If there’s one word that defines Florida’s Panhandle, it’s slow. And I mean that in the most positive way. Visiting here means you’ll take a relaxing break from the rush and bustle you find elsewhere in Florida, and isn’t that what a vacation is for, after all?
Also known as Northwest Florida, Florida’s Panhandle is separated by geography from the more populated part of the state. Once you’re west of the Big Bend, things are simply different. The deeply folded landscape boasts ridges, ravines, and waterfalls. Appalachian flora like trillium and mountain laurel thrives in hilly upland forests, contrasting with vast estuaries, cypress swamps, and bayous along the Gulf of Mexico. Emerald waves lap white sand beaches on the barrier islands, while the shimmering waters of aquamarine springs beckon along the inland waterways.
While friends jokingly refer to their backyard here as “Lower Alabama,” the reality is that the Panhandle is closer in tune to its Deep South neighbors to the north than it is to the rest of the Sunshine State. Churches are the heart of every community, and neighbors help out neighbors. Agriculture is still an important part of the region’s economy, with vast fields of cotton, corn, and peanuts throughout the countryside. Watermen still ply the shallow estuaries and deep bays for a daily fresh catch to bring to market. Every small town is mighty proud of its unique history.
Explore the country roads and the scenic byways, the vast forests and the rolling farmland, the coastal highways and the windswept dunes. Go slow, and savor the views.
Despite modern arguments for moving it to a major population center, the state capital of Tallahassee remains where it was founded in 1824, halfway between the state’s most populous cities of the time, St. Augustine and Pensacola. Like Gainesville, Ocala and Natural North Florida, Tallahassee is an outdoor recreation mecca, surrounded on three sides by vast public lands, including the Apalachicola National Forest. You’ll find yourself using your parking brake in Tallahassee, something you rarely need elsewhere in Florida. Home to several major universities, most notably Florida State University, it’s a town with deep roots. Historic homes, gardens, and plantation tours are along Tallahassee’s many canopied roads. To the south and west, the coast is a maze of estuaries and peninsulas, the “Forgotten Coast” a draw for birders, with St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge a gem for migratory species, including the monarch butterfly.
Defining the boundary between the Eastern and Central Time Zones, the Apalachicola River is one of Florida’s wild places, with a minimum of access points. There are only four bridges across its 112 miles, and you must cross one of them to go east or west across the Panhandle. West of the river is Marianna, notable as the home of Florida Caverns, the state’s only show cave, and a bevy of beautiful springs. Blountstown offers a peek into Florida’s past at the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement, and Wewahitchka is known for its bounty of tupelo honey. Established in 1829 and still a destination with a true sense of place, the city of Apalachicola commands a view of where the river meets the bay. It is well worth the drive to spend time in Apalachicola among the artists and writers and historians who love it so, and to savor its unique bounty, fresh Apalachicola oysters.
The only part of Florida’s Panhandle that feels like the people-saturated portion of the state, Panama City Beach is a major destination for visitors from Alabama and Georgia, especially during Spring Break. Tall condos, much like you’ll see in Miami, line the oceanfront. For those that prefer crowds, people-watching, and nightlife, this is your destination. Nature lovers can escape to the sanctuaries surrounding the coastal dune lakes westward along the Gulf shore, or to the waterways, forests, and springs found an hour’s drive to the north. Families who crave quieter beach time gravitate to low-rise beach communities along Scenic 30A, like Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and Blue Mountain.
When you hear of the Emerald Coast of Florida, this is where you’ll find it. The waters are truly an emerald green, the pure white sands the consistency of powdered sugar. You’ll find a cluster of high-rises on the oceanfront around Destin, established in 1845 as a fishing village along the peninsula between Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf. It remains the home of Florida’s largest charter fishing fleet. Ancient peoples left behind a temple mound – now surrounded by the city – at Fort Walton, one of numerous ceremonial mounds found throughout Florida’s Panhandle. Niceville sits along the bay, with Eglin Air Force Base and its recreation opportunities to the north. Between Crestview and very Victorian DeFuniak Springs, home of Florida’s Chautauqua, is Britton Hill, Florida’s high point, the lowest in the USA at 345 feet.
A city defined by its military presence since its very beginning, Pensacola lays claim to two significant historic events. In 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano established the European settlement in what is now the continental United States. It didn’t last long, thanks to a devastating hurricane. The opening salvos of the Civil War were fired here at Fort Barrancas, but war was not declared until the next day, after the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Gulf Islands National Seashore protects large swaths of Pensacola’s white sand beaches and its historic forts, Fort Pickens being the largest. Downtown Pensacola has a French Quarter feel, and in fact, five flags have flown over the city in its history. To its northeast, the city of Milton is a gateway to the immense Blackwater River State Forest, where you can hike or paddle, swim or raft.