By Terry Ward
For: Travel Channel.com
Planning a Florida vacation without doing your research is likely to land you in expected destinations such as packed-to-the-gills South Florida or not-so-delightfully tacky Daytona Beach.
To experience Florida’s most pristine and beautiful beaches away from the masses, consider passing on the perpetually populated peninsula and set your sun-loving sights on the state’s loneliest region – the panhandle – instead.
Most people associate that northernmost thin stretch of Florida, which fronts the Gulf of Mexico, with the raucous spring break crowds of Panama City. The busy resort town is the heart of an area that has long been dubbed the Redneck Riviera, much to the chagrin of marketing types, who are hard at work rebranding the beaches around Panama City as the ‘Emerald Coast.’
Snowbirds, mostly hailing from Canada and the Midwest, abound in the winter months throughout the Panhandle. However, they tend to stick to the populated communities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin. Come summertime, crowds thin out and you’ll find endless stretches of solitary sand.
From east to west, we’ve selected four of the panhandle’s most alluring and lesser-known locales.
The Nature Conservancy owns the bulk of this eastern panhandle island, giving you an idea of just how untouched Dog Island is. For unspoiled beaches that you can enjoy largely by your lonesome year-round, few Florida islands can compare. There’s only one hotel on the roughly 7-mile-long island, accessed by passenger ferry from Carabelle in the Florida panhandle (50 miles southwest of Tallahassee). You can’t bring a car to the ‘island that time forget,’ as the roughly 100 locals who live here call their sanctuary. But you’re guaranteed quiet beaches with powdered-sugar sand, shells galore and aquamarine waters. The only place to stay on the island is the loaded-with-character if lovably ramshackle Pelican Inn, where you can snag one of eight oceanfront studios for your own private retreat.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park
Jutting out from the eastern side of the panhandle like a delicate fishing hook, Cape San Blas – bound on three sides by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joe Bay – is home to one of the country’s most sublime beaches. At St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, located on the tip of the coastal barrier peninsula, 10 miles of uninterrupted spun-sugar oceanfront await. The spit of sand here fronts the crystalline waters of the gulf, and water temperatures in the summer can reach a cozy 84 degrees. The park is a bird watcher’s paradise, with more than 240 species found here. And there’s a full facility campground set just back from the beach if you want to stay the night. Postcard perfect doesn’t even begin to do this place justice; if you like your beach time as close to nature as possible, you’ll be in heaven.
Bypass the nearby ‘Truman Show’-esque resort towns of Watercolor and Seaside for the artsy community of Grayton Beach – a funky little beach burg with heaps more character and equally stunning sands. Hemingway-style wooden homes tucked down side streets ‘paved’ with crushed oyster shells conjure Florida beach towns of yesteryear. Come sundown, head to the Red Barfor some local color and live jazz – the bar is a longstanding institution, and Grayton Beach’s version of Key West’s Sloppy Joe’s. Nearby, the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is an unmissable natural attraction with beaches that are more secluded still and unusual maritime lakes dotting the undulating dunes.
Blue Mountain Beach
A blip on the radar between the popular resort communities of Destin and Seaside, near South Fort Walton Beach, Blue Mountain Beach is a residential community with a slew of private beach homes available for rent by the week or season. Save for a few health food stores and gourmet grocers, there’s not much of a commercial presence in town – and that’s just how locals like it. Regional lore says the beach gets its name from a blue cast that a native wildflower, lupine, gives the dunes. But more obvious are the powdery quartz sands, backed by the constantly turquoise-to-sapphire-morphing Gulf of Mexico. When you’ve had your fill of lounging on the beach, rent a bike to pedal along the 19-mile paved Timpoochee Trail, which skirts the sea along the scenic County Road 30A.