Florida’s peninsula offers sandy barrier islands dotted only with shorebirds and sand dollars, Atlantic beaches that pound out their soundtrack in waves, and Gulf beaches with their lazy, lapping waters. Hugging the southern edge of Florida’s panhandle, however, are other beaches, touted by panhandle fans as some of the best beaches in the world.
Running alongside the mostly two-lane coastal US 98, coastal forest and windswept sand dunes buffer the panhandle beaches from the rest of the world. On occasion, however, those pine and palmetto forests peel themselves back to allow a glimpse of sand and water unlike anything else in Florida. State and national parks protect long stretches of the panhandle, keeping the coastline far in nature if not distance from the tall hotels and skyscraping condos lining other stretches of the panhandle.
Beachside residents may believe they don’t need to travel to go to the beach – after all, that’s the point of moving to Florida, right? While local beaches offer locals a scrap of paradise, panhandle beaches serve it up in long stretches. A three-day weekend in the panhandle offers a quiet white sand beach and water that starts of clear as glass and morphs into a rainbow of turquoise and aquamarine.
Gulf Beaches National Seashore (pictured here) offers achingly perfect vistas anyplace you look – in front of you, water so clear it sparkles, then deepens to a perfectly paradised green, then surrenders to cobalt. Behind you, sand dunes look like snow drifts towering in the distance. A narrow ribbon of road twists through this park, leading you west to Alabama or east to a bevy of state parks. From east to west, St. George Island, St. Joseph Peninsula, St. Andrews, Grayton Beach, Topsail Hill, Henderson Beach, Big Lagoon and Perdido Key state parks all offer access to undeveloped beaches.
Now. It’s officially fall and the tourists and snowbirds have turned their attention away from these beaches and back to south Florida. Take advantage of these relatively empty beaches to the north.
Take US 19 (or I-75) north to US 98 and head west.
BEST part: Other than the beaches, the food. Come hungry, and stop along the way. Get Apalachicola oysters, and if you make it to the Alabama state line, sample royal reds. They look like big red shrimp but taste like lobster. Along the way stop at Indian Pass Raw Br for gumbo and a tiny seafood market called Triple Tails for local scallop, snapper and shrimp.
WORST part: Your window for slipping into the water is closing. By the end of October the water temperature will fall from the 80s to the low 70s. Once it warms up again, you’ll fight the snowbirds for a spot between the sand dunes.
MAGIC Question: Gulf Beaches National Seashore is free; the state parks all charge admission (prices vary; expect to pay less than $10 per carload.) Several state parks have tent and RV camping as well as cabins; prices vary.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@TheGabber.com.