Florida Panhandle-Hopping

At this very moment, I’m gazing out my sliding glass door from the Hilton Sandestin at the ripple of green that gives the Emerald Coast its name. This part of Florida’s Gulf Coast could just as well be named the Cotton Coast for the soft, searing-white sands that blanket its shore.

View from Hilton Sandestin

They are my absolute favorite Florida beaches, and this week I’m doing a quicky hop through the eastern Panhandle of Northwest Florida.

It all started with an invitation to meet a handful of vacationing Minnesota girl buds in Cape San Blas. Well, it actually started when they asked me to recommend someplace beachy but not too touristy in the region. Cape San Blas jumped immediately to mind.

So I scored an invitation, although this is an exclusive group of nurses known as Camp U of M, who once worked together at the University of Minnesota and vacation each year in fun places. I am the first non-groupy, non-nurse to ever have been invited.

Just us girls at Cape San Blas

I was honored and always ready to drive up to the Panhandle despite the nine-plus hours it takes. (Plus, vacationing with nurses is ALWAYS a good idea. They’re so good at shots. And at helping to nurse the resulting hangover.)

A couple of writing assignments for the Fort Walton-Destin area clinched the deal.

The girls had rented a house for incredibly little cash only steps from the beach. Practically everything on the skinny strip of Cape San Blas is steps from the beach — the soft, squeaky clean, whiter-than-white beach.

Other than homes, there’s not much else except a lighthouse, a small cabin resort, the Trading Post, and a state park.

So it’s a place where you can do a lot of nothing, or range out for some exploring.

The closest town is Port St. Joe, known for its summertime recreational scalloping. Hit Sunset Coastal Grill for shrimp and grit cakes or crab-topped tilefish.

Or take the little pontoon ferry to the isolated beach of St. Vincent Island Wildlife Refuge, where deer, wild boars, and red wolves live. But don’t expect to see any of them while you’re scouring the empty beach for shells.

After the Cape, the pace of Destin seemed like fast-forward.

Destin and Fort Walton Beach are the “official” Emerald Coast. They were both designed for tourism, but in different eras.

Fort Walton Beach’s Okaloosa Island came first as a mecca for vacationers from the American South. Time was it had a reputation for rowdy partying, tattoo parlors, and wet T-shirt contests.

On this visit it seemed quieter, but the party still goes on at the Boardwalk — a cluster of restaurants, bars, and surf shops on the beach next to the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier.

It’s also next to Gulfarium, one of the oldest aquarium-dolphin attractions in Florida.

Destin was created later as a modern, condominium-lined destination touted as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.

I was surprised by how it has sprawled since I last visited 10 years ago.

Red velvet donut

But I was happy that the Donut Hole was still there and that it had added red velvet donuts to its repertoire. It was possibly the best donut I’ve ever tried to resist.

For lunch, since I was working on a family travel article, I stopped at Fudpucker’s, because besides its colorful countenance and playground, it has an added attraction called “Gator Beach” with dozens of juvenile alligators in attendance.

For $3 you can buy gator food. Since I do not condone feeding alligators under any circumstances (and do not believe we should be sending our kids that message), I instead fed myself ON alligators.

Fudpucker's

The fried alligator nuggets were surprisingly tender. I also tried the squashed crab soup, which contained strips of yellow squash. Unusual is the best I can say for it.

But then in all fairness Fudpucker’s is known for its burgers and T-shirts and the clever use of “fud” in naming menu items, the Fudtography Gallery downstairs, fudnominal drinks such as the fudzy navel, and, well, you get it.

Other fun stuff to do with the kids in the FWB-Destin area? The Emerald Coast Science Center, the Indian Temple Mound Museum, and the Destin Fishing & History Museum.

Dunes on the Emerald Coast

Between Destin and FWB, a section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore leaves the moguls of sand unmarred.

After the hustle of the twin towns, the refuge of the refined and placid Hilton Sandestin felt a welcome respite, more welcome if I could have fit in a spa treatment, but no luck.

It too is a dining destination with a fine steak and seafood house called Seagar’s, a tranquil sushi spot, a poolside café, and more.

Between the physical distance of Cape San Blas and the Emerald Coast lie two other contrasting worlds: Panama City Beach and the Beaches of South Walton.

Since it was spring break, I made my way quickly through the former, but stopped for lunch at Rosemary Beach, one of the15 beaches of Walton County.

I enjoyed the smoked salmon and goat cheese pizza with pesto alfresco at Bistro 104 despite the fact that they were out of the promised cucumber salsa. (Don’t you hate when they switch or omit ingredients described on the menu without telling you?)

In any case, on such a pleasant day in such a delightful place, who could complain?

Having experienced the extremes of Florida’s Panhandle – the silence of Cape San Blas, the noise of Destin, the crowds of Panama City Beach, and the good taste of Walton County (and I’m not just saying that because it has my name), I felt as though I had Panhandle-hopped with panache.

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