When most people are contemplating a trip to Florida, it’s usually the theme parks of Orlando, the Art-Deco glitz of Miami or the poolside living of Tampa that spring to mind. In fact, rarely is a thought spared for the north-west, despite it having all the beauty of the Sunshine State, with the added benefit of that Southern charm, not to mention comparatively quieter sands. So when planning your USA holiday, opt for a different Floridian experience; here’s why you should visit Florida’s north-west:
‘Is the food good?’ is typically my main driver question when picking a holiday destination (as you can see here). And of course the answer for Florida’s north-west is a resounding ‘yes’. For a larger than life breakfast, there’s no other choice but Andy’s Flour Power Café & Bakery in Panama City Beach, famed for its doorstep-like French toast but excelling in a number of dishes – from rolled omelettes to a delicious breakfast croissant. And for those who like to go their own way, you can even custom build your brekkie: add all the toast, bacon, eggs and avocado you want and pile it high.
The region isn’t short on lunch and dinner options either – for a mix of Southern and Mexican fare, I recommend Pelican’s Bar & Grill at Panama City Beach’s Sheraton Bay Point Resort, while the lionfish at the Hilton Pensacola Beach is a unique and delectable dish. Points go to Schooners, in Panama City Beach, for their daily cannon blasting at sunset (the perfect accompaniment to your meal), and the delicious (and famous) shrimp with grits a ya-ya at Pensacola’s Fish House.
It’s not the south
Don’t get us wrong, we love Orlando, Miami and the rest, but it’s refreshing to see a different side to Florida – something which the Gulf Coast has in spades. In fact, it’s a honeypot for lovers of laid-back beach living, without the crowds and freneticism of the south. Neverending white sands give way to clear, emerald waters, bursting with warmth from the Gulf, and – most importantly – it’s not difficult to find a secluded spot.
Speaking of beaches, Shell Island – accessible from Panama City Beach via the Shell Island Shuttle – is as close to beach paradise as it gets in the USA. As soon as our captain told us that this is a place ‘where the locals go’, I knew we were about to see something special. And special it was; from the dolphin swimming alongside our vessel to the secluded, squeaky white-sand beach we discovered upon arrival. We felt intrepid, like beach pioneers who’d stumbled upon a spot plucked straight from the movies. Definitely a must visit – in spite of the fact buckets of sun cream are required due to a severe lack of shade. BYO parasol if you can. Robinson Crusoe, eat your heart out.
The water sports
We tried paddleboarding and snorkelling on Shell Island, but that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to water sports in the Florida Panhandle. Kayaking, surfing and a brand-new invention, pedal boarding, will keep you more than occupied in the water. The latter (not to be confused with paddleboarding) is essentially a stand-up bike on a board, so you can propel yourself through the water at high speed. It was great fun, easy to pick up and hand’s down my favourite Floridian aqua activity.
‘Southern hospitality’ is a real thing in the Deep South – I experienced it first-hand while travelling through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama – but I didn’t expect it to extend into the Florida Panhandle too. Laid-back, fun and friendly, the people here are truly charming, putting America’s comparatively frosty northerly states to shame. Hotel staff treated us like family, tour guides drew us in with their compelling tales (special mention goes to Patty at Rosie O’Grady’s in downtown Pensacola, who regaled us with some impressive ghost stories), and restaurant staff couldn’t do enough to provide every person in our group with the perfect dish. Dorothy may think there’s no place like home, but I beg to differ – try the north-west of the Sunshine State.