Southern Living Article on the Florida Panhandle

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.

Yahoo BuzzFacebookTwitterDigg
Add Comment

Text size:AAA
Summer at the Gulf (PROMO)

Rosemary Beach is a favorite destination in the area.

Meg McKinney Simle / styling Rose Nguyen

Click to Enlarge

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 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.

popular posts

Archive By Month

  • January 2022 (4)
  • December 2021 (4)
  • November 2021 (4)
  • October 2021 (7)
  • September 2021 (9)
  • August 2021 (6)
  • July 2021 (3)
  • June 2021 (7)
  • May 2021 (3)
  • April 2021 (4)
  • March 2021 (5)
  • February 2021 (5)
  • January 2021 (2)
  • December 2020 (1)
  • November 2020 (2)
  • October 2020 (2)
  • August 2020 (2)
  • July 2020 (3)
  • June 2020 (3)
  • May 2020 (2)
  • April 2020 (4)
  • March 2020 (6)
  • February 2020 (3)
  • January 2020 (7)
  • December 2019 (4)
  • November 2019 (10)
  • October 2019 (10)
  • September 2019 (3)
  • August 2019 (12)
  • July 2019 (13)
  • June 2019 (10)
  • May 2019 (6)
  • April 2019 (9)
  • March 2019 (6)
  • February 2019 (4)
  • January 2019 (4)
  • December 2018 (12)
  • November 2018 (11)
  • October 2018 (9)
  • September 2018 (13)
  • August 2018 (20)
  • July 2018 (11)
  • June 2018 (4)
  • May 2018 (11)
  • April 2018 (11)
  • March 2018 (1)
  • February 2018 (2)
  • November 2017 (3)
  • October 2017 (4)
  • September 2017 (1)
  • August 2017 (6)
  • July 2017 (2)
  • June 2017 (4)
  • May 2017 (7)
  • March 2017 (3)
  • February 2017 (2)
  • January 2017 (2)
  • December 2016 (4)
  • November 2016 (5)
  • October 2016 (4)
  • September 2016 (5)
  • August 2016 (2)
  • July 2016 (4)
  • June 2016 (2)
  • May 2016 (2)
  • April 2016 (2)
  • March 2016 (2)
  • January 2016 (4)
  • December 2015 (5)
  • November 2015 (5)
  • October 2015 (6)
  • September 2015 (5)
  • August 2015 (4)
  • July 2015 (3)
  • June 2015 (8)
  • May 2015 (8)
  • April 2015 (10)
  • March 2015 (4)
  • February 2015 (13)
  • November 2014 (7)
  • October 2014 (3)
  • September 2014 (6)
  • August 2014 (1)
  • July 2014 (7)
  • June 2014 (1)
  • May 2014 (8)
  • April 2014 (9)
  • March 2014 (7)
  • February 2014 (11)
  • January 2014 (8)
  • December 2013 (12)
  • November 2013 (10)
  • October 2013 (14)
  • September 2013 (13)
  • August 2013 (11)
  • July 2013 (11)
  • June 2013 (10)
  • May 2013 (12)
  • April 2013 (1)
  • February 2013 (1)
  • January 2013 (2)
  • October 2012 (1)
  • September 2012 (7)
  • August 2012 (6)
  • July 2012 (4)
  • June 2012 (3)
  • May 2012 (1)
  • April 2012 (4)
  • March 2012 (6)
  • February 2012 (5)
  • January 2012 (17)
  • December 2011 (11)
  • November 2011 (15)
  • October 2011 (20)
  • August 2011 (6)
  • July 2011 (3)
  • April 2011 (2)
  • March 2011 (6)
  • February 2011 (6)
  • January 2011 (2)
  • December 2010 (3)
  • October 2010 (1)
  • September 2010 (6)
  • August 2010 (16)
  • July 2010 (12)
  • June 2010 (20)
  • May 2010 (19)
  • December 2009 (5)
  • November 2009 (1)
  • September 2009 (16)
  • Show All