,000 and an old-fashioned downtown next door to a modern food truck park. Typical Florida, quiet Florida.
But what truly makes Pensacola a special place to visit is the beach – as it’s one of the best in the state.
Pensacola Beach is actually on an island, separated from the mainland and the city of Pensacola. Upon your arrival across the bridge, your feet will sink into sand so pure and white, it puts every other white sand beach you’ve seen to shame. Forget the Maldives – Pensacola is whiter than snow, whiter than ice, edging up to the bright blue water of the Gulf of Mexico.
While many parts of the Florida Panhandle are overdeveloped, Pensacola Beach still feels bewilderingly quiet, slow and like a taste of old Florida that has been forgotten by most of the state. As a result, the people who visit Pensacola are those in the know, and you won’t have to deal with endless high-rise hotels so common in other parts of the Panhandle. A great place to stay and enjoy the beach is the Margaritaville Beach hotel.
There’s no better way to arrive in Seaside than by getting off commercial Route 30 and driving through the Point Washington State Forest. After driving for miles through a pine forest, suddenly the beach appears – and with it, beach cottages so immaculate that each one could easily grace an architectural digest.
Seaside is a painstakingly designed community where no detail is overlooked. Each house is a different pastel shade; each restaurant has modern yet retro signage. Families ride along the seashore on perfect modern bicycles. The men wear Ferragamo boat shoes, the women don Dior bathing suit cover-ups, and children wear perfect Le Petit Bateau outfits. The white sandy beach (though, it must be said, is not as white as Pensacola’s) and bright emerald water could easily be out of a movie.
Seaside seems unreal – so much that it was chosen as the filming location for The Truman Show, itself a depiction of a too-perfect-to-be-real parallel universe. Though it might feel a bit Stepford Wives-esque, Seaside is an utterly fascinating town that you just need to see to believe. If you want to spend the night close to Seaside, be sure to check out WaterSound Beach Vacation Rentals in Santa Rosa.
In many ways, Apalachicola is the antithesis of Seaside. Nestled into the “Forgotten Coast” on the eastern part of the Panhandle, Apalachicola is a quiet fishing village where life goes slowly. Rather than Seaside’s immaculate pastel cottages, you see clapboard homes and pretty but modest cottages. To feel more like a local, try out the relaxing Coombs House Inn.
Tourism is different in this part of Florida. People don’t come to Apalachicola to bronze in the sun and cavort in bars – they come here for the quiet, the peace and the fresh seafood. They come to take long walks through the shady streets and to sit on the porch – sounds pretty perfect to me!
Apalachicola’s claim to fame is its oysters – though over-harvesting in recent years has impacted the overall quality of the sumptuous bivalves. No matter how oyster season is going when you visit, you’ll have plenty of other fresh Florida seafood to choose from, served in a completely unpretentious atmosphere.
Have you been to Florida’s Panhandle? What did you think?
*Cover image by Peter Gordon CC BY