Summer at the Gulf

Escape to Florida's Panhandle, where the water sparkles clearer, the sand shines whiter, and the fun never stops. Our Editor reveals his favorite haunts.
John Alex Floyd, Jr.

I have vacationed here as a child, as a teenager, as a newlywed, and as a father. My wife and I plan to vacation here when we become empty nesters. That's not uncommon for those who call this 95-mile stretch of Florida's Panhandle, simply, The Beach. The lure of the place, once experienced, tugs for a lifetime.

From Destin east to Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe, you'll find a curious mix of old and new Florida. Posh resorts vie with tiny bungalows. Bustling cities glitter in stark contrast with quaint fishing villages. Fabulous or rustic, tacky or elegant, vibrant or laid-back, the area has something for everyone. The common thread that runs through it all remains the emerald green waters and finest powder-white sand in the world.

Lodging--Family Fun on the Emerald Coast
To newcomers, the discovery is Destin--the sleepy fishing village-turned-mega-destination. Many families or couples spend an entire week here and never have to get into a car. Condos are the lodging of choice. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is the area's largest resort complex and features fine hotel rooms, condominiums, four great golf courses, upscale shopping, and a variety of eateries.

Seaside, the Panhandle's first planned community, sets a look and style that still gives Scenic Highway 30A, the 19-mile loop off of U.S. 98, a fantasy feel. Next door to Seaside sits the WaterColor Inn and Resort, a swank new spot that opened last year. Nearby you'll find upscale restaurants, shopping, condos, and private homes. Lodging in the Seaside area costs anywhere from $100 up to any price you want to pay.

Panama City Beach is a family beach, a teenage hangout, and a splash of old Florida all rolled into one. Classic family-owned motels have dotted this stretch of sand for decades, though remodeled chain hotels, high-rise condominiums, and private rental homes are common today. Marriott's Bay Point Resort Village, which is on St. Andrews Bay, sports fine golfing and big-league resort accommodations. But beware: Traffic on Front Beach Road is a tangle on summer nights.

While the coastal towns of Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe are different, they feel the same. They echo the unspoiled scenes from the postcard days of travel. It's not an area that time forgot, just one devoid of today's crowds. Your best lodging bets here are beach cottages, bed-and-breakfasts, family-run motels, and beach campgrounds and cabins at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. (RV campgrounds are in the area too.) The easiest way to find a bunk is to check the cities' Web sites.

 

Dining--Beach Burgers to Prime Seafood
The Emerald Coast is blessed with an array of dining choices that fit any budget and taste. Panama City Beach boasts two of the classic old-style Florida restaurants (huge dining rooms and big crowds). Both have good food. Capt. Anderson's (a perennial Southern Living Readers' Choice Awards winner) overlooks the fishing fleet on the sunset side of St. Andrews Bay. Angelo's Steak Pit (my favorite big steak house in Florida), located on Front Beach Road, has a landmark larger than life: A steer named Big Gus proudly stands out front. Everything here is cooked over an open fire. Any steak is great, but the hamburger steak, which tastes more like a T-bone, is my usual choice, and it's also the cheapest menu item.

Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach are dotted with mom-and-pop restaurants, but two that stand out are the Dockside Café (Cajun shrimp steamed or batterless fried is popular here) in the marina at Port St. Joe and Half Shells (noted for their tasty steamed shrimp as well) in Mexico Beach.

The most exciting dining area in this part of Florida has to be along 30A, which harbors about any type of food you might desire. For fried and fresh, head to Nick's on the Beach (their cocktail sauce is a favorite of mine). Nearby sits the restaurant that started it all in this area--Criolla's, preferred by our Executive Editor of Foods, Susan Dosier. Owned by Johnny Earles, Criolla's captures the sunny flavors and ingredients of the Caribbean, yet their dishes are served with a Louisiana accent. Café Thirty-A in Seagrove Beach, Bud & Alley's Restaurant in Seaside, and Fish Out of Water at the WaterColor Inn and Resort all have good food and great settings. Like Criolla's, though, they're some of the area's priciest options.

The Red Bar in Grayton Beach is known for its scallops at night and great fish sandwiches during the day. Café Sublime in Gulf Place serves excellent Tuscan-roasted snapper. And if you tire of Florida fare, saunter over to Trattoria Borago for upscale Italian. My friends George and Kaye Adams, knowledgeable food folks who have a condo in the area, swear by the tomato-basil soup here. We also like one small restaurant with two names, Summer Kitchen Café (by day) and Blue By Night Bistro (for dinner) at Rosemary Beach. They create good salads and rollups for lunch, while the evening menu dishes out excellent fresh fish and steak.

Less than a mile from Rosemary Beach is Inlet Beach. It is at the end of 30A, back on U.S. 98. Here you'll find The Terrace Restaurant. It's not much to look at (I zoomed by 20 times before giving it a shot), but they offer fantastic food with an elegant touch. Two other eateries around the Phillip's Inlet Bridge with simple, inexpensive, and tasty food are Spicy Noodle (pasta and pizza) and Jolly Roger Grill (seafood and gumbo).

