“Y’all can’t get sick of this,” says my new Floridian friend. From the edge of the pontoon in the Florida Panhandle, a pod of dolphins (about seven) are flopping around on their bellies in front of us. I can’t stop jumping up and down and clapping my hands. “Oh look, there’s another pod out there,” yells someone from our group. Dolphins travel in ‘pods’ and that day in Panama City Beach, we saw three.
Get off the beaten path and into nature on the Florida Panhandle
We’re on the Florida Panhandle, a strip of land, mostly beaches, running 320 kilometres long and 161 kilometres at its widest. We all know Florida is a favourite of Canadians (3.5 million Canadians visited in 2018), but it’s not just for escaping winters. This often neglected northwest region (Panama City, Destin-Fort Walton and Pensacola) is more than beautiful. Its history, architecture, nature and seafood are reminiscent of a slower, more contemplative time. A classic, enduring vision of the south.
Shortly after the dolphins, our boat drops anchor in front of Shell Island–a barrier island with rolling sand dunes and tall, shimmery grass. Walking along the quiet beach, searching for sand stars and broken seashells, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a deserted island. It was once a hideaway for pirates, after all.
Snorkeling after lunch, I see bright white and blue fishes, and something I didn’t think was possible—a seahorse no bigger than my hand. I mouth the word, ‘ohhhhh’ underwater and, choking on the water I just swallowed, must come up for air. Excitement got the best of me.
Magical dinners at Firefly
Our dinner that night made for a second magical experience. Walking through the doors of the restaurant felt like entering an enchanted forest. Inside the main dining room of Firefly, a giant tree is decorated in tiny white lights, its branches running along the ceiling.
Seafood dominates the menu, of course, but with a twist–spicy kimchi tuna is the highlight of the popular Van Halen sushi roll. Sipping my 1960s-style negroni and dipping my lobster tail into melted butter, it feels like an episode of Mad Men–elegance never goes out of style.
No wonder Obama loved it here when he visited.
Destin—home to the cutest museum in the world
Moving eastward along the panhandle, we explore the town of Destin and what might be the cutest museum in the world.
Discover newspaper clippings, photos of long-gone residents and 75 replica models of fish at the Destin History and Fishing Museum. Our guide, Kathy Marler Blue (a distant relative of the founding father Leonard Destin), boasts that Destin has the whitest sand in the world. “It’s actually ground quartz from the Appalachian Mountains—this is ancient sand.”
The beautiful peninsula, once an island that attached to the mainland after hurricanes helped push it over, is also dubbed “the luckiest fishing village in the world.” So said Governor Leroy Collins, decades after catching a giant fish in under 20 minutes. For the entire month of October, visitors can participate in the Destin Fishing Rodeo. And after you’ve caught the big one, many of the local restaurants will cook it up for you.
Enormous breakfasts and boat adventures
The go-big or go-home mentality is pervasive here–and it begins with breakfast. With a wall of puffy donuts dusted in sugar and spilling out gobs of creamy icing and cakes the size of your head, arrive early at the Donut Hole to get a seat. I barely make a dent in my gigantic serving of huevos rancheros: eggs filled with black beans, cheese and avocado.
It’s a wonder I don’t tip our catamaran after that breakfast—a taut mesh net stretches across the boat between the two pontoons. The lightweight boat skims across the Gulf of Mexico–and sure enough, we see another pod of dolphins. Captain Pam from Smile ‘N Wave Sailing, tanned and wearing stylish aviator sunglasses, spots a black shark. We all gasp. “There’s more likelihood of having problems with a stingray than a shark,” she adds.
Another day and another breakfast–albeit healthier: yogurt with homemade granola and a peanut butter smoothie at The Local Market. I’m envious of my friend who orders the honey butter chicken biscuit—fried chicken for breakfast! With front doors covered in The Big Lebowski and Grateful Dead stickers, the bohemian vibe is evident right down to the communal picnic tables. Homemade preserves, hot sauces and pickles line the walls.
Pensacola—steeped in Spanish, French and British history
On the final leg of the trip we move west, closer to the Alabama border, towards Pensacola. In 1559 Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna discovered the Pensacola Bay area. Rumour is that its the first European settlement in the new world.
Walking downtown is the best way to feel the Spanish, French and British influences. The Rex Theatre’s façade is classic art deco while the ornate columns of the Saenger Theatre are beautifully restored Spanish Baroque. The wide-open front porches and classic widow’s peaks on the roofs throughout the small central core are like stepping back in time. But nowhere is the history of this place felt more than at the Naval Museum.
The National Naval Aviation Museum is the largest naval museum in the world. Walking inside the 300,000-square-foot open-air building, one is overwhelmed with 150 impeccably restored airplanes. History is palpable. Standing in front of the Curtiss NC-4 gave me goosebumps. In 1919, it was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic from New York to Lisbon, Portugal.
To really get a sense of life during the war, upstairs you can walk through a recreated World War II American town. Stroll past storefront windows selling magazines—Stalin’s face appeared on the March 29, 1943 cover of Life. The price tag: 10 cents. Peering inside a family’s living room, black and white pictures of soldiers line the fireplace mantle, while an actual World War II radio broadcast plays from the wooden radio.
And nearby, to get a bird’s eye view of the Pensacola Pass shoreline, climb the 127 thigh-burning steps to the top of the Pensacola lighthouse. Built in 1859, it has endured through hurricanes, an earthquake, shots from a canon and even lightning!
Quench your thirst at one of Pensacola’s beloved watering holes
As much as the region is steeped in the past, it’s also become trendy. Pensacola now has the 9th most craft breweries per capita in the country.
Competition is fierce and it’s unbelievable how sophisticated beer has become. At the Perfect Plain Brewing Company, a beer isn’t just a beer. Of my four samples, they brew a Coco Gnar stout with toasted coconut. It tastes like a meal at 6.7% alcohol. While the Ramos’ Berliner sour weisse (wheat) beer has hints of juniper and coriander. Is it beer or salad? You decide.
There’s something to be said for leaving the best for last. In a private dining room, inside an unassuming white brick building, Cypress restaurant is elegant and innovative. We start with shrimp toast that looks nothing like shrimp. Black and white sesame seeds coat the top of shrimp mousse–it’s a bit of molecular gastronomy tricking my taste buds. It’s also a good metaphor for the Florida Panhandle. Expect the unexpected.
Want to explore more of Florida? Check out 7 of the best restaurants to eat your way through Key West.
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