One of Florida’s best-kept secrets is far away from the bright lights of Miami’s South Beach or the amusement park wonderland of Orlando.
Here, tall, wispy sand dunes protect shores so white that, at a glance, you could swear you’re looking at mounds of snow – that is, until you remind yourself that you’re in Florida.
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Welcome to the beaches of the Emerald Coast in northwest Florida, a region made up of several beachside destinations right on the Gulf Coast that local Florida natives and nearby Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi vacationers have tried to keep under wraps for decades.
They may have gotten away with it, too, until the Obamas visited the region’s Panama City Beach in August and the tourism board’s website received 8 billion views within just 36 hours.
Here, from Panama City to the beaches of Fort Walton, Destin, and Pensacola, the atmosphere is “white-picket fence” meets “surf town U.S.A” with a New England passion for fresh seafood, finished with a unique twist of southern hospitality. Here’s what you need to know about the best of the Emerald Coast.
Vacation like the Obamas in Panama City Beach by staying at the Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, where the hotel’s Serenity Spa is a must. Discover the activities and outlet shops at Pier Park; try your hand at some surfing at St. Andrew’s State Park; and be sure to head to Firefly restaurant for the beach’s best She Crab Soup with a side of fried Apalachicola Oysters.
Fort Walton is home to a series of picturesque, cottage-style white-picket-fence communities appropriately named Sunnyside, Rosemary Beach, Watercolor (where the cottages are painted in various watercolors), and Seaside, where the Truman Show was filmed; its picturesque airstream trailers selling cupcakes, specialty grilled cheese sandwiches, and organic shakes; or Grayton Beach State Park where you can go for eco tours, hikes through the sand dunes, or YOLO boarding – stand-up paddle boarding that originated in this area.
If you’re into fishing, then Destin is the place for you. Known as the “world’s luckiest fishing village,” Destin has the largest charter fishing fleet in all of Florida. Here, you can fish for grouper, tuna, marlin, or red snapper in the morning and take your catch to Destin’s Fisherman’s Wharf Seafood House where it’ll be prepared for you (grilled, broiled, blackened) for lunch. For visitors, the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort offers family-friendly accommodations, activities (zip-lining, an indoor skating rink, concerts in the square), and a pedestrian village where you might even bump into locals like Chef Emeril Lagasse.
Pensacola is the historic capital of the region where you can enjoy the beach in the morning and then explore the sights in the afternoon. Discover historical Fort Barrancas built in 1797, the National Naval Aviation Museum’s incredible collection of aircrafts or go for a tour of the Historic Pensacola Village. Hotel options range from Hiltons to Hampton Inns or the luxury Portofino Resort & Spa where you can finish off the day with a visit to the spa. Last but not least, the Fish House offers delicious seafood and the chef’s specialty, Grits a Ya Ya: smoked gouda cheese grits with a shrimp, mushroom, spinach & bacon sauce (at a rumoured 1000+ calories, it’s worth every bite!).
The best time to visit the region is April to October but travellers can take advantage of incredible hotel & apartment/condo rental deals with www.ResortQuest.com during spring and falls months. For more information and travel deals, go to www.VisitFlorida.com .