Living in Florida for over a decade, visiting the Panhandle has been something we have been meaning to do. The Santa Rosa beach area has plenty of parks and campgrounds to chose from. We camped at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. There are plenty of trails to get some exercise, including paved portions open for biking. We hiked the trail to Campbell and Morris Lakes, which are Coastal Dune Lakes, a rare type of lake formed by sand dunes. They can only be found in Madagascar, New Zealand, Australia, and here in the Panhandle. The hike out only took about 30 minutes to Campbell, and then another 30 to Morris on both a paved trail, and then a sandy trail. Be aware that the trails are nature trails, which means you may see some wildlife like the Pygmy Rattlesnake I almost stepped on, and the alligator we saw swimming in Morris Lake. I definitely recommend bringing or finding a walking stick to hit on the ground in front of you as you walk.
Of course we headed out and about to check out the surrounding areas. We explored the areas around Destin, Seaside, Panama City, and Pensacola. Each of these stops had things that set them apart from the others.
Seaside is about 15 mins East of the Santa Rosa area on 30A. It has a cute Central Square that was all decked out for the holidays. There were lovely shops and restaurants and a row of Airstream Food Trucks serving up a variety of tasty treats. We split a platter at Barefoot BBQ, which was delicious, and then spent the rest of the day at the beach. The sunsets here are simply breathtaking. Later in the week we enjoyed Paella and some wonderful wine with new friends at 45 Central. They only make it a couple of times a week so make sure you check ahead of time! This new planned community really became our favorite place in the Panhandle.
Destin is a newer city with a great waterfront area filled with shops and restaurants. If you are looking for a more high end destination on the Panhandle, Destin is a great location for you. If you continue towards Pensacola, you will come across miles and miles of beautiful sand dunes. This entire area is very picturesque.
Panama City seems to be geared more towards the Spring Break crowd, though there is a newer section that was filled with chain restaurants, bars, and shops. The rest of the area is filled with novelty stores and the tourist trap area similar to International Drive in Orlando with wax museums and mini golf courses.
Pensacola is a military town that has a great historic area to stroll around. Many of the buildings are similar to those in the French Quarter, built with bricks and iron works. There are a few small, but nice parks, and public art pieces throughout the area. The Veterans Memorial Park has some magnificent statues and memorials, including a replica of D.C.'s Vietnam Wall. Of course there are tributes to the Blue Angels all throughout the city.
One thing that all of these places have in common is miles and miles of gorgeous beaches, with sugar sand and sparkling clear water, all a part of the National Gulf Seashore. It is some of the coolest, softest, and whitest sand we have ever seen and the water explains why they call this the Emerald Coast.