Florida’s Panhandle continually rates as one the most popular stretches of beach in the country—and for good reason. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the white sand beaches would belong to a Caribbean isle or even Tahiti. But no, these towns are all in the U.S., reachable via a day’s drive for half the country.
So, pack up the car with sun block and beach chairs, and head to the Sunshine State’s westernmost coast. Here are our top 10 picks of what to do when you get there.
Ride a Bike on the Beach
The Yolo Board company, with roots in Santa Rosa, Florida, not only sells and rents stand-up paddleboards, they also rent fat-tire beach cruisers—perfect for the hard-packed sand of Destin and the surrounding areas.
Sure, we like the beach cruisers, but we love the electric bikes in their rental fleet. You can opt for pedal-assist, which adds extra oomph as long as your legs are pumping. Then there are also models with a throttle, allowing you to sit back and cruise—no work required—which is perfect for adventures that take you farther than planned.
As for routes, our favorites are along the beach from Destin to Fort Walton Beach, which is 15 miles there and back, or riding along 30A from the town of Miramar Beach to Seaside, where you can continue on to Rosemary Beach if you like.
Take a Helicopter Tour
Nothing beats seeing a pod of dolphins or a fever of stingrays, from the air. With Panhandle Helicopter, operating out of Panama City Beach, experienced pilots not only fly you and yours safely, they also serve as guides who know the best spots for checking out local wildlife, as well as lineups of surfers and other from-the-air Gulf highlights.
With a heli tour, you get a lay of the land as well as a unique view of this area’s beauty—and the chance to shoot killer aerial photos of the Gulf’s clear water and golden beaches.
We love a golf course unfurling along a coast—and Destin’s Kelly Plantation Golf Club offers inspiring water views of Choctawhatchee Bay along the 18 holes. For its waterfront and bayou-facing setting, along with course design amid magnolia and palmetto trees, this public facility consistently rates as one the best on Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Mingle with Stingrays and Turtles
It’s likely that if you play in the Gulf of Mexico, you will see a turtle or two, along with a stingray—but if you want guaranteed sightings as well as the chance to learn more about local marine species, there’s the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, located in Fort Walton Beach.
This facility is home to sea turtles, stingrays, sea lions, penguins, reptiles and alligators, and offers daily sea lion and dolphin shows. For an added fee, guests can reserve spots on up-close interactions where they are permitted to touch certain animals. Special tours center on dolphins, harbor seals, penguins, alligators and several species of turtle.
Captain a Pontoon Boat
The typically calm waters of the Gulf are perfect for new captains, and Destin Boat Rentals, found at the Destin Harbor, sets you up with a 24-foot pontoon boat for a half or full day. We love that these relaxing boats come with a kayak or paddleboard, so you can motor to a choice spot, then explore further under your own power.
Each pontoon boat can accommodate up to 12, so you and yours can get comfortable while finding sandbars and quiet beaches, or just cruising. Rates start at $250 in the off-season.
Taste Local Brews
The Panhandle has two breweries crafting their own beverages: Destin Brewery and Props Brewery and Grill in Fort Walton. We like the Destin Brewery for its dog-friendly tasting room, and its variety of brews, including the East Pass India Pale Ale and the signature blonde beer. At the time of writing, the brewery is to-go only.
We like Props Brewery for their unique and fruity offerings, like the blueberry pilsner and the Raspberry Lemon Hard Water Spiked Seltzer. At the time of writing, the Fort Walton location is open and offers outdoor seating, as well as trivia on Tuesday nights.
Go Deep-sea Fishing
Given that Destin’s nickname is “the luckiest fishing village in the world,” it only feels fitting to get out on the water and start casting. Part of the reason that Destin fares so well for fishermen is that its two sandbars run parallel to shore, providing ample shallow grounds for fish life. Plus, the fishing and scuba diving communities are committed to artificial reefs—sinking reef balls, retired tugboats, concrete culverts and other repurposed structure to provide habitat to game fish.
One popular charter operator runs the Huntress, a 40-foot vessel for up to 6 guests, departing from AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar in Destin. Guests have the opportunity, depending on season, to hook billfish, blackfin tunas, wahoos, greater amberjack and a host of other big boys.
Take a Surf Lesson
True, the Panhandle isn’t famous for surfing, but that doesn’t mean that the Gulf doesn’t generate waves big enough for a lesson or two. We’re big fans of All-A-Board Surf, offering a weekly camp, as well as private lessons for one, two or a group. Plus, these guys don’t just share the secrets of how to pop up on a board and ride; they also teach how to read the ocean and marine weather conditions—key for any aspiring waterman.
Visit Grayton Beach State Park
Dr. Beach, the nationally renowned beach expert, ranked Grayton Beach State Park—in between Destin and Panama City—as the number one sandy pick for his top rankings in 2020. It continually rates as a top favorite for its sugary white sand that slopes gently to kelly and emerald green waters.
The Gulf is typically warmer than the Atlantic, and calmer, making for better conditions for little ones or for those who simply like to relax. Plus, the clarity of the Gulf is on par with the Caribbean Sea—which feels pretty magical to us.
Do a DIY Lighthouse Tour
The Pensacola Lighthouse is perhaps the best of the bunch, standing 150 feet and 177 steps tall, alongside a maritime museum. In the town of Port St. Joe, you’ll find the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, unique for its supported structure that looks more like an oilrig platform. Further east, it’s a 92-stair climb to the top of the St. George Island Lighthouse, built in 1852. The onsite museum tells the story of this white tower, including when it needed to be switched off during the Civil War to keep from aiding Yankee ships.
The St. Marks Lighthouse, the second oldest in the state, stands at the mouth of the St. Marks River. From the two furthest lighthouses—Pensacola to St. Marks—it’s a 3-hour-and-53-minute drive.