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From Panama City Beach to Pensacola, the coastal towns of Northwest Florida wow visitors with shimmering waters and white-sand beaches. Dig deeper, though, and you’ll soon discover that the Panhandle sticks out for more than its geography.

By Amanda Gleason

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Stay:

Wyndham Bay Point Resort This spread in Panama City Beach is nestled within a 1,100-acre wildlife preserve on St. Andrews Bay, where  dolphin sightings are almost guaranteed.

Hilton Sandestin Beach Sink into a luxurious treatment at this colossal South Walton County resort’s Serenity by the Sea spa, which the property revamped in its recent $12.5 million renovation. 

Henderson Park Inn Located in the mellow fishing village of Destin, this adults-only B&B has visitors and locals alike raving about  the pepper-crusted tuna served at its on-site Beach Walk Café. 

 

 

Encounter more saltwater swimmers as you…

Admire Sea Life

Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach is the only facility in North America to house rough-toothed dolphins, which are darker in color and more slender than their well-known bottlenose cousins. Come eye to eye with one of the seven that live here—they were rescued after suffering injuries in the wild—during a dolphin meet and greet. The park is
also home to alligators, sea lions, and other aquatic animals. And then there’s the on-site Gulf World Marine Institute, dedicated to rehabilitating stranded sea turtles and other sea life. Since 1970, thousands of animals have been rescued and released. Visitors can’t tour the rehab area, but they can attend the public releases, which are announced on the Gulf World Marine Park’s Facebook page. Now that’s definitely worthy of a “like.”   



Don’t miss:

T.T. Wentworth Museum Reopened in November after a six-month renovation, this Pensacola history hub houses artifacts like a 16th-century anchor from the fleet led by city founder Don Tristán de Luna.

YOLO Board Adventures Coastal dune lakes are only found in a few places in the world—and South Walton County has 15 of them. Go stand-up paddleboarding with this outfitter, based at the WaterColor Inn & Resort in Santa Rosa Beach.

 

 

Get acquainted with florida cuisine when you…

Sample Local Fare

Emeril Lagasse moved to South Walton County a few years ago, and we’ve got a feeling it had something to do with the outstanding local restaurants. Consider Grayton Bar & Grill in Santa Rosa Beach. You’ll find perfectly sautéed flounder at this folksy establishment, where husband-and-wife owners Johnny and Debbie Earles often greet guests at the door. In Rosemary Beach, the elegant Havana Beach Restaurant at The Pearl hotel causes a stir with dishes like roasted cauliflower steak with grit cakes and mushroom cream sauce. And over in the community of Seaside, Bud & Alley’s is known for its long-standing tradition of inviting guests to predict when the sun will set. The reward for a correct guess? A drink on the house. 

 


Plan an afternoon at...

Mainline Art House A gallery of works by local artists is only part of the draw—this new Pensacola shop also sells glass vases, stationery, and other home goods.

Shell Island Catch glimpses of dolphins, deer, ghost crabs, and other wildlife at this undeveloped 7-mile barrier island, part of St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach. 

Key Sailing During a parasailing lesson on Pensacola Beach, you’ll take in views from up to 800 feet. You can even share the ride with a buddy or two.

 

 

Take to the open water and…

Reel One In

You don’t get dubbed the “world’s luckiest fishing village” by chance. “Destin’s proximity to the Gulf’s deep waters makes for excellent conditions. It can take twice as long to reach these depths from other cities on the Gulf,” says Captain Mike Eller, a 32-year veteran of the sport and owner of FishDestin.com, a company that books everything from party boat trips to deep-sea overnights. “From April through October, giant schools of bait fish migrate past here, with a ton of game fish following them.” Anglers who prefer sturdy ground scurry to Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, 7 miles west of Destin. (Need gear? The tackle shop rents rods and reels.) The 1,200-foot pier is prime for luring bonito, king mackerel, and pompano, which many call Florida’s tastiest fish.



Pull up a chair at:

Clemenza’s This Fort Walton hideaway offers Italian cooking classes led by co-owner and head chef Dom Damiano, a second-generation Sicilian-American. 

Edward’s The best fish tacos around—made with grilled grouper and topped with jalapeno-lime salsa—await you at this Rosemary Beach treasure. Dig in while enjoying live music on the patio.

Boshamps After you’ve spent the day fishing, many restaurants in the area will cook your catch. This Destin Harbor favorite offers four decks with panoramic water views.

 

 

Prefer the high life? Then it’s time to…

Eye the Sky

What weighs more than 24,000 pounds and reaches speeds of up to 700 mph? Aircraft flown by the world-famous Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. Based at Naval Air Station Pensacola, this elite, 16-person team practices its swooping stunts above Pensacola’s National Naval Aviation Museum most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March through November. The show doesn’t end there, though. Inside the massive museum, you’ll be floored by more than 150 restored military aircraft, including the first plane to ever land at the South Pole (it was equipped with skis!). Let one of the volunteer guides—most are retired members of the military—share personal flight stories as you take a free, hour-long tour. 



Getting There  Fly into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) or Pensacola International Airport (PNS).

Getting Around Check each area’s convention and visitor’s bureau website for the easiest way to get around: visitpensacola.comemeraldcoastfl.comvisitsouthwalton.comvisitpanamacitybeach.com=

Getting Out Destin’s HarborWalk Village hosts Rock the Docks Live, a free concert series held Saturday nights throughout the summer. 

Follow Us Follow Southwest: The Magazine editors on the road by connecting with us on Instagram @SouthwestMagazine.

 

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