May/Jun 2000

Before You Go
For additional information on the attractions along this scenic stretch of the Sunshine State, contact Visit Florida at 1-888-735-2872, or look to the Web at www.flausa.com.

Travel Assistance
Visit your nearest AAA service office for maps, TripTiks and TourBook guides.
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As nature intended
Jewel-toned surf laps at the beaches of this scenic stretch in Florida

By Jill Carstens-Faust

Sure, Florida has its share of incredible ocean views and amazing stretches of sandy beaches, but nowhere can you find this combination so awesome as along western Florida’s panhandle. Here all natural elements come together to create legendary emerald waters and sugary quartz crushed so fine that its texture resembles that of the confection.

Driving this section of Florida reveals a series of landscapes–tall stands of live oaks, dunes of waving sea oats and, let’s not forget, the mesmerizing sea. Folks hotfooting it to Tallahassee, Fla., prefer Interstate 10, a quick and easy thoroughfare across the panhandle. But to do so would mean simply missing the boat. An alternative is U.S. Highway 98, which borders northwest Florida’s coastline before heading inland just south of Tallahassee. Along this ribbon of highway–much of it newly paved or resurfaced–visitors discover a pristine and historically rich setting, particularly along a 100-mile stretch that begins in Pensacola, weaves through a series of beachside communities and culminates at a family-friendly Panama City Beach.

A rich history

Begin a tour of the region at Pensacola–this area alone offers more than 40 miles of Gulf of Mexico shoreline. But Pensacola is more than a gulf-front community. It has a rich history that’s celebrated at a number of attractions and museums. Pensacola’s reputation as a center for naval aviation is memorialized at the world-renowned National Museum of Naval Aviation. The free museum chronicles the history of flight from wooden planes to the Skylab module and provides such interactive experiences as flight simulators, IMAX theater productions and informal tours led by retired aviators.

History of another kind unfolds at nearby attractions including Historic Pensacola Village, featuring museums and a walking trail that leads visitors through different eras of Pensacola history; the Civil War Soldiers Museum, with a large collection of Civil War medical artifacts; and the City of Five Flags trolley which takes visitors through several restored historic districts.

Leaving Pensacola, visitors head southwest on Highway 98 through the beachfront community of Gulf Breeze, home to the region’s only zoo. At Gulf Breeze, views of a wooded terrain give way to broad expanses of ocean and terrific views of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a series of barrier islands which begins at Perdido Key, a popular spot just west of Pensacola, and ends near Fort Walton Beach.

A Gulf Breeze nature preserve named the Naval Life Oaks Area is a popular spot for picnics, nature hikes and views of the indigenous oak trees, set apart from other oak species by their unusually strong and naturally curved features. The area also is home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitors Center, where exhibits and a film provide greater detail about the ecological significance of the seashore.

Sand and sea

Continuing on Highway 98 en route to Fort Walton Beach, several turnoffs provide motorists with views of sand and sea. At Fort Walton Beach, modern development alters the landscape, with a busy harbor and dozens of accommodation options.

Visitors can rent almost any kind of watercraft, including tour boats to take them fishing or sightseeing./ VISIT FLORIDA photo
Together, Fort Walton Beach and the nearby community of Destin have enjoyed a building boom, transforming the area from a modest village-like fishing region to a major resort community. Visitors to the area still delight in some of the best deep-sea fishing found anywhere, and dozens of charter companies offer boat rentals and guide services.

It is here that the desire to get out among the emerald waves overcomes even the most sea-wary of visitors. Fortunately, visitors can rent virtually any kind of watercraft available or go aboard a number of ocean-going vessels. At Destin’s Harborwalk, a boat dock and booking facility lets you choose among a variety of touring boats, including Capt. Rex Walley’s Nathaniel Bowditch. Capt. Walley takes visitors beyond the bay for a cruise aboard his traditionally rigged steel schooner. Once anchored, visitors can swim, snorkel, and more often than not, view dolphins near and far.

Upscale resorts

Back on Highway 98, on the outer reaches of Destin, is Sandestin, a resort community within a community that features the area’s most upscale accommodations and fine dining. Here the Sandestin Resort and its neighbor, the Sandestin Hilton, offer the best of amenities, recreation, services and renowned restaurants with a price tag to go along with them. However, come late autumn, when temperatures still range in the mid-70s, prices fall to low-season rates, making the properties affordable getaways.

Returning to Highway 98, the tempo settles back to a slow, meandering pace. A detour onto County Road 30A provides more ocean views as it winds past a string of beachside communities. Among the region’s most notable draws are the villages of Grayton Beach and Seaside and the natural attraction of Topsail Hill State Preserve.

Grayton Beach is a 100-year-old community characterized by a thriving artist colony, sandy streets and wooden houses constructed of weathered cypress. This is the place to discover the best of local color.

Much has been written about Seaside, a pastel-hued planned community; its most recent attention came when “The Truman Show” was filmed here. Walking along its brick-lined streets, you can’t help but feel as if you’re at a vacation paradise. Smells from open-air restaurants mingle with the salty air, shops sell one-of-a-kind items, and the town center’s amphitheater plays host to wine festivals and other refined pursuits.

Miles of nature trails

Eco-tourism has become a big draw to the area, and miles of nature trails at both Grayton Beach State Park and Topsail Hill Preserve attract hikers and bird-watchers. Dunes, pine flatwoods and salt marshes provide a haven for the dozens of plant and animal species that inhabit the area, some listed as endangered or threatened.

County Road 30A eventually leads back to U.S. Highway 98, now just a short distance to Panama City Beach. This area has long been established as a family vacation destination, with families returning to the same hotels and attractions year after year. A perennial favorite among new and longtime visitors is Gulf World Marine Park.

The park entertains and educates with daily shows and presentations about protecting wild marine life. The park staff also plays an active role in the rehabilitation of marine life stranded on local beaches. The park is part of a network of facilities that provide such services. Expected to open this spring is a $5 million expansion project featuring a new dolphin stadium and additional experiences.

Jill Carstens-Faust is senior editor at Home & Away magazine in Omaha, Neb.



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