Meg McKinney Simle / styling Rose Nguyen
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.