Dining in Destin can be as hit-and-miss as at any other beach destination. One spot not to skip is the great breakfast place and bakery, The Donut Hole. There are two locations--one in Santa Rosa Beach and one in downtown Destin. Be sure to try the crabmeat Benedict. A new area in Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort called The Village of Baytowne Wharf is full of restaurants (get a pass at the resort gate on the bay side, and ask for directions). If you try only one eatery here, make sure it's the Acme Oyster House, which serves up delicious grilled oysters and huge po'boys with sweet potato fries.

 

Shopping--Everything Under The Sun
From antiques to outlets to just good junk, you can't go very far without finding something to buy. Palace and Alvin's Island rank as the Panhandle's souvenir shop kings, but there are numerous others, too, especially on the strip in Panama City Beach. Antiques shops and art galleries (some fine and others not so fine) tend to cluster at either end of 30A. Maybe the area's biggest draw is the Silver Sands Factory Stores, where the art of outlet shopping can be explored to the fullest with more than 100 retailers. (See next page for my 10 favorite local shops.)

Things To Do--Just for Fun
Anywhere on the Emerald Coast you'll find beautiful beaches that make for perfect lounging and relaxing. But if you want something more active, you've got plenty of options. The area's two big water parks, Shipwreck Island in Panama City Beach and Big Kahuna's in Destin, are warm-weather, family-based attractions that offer all-day passes for fun away from the surf. (Note: These parks don't open on a regular basis until the end of May.) Deep-sea fishing is outstanding all along the coast. In fact, it's a hard choice between the harbor in Destin and the marinas on St. Andrews Bay in Panama City Beach. Port St. Joe Marina not only features fishing charters, but it is also a good resource for area dive charters, snorkel outings, and ecotourism trips. Port St. Joe offers horseback riding along the surf as well. Finally, nearly every major beach has opportunities to ride the waves in a catamaran or shoot across the ocean on a personal watercraft. (Visit www.beachesofsouthwalton.com to scout out more area activities.)

Fun is relative for those who want to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset on water's edge. This is a place where, on a clear day, sunsets rival the ones you see in Key West. Biking? You'll find 19 miles of trails along the open road of 30A and plenty of shops that rent wheels. The big-time teenage/adult party spot is Panama City Beach with its Miracle Strip amusement park and other family-style entertainment, such as miniature golf, miniature race cars, and skee ball. Destin offers more of the same. Believe it or not, on 30A you can even visit a gossip parlor named Miss Lucille's for lots of talk with coffee, desserts, and libations.

Florida's Emerald Coast has been a special place for my family for generations past, and, I hope, for generations to come. It may only be a 95-mile stretch, but the opportunities for fun are limitless.

My 10 Favorite Places To Shop

  • Beach Bums: (850) 837-7111. Name-brand beach wear.
  • Collaborations: (850) 231-0171. Funky art, restored furniture, and all kinds of cool stuff.
  • The Gourd Garden and Curiosity Shop: (850) 231-2150. Native plants, pottery, herbs, and gourds.
  • Gulf Place: (850) 267-2562. Several shops featuring everything from designer clothing to chic furniture.
  • The Inside Story Interiors: (850) 234-7868. A nice designer store loaded with name-brand furniture and unique accessories.
  • Pizitz Home & Cottage: (850) 231-2240. Cottage-style home furnishings and accessories.
  • Shops of Grayton: (850) 231-3331. Individual shops full of furniture, antiques, and beach stuff.
  • Smith's Antiques Mall: (850) 654-1484. Good junk, fine antiques, and everything in between.
  • Summer House Village: (850) 231-0718. Different dealers with a variety of merchandise.
  • The Zoo Gallery: (850) 231-0777. Fun contemporary crafts store with sculpture, pottery, jewelry, and more.

For More Information

  • Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort: (850) 267-8000, 1-800-277-0800, or www.sandestin.com. Rates: vary seasonally.
  • Seaside: 1-888-732-7433 or www.seasidefl.com. Rates: start at $142 during the summer season.
  • WaterColor Inn and Resort: (850) 534-5000, toll free 1-866-426-2656, or www.watercolorinn.com. Rates: start at $315 during the high season.
  • Marriott's Bay Point Resort Village: 1-800-874-7105 or www.marriottbaypoint.com. Rates: range $159-$239 from the end of April through Labor Day.
  • Destin and Fort Walton Beach: Contact the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau at (850) 651-7131, 1-800-322-3319, or www.destin-fwb.com.
  • Panama City Convention & Visitors Bureau: (850) 233-5070, 1-800-327-8352, or www.800pcbeach.com.
  • Mexico Beach Visitor Information Center: 1-888-723-2546 or www.mexicobeach.com.
  • Port St. Joe: Contact the Gulf County Tourism Development Council at (850) 229-7800, 1-800-482-4853, or www.visitgulf.com.

This article is from the May 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.