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Seaside is one of the prettiest communities in northwest Florida (above). Fishing at St. Joseph State Park (below)/ © Bill Gleasner photos

Northwest Florida
And the beach goes on

Published: Sep/Oct 2002

Northwest Florida rewards travelers with awesome views of a clear blue-green sea edged with glittering white sand.

But there’s more–incredibly fresh seafood, unspoiled natural areas, funky museums, aviation history and all kinds of recreation in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

Place of refuge

Those seeking a respite will find it at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge 25 miles south of Tallahassee. With nearly 70,000 acres of forests, water areas and a Gulf coast still in its natural state, this is Florida as it once was. Birds and alligators galore, walking trails and St. Marks Lighthouse–one of the oldest in the Southeast–make this a real find.

Not far down the road in the town of St. Marks is Posey’s, a restaurant that serves mullet, shrimp and oysters. The atmosphere is picnic-table casual and the oysters are succulent.

Really cool coastal fun

The John Gorrie State Museum in Apalachicola tells the fascinating tale of Dr. Gorrie. While trying to invent a way to cool malaria patients, the pipes in his experimental machine kept clogging with ice. This problem paved the way for the invention of air-conditioning and ice cubes. A replica of this small ice-making machine and exhibits of early Apalachicola are on display in this one-room museum.

Nearby St. Joseph Peninsula State Park offers a dazzling white sand beach, salt marshes, freshwater ponds and barrier dunes as high as 60 feet.

A little farther west, another gorgeous beach is the centerpiece of St. Andrews State Recreation Area. Extraordinarily clear water makes this a favorite haunt of scuba divers. Bounded by the Gulf, Ship Channel and Grand Lagoon, it's also known as a great spot for fishing.

Natural beauty

Destin, nicknamed Billfish Capital of the World, has one of the largest charter fleets in Florida. Destin takes full advantage of having the closest deepwater access to the Gulf. The catch that ends up on its docks–more than 20 different edible game fish from red snapper to yellow fin tuna–explains the area’s reputation for delectable seafood.

The Beaches of South Walton, 13 small communities spanning 26 miles between Panama City Beach and Destin, are often recognized as having some of the country's best beaches. Two stunning examples are Topsail Hill State Preserve and Grayton Beach State Recreation Area. Topsail’s three-mile, undeveloped beachfront has been identified as the most pristine and environmentally protected property in Florida. Grayton’s extensive, self-guided trail system reveals dramatic examples of dune migration along with elegant views of the Gulf.

Seaside is surely one of the prettiest of these South Walton beach communities. This meticulously planned pastel town features wood-frame cottages with front porches, tin roofs, picket fences and gazebos. Perhaps the most widely painted and photographed community in Northwest Florida, this photogenic town fronts a wide, sugar-white beach.

Flying high

Aviation buffs will not want to miss the Air Force Armament Museum outside the west gate of Eglin Air Force Base, the largest air force base in the world. The sleek SR-71 Blackbird spy plane (fastest manned aircraft in the world) lurks outside the front entrance.

The expansive National Museum of Naval Aviation, located on Pensacola’s Naval Air Station, is the only museum in the world devoted exclusively to naval aviation. Pensacola’s best bargain, this beautifully designed, fascinating tribute to aviation history on the grounds of the world’s largest naval air station is free.

The base’s location is no accident. In 1914, after much study, the government selected Pensacola for its Naval Air Station
because it offered so many clear days for flying.

Oldest settlement

Pensacola, whose stormy history has included living under five flags, is the site of our country’s first settlement by Europeans. Seville Square, a historic district of shops, restaurants, museums and art galleries inhabiting a mix of restored 18th- and 19th-century cottages and mansions, is the heart of the city.

The traveler in need of refreshment need go no farther than McGuires, one of Pensacola’s favorite watering holes. The walls are adorned with stuffed hippos, moose, cape buffalo and 30,000 $1 bills. The fare is tasty and the portions generous.

By the seashore

Gulf Islands National Seashore protects shimmering white sand and swaying sea oats along a 150-mile stretch of islands and keys between Destin, Florida, and Gulfport, Mississippi. The Florida section of Gulf Islands National Seashore includes the Naval Live Oaks Reservation, the forts on the Pensacola Naval Air Station and part of Santa Rosa Island.

Fort Pickens on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island is well worth exploring. This massive five-sided fort was built in 1834 soon after Florida was ceded to the United States by Spain.

It’s been a long time since those first colonists slogged ashore wondering what this strange wild continent had in store for them. Today’s travelers can stretch out on the splendid sands of Santa Rosa beach and ponder the possibilities.

Diana Gleasner is a contributor from Denver, N.C.

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