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Florida’s extreme north-west region is named for its map appearance as the handle of a typical kitchen utensil, but there is nothing remotely utilitarian about the Florida, Panhandle, which is fast becoming one of the Sunshine State’s most compelling destinations.
The full extent of the Florida Panhandle arches around from the old-fashioned resort town of Cedar Key, just north of Crystal River on the west, or Gulf Coast, to the Alabama border, almost 400 miles to the west, and includes an extremely rural hinterland bordering on both Georgia and Alabama.
Otherwise known as the Emerald Coast for its sparkling green-tinged seas, the region’s principle cities are state capital Tallahassee, Apalachicola, Panama City Beach, Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola. However, it is a (fairly dull) five to six-hour drive from Orlando, hence a better alternative is to take a regional flight from Orlando direct to Tallahassee or Pensacola, or even fly via Atlanta, where connections to Tallahassee, Pensacola and Panama City are more plentiful.
The attractions of Florida’s Panhandle are many and diverse, from the world-class National Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola (with plenty of military history) to the natural wonders of Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. State capital Tallahassee, the legislative heart of the state, is a great starting point. The historic Capitol Complex offers a fascinating museum of local and political history, plus daily tours, while the extensive Florida State University features walking tours of its eye-catching campus, but there is also the early-settler history of Mission San Luis de Apalachee and the peaceful walks of the Alfred B Maclay Gardens. Just to the south, on the coast, is St Marks National Wildlife Refuge, with its iconic lighthouse.
This is also one of the few parts of the Sunshine State to boast much in the way of Civil War history, and visitors should make a note of places like the Orman House and Chestnut Street Cemetery in Apalachicola and the full-scale Civil War Museum in Pensacola, as well as more than a dozen sites in Tallahassee and St Marks that all date back to the 1860s.
The big attraction, in every sense, though, is the coastline. Here, a series of historically pleasant, unassuming towns and cities have all become major Beaches in Florida, Panhandledestinations in their own right, and it is hard to go wrong for a really memorable location. The big high-rise resorts are not as prominent here, and it is still possible to find vast stretches of unspoiled beaches from Pensacola, on the Alabama border, to Apalachicola, almost 200 miles to the east.
As good as the beaches are, the wildlife is possibly even better. The seas along this stretch of coastline feature Florida’s highest concentration of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, as well as sea turtles and the occasional shark, while, if you are here in the autumn, look out for the migratory ranks of thousands of cow-nose rays as they mass prior to heading south for the winter.
It’s also possible to see a manatee or two in Wakulla Springs in the colder months. Many of the beaches are sea turtle nesting areas, and it is occasionally possible to join a local conservation group as they check for new nests. For bird-watchers, the Panhandle offers some especially rich pickings, with a number of spots on the Great Florida Birding Trail, including the migratory bird haven of St George Island State Park.
Sports & Activities
Like just about everywhere in the state, this is prime watersports territory, hence it is great for fishing, kayaking, snorkelling, parasailing and boating, with the chance to sail, paddle-board or ride wave-runners along the glittering beachfront. Most beaches will offer some form of organised activity, while Panama City Beach is a great location in which to learn paddle-boarding.
Golf in the Panhandle
Great golf is also never far away, with more than 50 courses, most of which are open to the public and feature rich magnolia-lined fairways. The heart of golf country hereabouts is the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area, with some of the most modern courses and facilities.
Panama City Beach is an especially happening location, with lots of new developments, both in resorts and condos and in attractions like Pier Park, the shopping/dining/entertainment centre of the city. It also offers Gulf World Marine Park, for a close-up look at all the marine life along this coast.
Likewise, Fort Walton Beach and Destin have completely shed their old image as the resort centres for Alabama and Georgia, with a vibrant, modern style that offers new restaurants, shops and leisure activities, notably Gulfariaum Marine Adventure Park and The Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island.
For somewhere completely unusual, the small coastal town of Seaside is packed with eye-catching charm and originality, as befits a location that featured heavily in the film The Truman Show.
Shopping in the area ranges from the cutting edge to the distinctly rustic, from the designer outlets of the smart, modern Destin Commons complex, Governor’s Square mall (Tallahassee) and Grand Boulevard (Miramar Beach) to unique local treasures, like those found along the Décor By The Shore trail in Panama City Beach and the eclectic Island Dog Beach & Surf Shop on laid-back St George Island.
Antiques are a staple of places like Tallahassee, Panama City Beach and Fort Walton Beach, but all-new shopping centres such as HarborWalk Village in Destin are increasingly common.
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
Of course, seeing as this is the Sunshine State, the staples of excellent dining and imaginative restaurants are always close by. Seafood – from oysters to grouper – doesn’t come much fresher than that served up by Stewby’s Seafood Shanty in Fort Walton Beach, Capt. Anderson’s in Panama City Beach and The Grand Marlin on Pensacola Beach, to name but a few great local sources, while there are far fewer of the chain restaurant type in the Panhandle region in general.
With New Orleans only a few hours away to the west, you will also find a few Louisiana/Cajun cuisine influences that add some spice to the mix.
Why the Florida Panhandle?
Of all Florida’s many and varied destinations, this is the most offbeat and unusual, with a vibe all of its own. The state’s genuine, friendly hospitality is still well represented, but the Panhandle is more in touch with its Southern roots than much of the rest of Florida.
It is more small-scale and personal and it can feel light years from the hustle and bustle of places like Miami and Orlando, with all its theme parks. And, for those looking for a get-away-from-it-all holiday in an area that has still to be discovered by the majority, this is the place to come to beat the crowds, dig your toes in the sand and enjoy a truly relaxing holiday.