Anyone spoiled by the beaches of the Caribbean and even far-off paradises such as the Maldives will fall in love with the white sand of the Florida Panhandle. Powdery and soft as can be, these wide beaches are made from quartz ground down by the Appalachian River until it’s the fine dust that begs for barefooting.
That, coupled with the warm and impossibly clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, explains why this area continually rates as the best shoreline in mainland U.S.A.
This beach is the best of two worlds: 875 acres of white-sand dunes, a stretch of which is protected as the Okaloosa Area of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The park area charges an entrance fee of $25 per vehicle, granting access to one of the most pristine beaches set against a backdrop of blue sky—not high-rises.
We also like that just across the street from the national seashore is a line-up of local eats. Try Rockin’ Tacos Grill and Tequila Bar for the Caribbean lobster tacos with fresh pineapple, jerk aioli and toasted coconut. There’s also Floyd’s Shrimp House, dishing up all-you-can-eat specials. With eats like these, it’s easy to make a full day of it, staying to shop and catch an evening outdoor movie.
You know it’s a quieter beach when most people outside of the Panhandle have never heard of it, as is the case with Navarre—such a sleeper that some still consider it a secret spot; find it roughly halfway between Pensacola Beach and Destin (a 30- and 40-minute drive, respectively).
Because it doesn’t have as much light pollution as its more developed neighbors, Navarre is a great place to see turtles—loggerhead, green, leatherback and Kemp’s Ridley—both in the water and, May through October, nesting on land. We also like that artificial reefs have been sunk 150 feet from shore, giving visitors the chance to see not just turtles but also octopi, oysters and reef fish.
A few high-rises stand along the shoreline, but for the most part, this eight-mile stretch of lifeguard-protected beach of Santa Rosa Island still has a mellow, undeveloped vibe. For guests wanting to stay the week, this area fetches more affordable rates than neighboring Destin and Santa Rosa.
Note that unlike several neighboring towns, Pensacola Beach has a designated stretch of shore just for dogs. We also like that this beach sports its own pier, offering a grant vantage spot for dolphin viewing or casting a line.
Cape San Blas
A top pick of Dr. Beach—hailed as his overall choice in 2002—this stretch near the quiet town of Port St. Joe is one of our favorites for that off-the-grid, no-crowds feel. The nearest major hub is Panama City Beach, some 46 miles west, with Port St. Joe and its affordable, and often pet-friendly rentals just 20 minutes from the shoreline.
This area also doesn’t receive as much hype because technically, all beaches east of Panama City can’t officially claim that famous white, made-from-quartz, sugar-soft sand. But that lack of hype—and crowds seeking that hype—is just fine by us.
This gem, toeing the Florida-Alabama line, just might be the beach that can appease everyone. We like that this 1.5-mile stretch has several public access points, and just on the other side of this sliver-small island is a 705-acre lagoon and Big Lagoon State Park, with boardwalks for biking and perfectly flat water for new paddleboarders.
Those who want to turn it up need look no further than the Flora-Bama, perhaps the region’s most famous beach bar for its oysters, live music and always lively crowds.
Henderson Beach State Park
Go for the dunes, 30 feet tall and spreading across 6,000 feet of shoreline. Undoubtedly impressive scenery, all for a $6 per vehicle entrance fee. This state park offers a handful of amenities, including a fishing pier, bike trails, beach restrooms and showers, and 60 campsites.
Or, if you can’t tear yourself away from the view but prefer to overnight somewhere more upscale, try the Henderson Park Inn, right on the white sand and next to protected dunes.
Our top pick for beachgoers looking to escape signs of humanity is Shell Island, a 7-mile uninhabited stretch of sand Near Panama City Beach. If no one calls you captain, you can still access this scenic spot thanks to the Shell Island Shuttle. Book early, and don’t forget to pack in everything you need, from water to snacks, as there are no concessioners on island.
You may also want to pack in a snorkel and mask as these waters offer good odds of sea turtle sightings. In addition to the bright white sand and aquamarine water, there’s more beauty to be found inland, among the coastal scrub lands and pine hammocks.
Blue Mountain Beach
To hear the word mountain in this flat region feels out of place, sure, but it’s all relative. Here in low country, that mountain is South Walton’s highest spot, at a whopping 65 feet tall. The ‘blue’ in the name stems from the blue lupine flowers—indigo feather-like blooms anchoring the white-sand dunes.
This beach is a returners’ favorite for how much nature is preserved in the community in between the million-dollar beach homes. After you’ve sunned and splashed, stay for a scoop of banana pudding or oatmeal chocolate chip ice cream at Blue Mountain Beach Creamery.
Crystal Beach, Destin
Often hailed as the most beautiful beach in Okaloosa County, this choice location offers the stuff that the Panhandle is famous for: white sand and clear, shallow waters that rarely see big wind and waves. A relatively quiet beach, it’s backed by pastel-colored rental homes, as well as The Crab Trap restaurant—an area favorite for its hot crab dip and peel-and-eat shrimp seasoned with Old Florida Bay Seasoning.
For anyone not staying on this stretch, one public access point is just next to the Crab Trap, offering restrooms, showers and 166 free parking spaces.
Dr. Beach, a purveyor of the best sandy spots worldwide, ranked this location his top choice for 2020. This hip beach town has a low-key vibe and low density of beach homes that fetch top real estate dollars. If you’re not flush enough to rent in this posh town, try hitting Grayton Beach State Park, where it costs just $5 a car for a full day of playing in the sun.
Because this is one of few public access spots, we recommend showing up as close as possible to 8 a.m., the opening time of the park.