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Ocean dwellers and landlubbers agree: Northwest Florida is worth toeing into. Our guide takes you from affable Apalachicola to the dunes of Fort Walton Beach, with visits to art-filled enclaves, envied eateries, and yes, those famous stretches of white sand. Ready to make a splash?
By Amanda Gleason
Check out the video of Amanda's adventures here!
WaterColor Inn & Resort Paddleboarding, kayaking, and other active, aquatic thrills await at this David Rockwell–designed resort set on 500 coastal acres in Santa Rosa Beach.
Coombs House Inn Located in the historic fishing village of Apalachicola, this B&B allows guests to borrow bicycles, chairs, and umbrellas for beachgoing.
Wyndham Bay Point Resort Keep your eyes peeled for egrets, dolphins, pelicans, and other wildlife at this Panama City Beach spread, situated within a 1,100-acre wildlife preserve fronting St. Andrews Bay.
Put that paddle to use on a...
What’s South Walton got that most of the world doesn’t? Coastal dune lakes, for one. This seaside area is home to 15 of the rare bodies of water found in only five regions of the globe. Explore the scarce ecosystems on a kayaking excursion with Walco Eco Tours. “Dune lakes are comprised mostly of fresh water,” says Murray Balkcom, the company’s owner, “but occasionally, due to rainfall and storms in the Gulf, they’ll open and connect to the sea, allowing an exchange of both water and marine life.” Sand dunes that soar 30 feet high separate the tea-colored lakes from the sea. Look for redfish, bluegill, and largemouth bass swimming alongside your craft, but rest assured, alligators are a rare sighting. “I figure the sharks got ’em all,” says Balkcom with a wink.
The Red Bar The house jazz band plays most nights at this Grayton Beach institution, which is decked out with velvet curtains and red lights strung from the ceiling.
Persnickety Retail therapy awaits at this pink-trimmed shop in Port St. Joe, where shopaholics can score everything from elaborate costume jewelry to monogrammed leather handbags.
Spot sea turtles and other local species during a…
If you think Panama City’s beaches are just for spring breakers, think again. St. Andrews State Park, located on a peninsula at the east end of the stretch, offers a quieter respite for those in search of sand, solitude, and sea life. Cycle along a two-mile paved road while eyeing loggerhead sea turtles, or catch flounder, sea trout, and Spanish mackerel from the two fishing piers. Want to meet some local celebs? Then trot down Gator Lake Trail for up-close views of the scaly reptiles in their watery habitat. As you amble, you’ll also catch glimpses of waterfowl and white-tailed deer. “We give you a chance to experience what Florida was like before the hotels and condominiums began springing up,” says Brian Addison, the park manager. Consider us reeled in.
Be sure to eat a meal at…
Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood Sink your teeth into the 10-ounce steak Diane, flambéed in brandy, at this elegant restaurant inside the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa.
Joe Mama’s Wood-fired pizza, roasted to perfection at 700 degrees, is the famed specialty at this cozy eatery in Port St. Joe, a favorite hangout among the locals.
Boss Oyster Stuff yourself with oysters shucked to order at this seafood joint in Apalachicola. If cooked is more your calling, try the Oyster St. George—baked with asparagus, garlic, shallots, and Colby cheese.
Awaken your inner artist on a…
It’s hard to miss the kaleidoscopic storefronts of Santa Rosa Beach’s Gulf Place community. And if you’re any kind of art lover, you’ll be glad you didn’t. Eight local artists make up this open-air co-op coated in green, yellow, purple, red, and blue; and each shop overflows with one-of-a-kind offerings, like tie-dyed handbags and paintings brushed on antique windows. Amble among more galleries at The Shops of Ruskin, an artist colony tucked behind the Central Square in nearby Seaside, where merchandise ranging from handmade jewelry to oil paintings spills out onto the brick sidewalks. If you need more time to browse, plan your visit around a First Friday Art Walk, when doors stay open late, bands play on an outdoor stage, and you can enjoy art-to-art talks with hundreds of your new friends.
Heritage Park and Cultural Center Eye clay vessels, stone tools, and other artifacts from the area’s early residents at this history haven in Fort Walton Beach.
Emerald Coast Science Center At this interactive learning facility in Fort Walton Beach, explorers of every age can fly a miniature model aircraft, eye an albino corn snake, and blow 10-foot bubbles.
Fired Up! Keep the creative vibes flowing at this studio in Seaside where you’re free to paint your own pottery.
Unearth more local delicacies during an…
More than 90 percent of Florida’s tasty bivalves are harvested from Apalachicola Bay’s abundant waters. To get in on the taking, join Captain Doug Joyner on a three-hour tour with Journeys of St. George Island. Onboard a 23-foot skiff, you’ll learn from the master as he gathers the prized mollusks. “It looks like you’re holding two long rakes stuck together like oversized salad tongs,” says Joyner. Once the loot is collected, scour the pile for the full-grown, three-inch shellfish in a process called culling. (Did you know the color of an oyster’s meat depends on what it eats?) Come hungry, since you’re free to take two five-gallon buckets of the sweet and salty Apalachicola oysters home with you. Just don’t forget the hot sauce.
Getting There Fly into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), about 15 miles north of Panama City Beach.
Getting Around To explore everything this sunny locale has to offer, renting a car is your best bet. Check out the airport’s website for a complete list of options.
Getting Out The Destin Fishing Rodeo attracts more than 30,000 anglers vying for cash and other prizes throughout the entire month of October.
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