My family has been going to the Florida panhandle since I was a little boy. Over the years that area developed a derogatory name: The Redneck Riviera. Ever notice how rednecks are the only people you are allowed to make fun of anymore?
After not vacationing in the area for a decade, I took a vacation with my family last year to Destin. We ended up traveling all along the panhandle and the area has changed a lot in the last ten years.
Despite its reputation, this area of the coastline has some of the best beaches in Florida, and in the country in my opinion. If you like pure white sand, the panhandle is the place for you. I have been all along the Atlantic coast in Florida and South Carolina, and on many beaches in Rio de Janeiro and none of them come close to this area in terms of beach and water quality.
If you are thinking about a vacation in this area, I have some advice on some of the best Florida beaches you should visit, some of the places you might want to stay and the time of the year you might want to avoid.
Destin Florida Attractions
After my vacation in Destin last year, I received an inquiry for a job in the area a month later by coincidence. I ended up making it to the end of the process and even flew down to the area for a face-to-face at my expense. I was told it was a sure thing, but received an email a week later saying they had decided to wait on hiring someone. Thanks!
Anyway, I was prepared to move to the area because I enjoyed it so much. If you like a small beach town Destin and several other cities along the Florida panhandle all the way to Pensacola are a great place to look.
The thing about Destin is that it still has enough big city stuff to make it livable, like an international airport. I’m not exactly sure where they fly internationally, probably the Caribbean, but that’s what they call it. They have a lot of direct flights to Atlanta which will get you to anywhere in the world.
If you are looking for a hotel or condo on the beach, I would stay along the jetty peninsula just to the east of the bridge that spans the bay. In particular, the Jetty East Condominiums have a great beach location with many bedroom and balcony choices. It has a good pool area and beach service.
Another great option is Beachside Towers.
As for activities other than the beach, there is Henderson State park located not too far away, as well as a greyhound dog racing track located in Ebro, about a 45 minute drive. They have racing 5 nights out of the week beginning around 6:30.Credit: mjpyro
For dining, there are lots of sea food restaurants of course, and all of the usual chain restaurants if that is not your thing. I personally do not like sea food very much, but I will try a few things while I am near the beach.
If you want a great view while dining outdoors, try the Beach Walk at the Henderson Park Inn. Another great place to eat and watch the fishing boats come in is the Marina Café.
Finally, if you want to stay in a more secluded part of the Destin area, try Miramar Beach about 8 miles to the east or the Fort Walton beach area across the bay bridge to the west.
Pensacola Beach Attactions
This is another one of the cities that grew up on the panhandle around a large inlet bay and there is a long, thin barrier island that protects most of the coastline in the area.
This area is less known and doesn’t get the touristy traffic that some of its neighbors do, so if that is your thing, this is your place. There is a Holiday Inn Express and Holiday Inn Resort for different budgets. Both are located on the beach and offer good value.
Just down the beach from those is Margarita Inn Resort which is also beach front and offers great a value and location.
For great seafood, try the Grand Marlin.
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Panama City Beach Attractions
Panama City, Fl has a terrible reputation from the 70s and 80s when it grew up with a touristy, carnival type atmosphere. When I was a kid, I used to love it, but as an adult, you really don’t want to be around that type of element and the crowd it attracts.
Fortunately, the area has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Most of the mom and pop motels along the strip are gone, replaced with high rise condos. That is a good and bad thing. A lot of the beach access is restricted along the way and some of the charm of this beach town has evaporated over the last decade. In fact, if you haven’t been lately, it looks a lot like Destin.
If you are looking for a central location to stay, try Long Beach Condos. There are newer options around the area, but this one has a lot of well-maintained condos. It also has great beach access and a large lagoon pool.
Right next door is the new Shores of Panama Resort with a great pool area too.
Both locations are a minute’s walk from Pineapple Willey’s, which is a great option for lunch. It’s pier deck stretches almost to the ocean.
If you want a quieter stretch of the beach, try the eastern end of Thomas Drive close to St. Andrews State Park.Credit: mjpyro
For dining, Captain Anderson's on the marina has been around forever and is worth a visit. Good food and a great view of the bay. It gets very crowded in the evening so you might want to be an early bird on this one.
There are also plenty of places to eat and shop at Pier Park.
Also, Angelo’s Steak House is worth a visit. It doesn’t look like much on the inside, but the steaks are better than the steakhouse national chains.
Things to do in Panama City Beach
As I mentioned in the Destin section, the Ebro Greyhound Racing park is nearby about 30 minutes inland. It’s actually closer to Panama City Beach than Destin.
Finally, if you are looking for a great experience, try one of the wave runners tours of St. Andrews Island State Park and the bay area. There are places that offer this along the bay, however, sometimes there are beach vendors that offer it one day a week. They bring the wave runners to you on the beach and everyone goes out together. If that is an option, do that rather than leaving from one of their rental locations on the bay. If you are lucky, you will encounter some dolphins out in the bay area.
Don’t let the reputation of this place deter you from a visit. It has changed a lot and there are still quiet locations in the area if you want less commotion.
In fact, just to the west outside of Panama City Beach, there is the laid back area of Laguna Beach, Rosemary Beach and Seagrove Beach. If you think you might be traveling to Destin several times during a vacation, these might be better options for you.
I should mention that there area couple of naval air bases along the panhandle so if watching fighter jets is your thing, you will see them doing training flights nearly every day no matter where you are in the area.
Furthermore, several of these locations tend to have a Spring Break or Summer’s Out younger crowd, particularly Panama City Beach, so you may want to avoid the March to early April time frame, as well as the time from around Memorial Weekend to the middle of June.
Also, the rates for all of the condos and hotels jump significantly after Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day weekend. Late September and October are great times to vacation in this area because the crowds are gone and the water is still warm from the summer months.
Overall, it is a great location for laid back beach activity, with beautiful beaches and clean ocean water. If you prefer a touristy vacation or a more laid back scene, there are options all along the panhandle to suit your needs.
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