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Northwest Florida: Off the Beach-Beaten Path

Posted on September 12, 2011 at 3:35 AM

By Dawn Henthorn Guide


When visiting the beaches along Florida's coastline, you are never far from an adventure. Jump in the car, or rent a bike and explore these great diversions and discover a Florida you never knew existed.

While sugar-white beaches and emerald-green waters are the main attraction for many visitors, the Pensacola area is home to hundreds of unique architectural treasures for those who seek something different.

Veer off the beach roads and head for the city’s three picturesque historic districts to discover a fascinating collection of restored homes, shops, restaurants and museums. The city’s old jailhouse is among the converted structures now housing eclectic museums of art and history.


But if pristine expanses of sand and surf are the order of the day, drive southeast of Pensacola to Santa Rosa Island. Here, visitors will find low-key beach community living blended with miles of pristine seashore and bits of Pensacola history. The Fort Pickens area, at the island’s western tip, is a hub of seashore activities. Built more than 160 years ago, Fort Pickens figured prominently in the Civil War and later served as a prison for the famous Indian chief Geronimo. Carefully preserved, the fort is now open to visitors. Nature trails, camping grounds and a fishing pier add to the area’s natural appeal. Past Santa Rosa Island's more popular public recreation areas, Navarre Beach offers miles of secluded beaches where sun-worshipers can quietly commune with nature.

Along the Beaches of South Walton, visitors will discover an eclectic blend of old and new beach communities that give this area a special charm.

The century-old community of Grayton Beach, with its sand streets and wooden houses made of weathered cypress, is full of surprising contrasts. Adventurous wanderers will discover places like Patrone’s, a working artist colony, with small studios featuring everything from handcrafted furniture to hand-painted children’s clothes. Or Monet Monet, a spectacular re-creation of Claude Monet’s home and garden in Giverny, France.

While in the nouveau-Victorian town of Seaside visitors will find Mediterranean-style outdoor markets selling everything from fresh fruit to contemporary art.

Although Panama City’s 27 miles of beaches and entertainment venues can keep any visitor busy, it’s worth a trip off the main drag to explore the unusual Museum of Man in the Sea. Here, visitors will be dazzled by the 500-year-old treasures recovered from sunken ships off area beaches. Underwater adventurers will want to explore one of the most famous dive sites in Northwest Florida, the sunken British tanker Empire Mica. This and other shipwrecks off Panama City Beach attract a wide variety of sea life, including vibrant yellow angelfish, 6-foot manta rays and huge loggerhead sea turtles.

With no major highways, and not a single stoplight in the entire county, Franklin County might easily be missed on a trip through the Florida Panhandle. But summertime travelers have at least one very cool reason to visit -- air conditioning was invented here! Nearly 150 years ago, a young physician named John Gorrie developed an ice machine to help cool down patients suffering from yellow fever. This revolutionary achievement helped transform Florida from a sparsely populated wilderness to the tourist mecca it is today. Travelers can stop by the John Gorrie State Museum in Apalachicola and pay their respects to the man who made cool Florida living possible. A replica of his ice-making machine is on display.

Apalachicola’s working waterfront charm and historically significant structures provide a rare glimpse into Florida’s past. On a scenic walking tour of more than 200 historic sites, visitors will pass stately Greek Revival homes dating from the 1830s, cotton warehouses that once housed the city’s prosperous cotton export, and the unusual sponge exchange, where the thriving sponge industry was once headquartered. At the nearby Victorian-era Gibson Inn, visitors can lounge on a wide veranda overlooking Apalachicola Bay.


Categories: North America

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