Coasting Along Florida’s Panhandle

Bill & Denise Semion
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Editor’s Note: Bill and Denise Semion are members of LTV’s sponsored content team, The Leisure Explorers. Do you own a Leisure Travel Van and enjoy writing? Learn more about joining the team.

History-soaked and sun-kissed, the Florida Panhandle, a nearly 200-mile strip of land in the northwest part of the Sunshine State, offers miles of soft sandy beaches, cool ocean breezes, great seafood, and unforgettable sunsets along the Gulf of Mexico.

If you’re curious, and I hope you are, you might have also heard about the Emerald Coast and Forgotten Florida, two sections within the Panhandle. We explored these areas during a four-week vacation in Lucky Us, our 2015.5 LTV Unity MB. 

Unforgettable, Forgotten Florida

The “Forgotten Coast” or “Forgotten Florida” refers to the last remaining remnant of pristine Gulf Coast beaches unspoiled by modern development within the Florida Panhandle. Charming, old-timey communities like Apalachicola, Alligator Point, Carrabelle, St. George Island, and Eastpoint boast this moniker.    

Here’s a bit of quirky history of the area: it’s a tale of Tate’s Hell State Forest, a place you might pass along the way on US-98. According to legend, in 1875, local farmer Cebe Tate ventured into the swamp looking for a panther he believed was killing his livestock. Armed with just a shotgun, Tate and his hunting dogs got lost in the swamp for seven days and nights. Bitten by a snake and drinking swamp water, he made it to a clearing near Carrabelle. According to local lore, he muttered, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell” before he passed away. Ever since, Tate’s Hell has been known as a forbidden swamp. We have not stayed in or even visited Tate’s Hell State Forest, but you might.

St. George Island 

Traveling west along the Big Bend Scenic Byway (US-98), take the five-mile bridge across Apalachicola Bay to immerse yourself in “island time” on St. George Island. This beautiful 28-mile barrier island boasts miles of  soft sandy beaches. 

Located on the east end of the island, Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park offers treed sites, hiking paths, and access to miles of beach.
Colorful homes line the shore near town. You won’t find any high-rise condos here.
Strolling along miles and miles of beach, you’ll rarely see another soul.
Did I mention there were miles of beach at Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park?
It’s nearly an eight-mile bike ride from the campground to Paddy’s Raw Bar, where you’ll need to replenish your energy with oysters and beer.


Known as “Oyster Town” or “Oyster City”, Apalachicola greets you with a historic downtown, art galleries, quaint resale shops, and tasty eateries. Apalachicola is a combination of the Hitchoti words apalahchi, meaning “on the other side” and okli, meaning “people”. Locals might tell you the name of this town, established in 1831, means “land of the friendly people”.

Most eateries specialize in local seafood, but landlubbers can find plenty of tasty offerings, as well.
Need retail therapy? Stop in at the boutiques, art galleries, or resale shops to bring back a remembrance.
Walk along the riverfront park to see fishing boats and more.
Fresh-caught, local blue crab claws, shrimp, and mullet are typically available at Millender and Sons Seafood in nearby Carrabelle.

Emerald Coast

Travel some 60 miles further along US-98 from Apalachicola and you’ll notice a change in the skyline. Old-timey Florida is replaced with high-rise condos, hotels, and big box stores. Yup, you’ve left Forgotten Florida and are now along the Emerald Coast, where stunningly beautiful beaches like Pensacola, Navarre, Fort Walton Destin, and Panama City, along with Alabama’s Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Fort Morgan, dot the shoreline. Several Air Force bases are located here, and you might see and hear fighter planes practicing overhead. The Blue Angels practice from NAS Pensacola, and if you plan it right, you might be lucky enough to see them, as well. 

Florida 30-A

Florida’s Scenic Highway 30-A stretches along the coast in Walton County. Known for its crystal-clear emerald waters and gorgeous white sand beaches, it’s also home to high-end beach communities, with upscale shopping, restaurants, and bars. A 19-mile paved bike path follows along 30-A, passing through its beach communities. You might recognize upscale Seaside as the backdrop for The Truman Show, the 1998 film starring Jim Carrey. Warning: if the sight of groups of teenagers makes you break out in hives, plan your day carefully if you venture into some of the towns during Spring Break. 

Grayton Beach State Park offers spacious sites. Drive or hop on your bike to the park’s beach, just one mile down the park road.
From Grayton Beach, stroll east toward Seaside or west toward Blue Mountain Beach along crystal clear ocean waters.

The park’s one-mile trail explores the barrier dunes, pine flatwoods, and salt marsh.
You might see this shiny salamander peeking out.

The trail also takes you to Western Lake, one of several rare coastal dune lakes in the area.
Take a sunset stroll and you might be lucky, like we were, to have an Air Force C-130 fly low and slow along the beach for photos.
Lunching at Stinky’s Fish Camp on 30-A with LTV friends Peggy Schaefer and Bob Freese.

Old Florida Fish House near Seaside offers plenty of outdoor dining.
Grouper sandwich at the Fish House? Yes, please!

Seaside town square.
Seaside’s beach.
Food trucks offer yummy fixings.

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park features lush landscaping and resort-like amenities, including an in-ground swimming pool. Here at Topsail, you can load up your beachie stuff and ride your bike or board the tram to the beach.

The weather can change the scenery overnight along the Gulf Coast.
Seafood markets, like Shrimper’s on US-98 near Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, offer local catches.

Once you leave 30-A continuing west, it’s about a two-hour drive to our next stop, Fort Pickens, in the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Be sure to take a shopping detour into Pensacola; you won’t regret it.  

If you love seafood, you’ll love Joe Patti, which features everything from soft-shell crab and lobsters, to redfish, grouper, and more. 

In addition to fresh seafood, you’ll be tempted…
…to buy a basket or two of handmade beignets when you leave.

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Named after American Revolutionary War militia leader Andrew Pickens, Fort Pickens was built to defend Pensacola Bay and the Pensacola Navy Yard and Depot. The only fort in Florida to remain in Union control during the Civil War, this historic site features various cannons, gunrooms, officers’ and prisoners’ quarters, and more. Just a short drive away, Fort Pickens Campground is one of two campgrounds within Gulf Island National Seashore. The campground is a convenient base to explore Santa Rosa Island.

White sandy beaches stretch for miles along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This beach is at the western end of Santa Rosa Island.


Drive another hour west from Pensacola, cross into Alabama, and you’ll still be in what most folks still consider the Emerald Coast. More sparkling blue-green water, more white sandy beaches. Need I say more?  Plan to stay at Gulf State Park, like we did. 

Stop for lunch at The Cobalt for coastal cuisine on the waterfront.

We split blackened grouper with crabmeat…
…and the tuna and avocado stack.

Gulf State Park’s campground accommodates nearly 500 campers. Amenities include a large swimming pool and kayak rentals.
An extensive paved hike/bike trail system takes you throughout the park and over to the shore. Looking out over Lake Shelby, you can see the high rises along the beach.
Take the bike trail to access the fishing pier, beach, and nearby shops and restaurants.

The 750-foot fishing pier gives a stunning view of the area.
You might even spot the local sharks.

When You Go

Remember that when you visit Florida’s Panhandle, you are much further north than other popular Florida destinations. We typically plan to visit areas south along the Gulf Coast in February/March, heading north to the Panhandle late March/early April. Also be mindful of tropical storms. We missed an historic hailstorm that damaged vehicles at Gulf State Park by one day.

Bill & Denise Semion

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