When you think of Florida, most people will immediately conjure up images of Miami or Orlando. However, for a state with the longest coastline in the contiguous United States, it has a multitude of scenic regions for tourists to discover. Over the next few weeks, I’ll introduce you to some hidden gems along the Emerald Coast, which might be well-known to local Americans but as yet undiscovered by the British and European contingent.
Our first destination is Panama City Beach. An area that promises sun, sand and seafood is never going to disappoint travel-goers. Whilst they do have a major shopping and entertainment hub in the form of Pier Park, the focus here is on the unspoiled natural surroundings. On either side of the long stretch of beach are protected state parks with St Andrews State on one side and Camp Helen on the other. The latter is particularly popular with hikers, swimmers and fishermen and also borders Lake Powell, which is the largest coastal dune lake in Florida. It’s a great spot for kayaking or paddleboarding.
Marine life is a key fabric of society in Panama City Beach and one of the must-do activities is to go dolphin watching with operators such as Paradise Adventures. There are several species in the local area, but the most common type you will come across is the highly intelligent bottlenose dolphins. You will see their playful nature out in the wild as opposed to seeing them in an aquapark. Whilst on the tour, there is also time for swimming to uninhabited islands and appreciating the pure white, fine dunes that populate all their beaches.
If you are a fan of beach life, then you should check out a particular Floridian speciality: beach bonfire for hire. Companies like Endless Beach Rentals, help you arrange all the pesky details like bringing in deckchairs, hammocks, bonfire equipment and the icebox for your bottles of wines. You can also try that ever-popular American classic, s’mores which consist of toasted marshmallows and a layer of melting chocolate sandwiched between pieces of graham cracker. Is it a culinary classic? Possibly not, but as a great campfire treat and bonding experience with your family and friends, it is impressively unbeatable.
What the Emerald Coast does offer is world-class seafood. Oysters might be a delicacy in the United Kingdom, but over in this part of Florida, it’s a staple of life. Oyster bars are frequently spotted as you drive along the motorways and one of the most iconic seafood restaurants in town is Capt. Anderson’s. It has been serving seafood and steaks for over 50 years and has won countless accolades and with a seating capacity of 725 people, there’s little doubt about the freshness of its ingredients. The specialities I would recommend include their crab fingers (the crab claws are de-shelled) and their truly jumbo-sized sea scallops. It’s hard not to be jealous of the locals who have been blessed with such an embarrassment of seafood riches.
Breakfast is also a much-loved institution with the Floridians. They have hip coffee bars like The Pour that offer trendy iced lattes matched with almond butter and banana toast. And more substantial offerings like Andy’s Flour Power which offers the classic biscuits and gravy to vegetarian-friendly offerings like their colourful vegetable frittata. I wouldn’t normally recommend ordering a cocktail for breakfast but their world-class breakfast martinis are not to be missed. Their secret ingredient is their orange marmalade, which makes it taste that much healthier with inviting citrus notes.
A great place to enjoy the scintillating sunset is Runaway Island. It’s a relaxed, casual beach bar and grill with live country music daily. It has a boardwalk that extends directly to the sandy coastline. You can arrange your beach bonfire right there for a post-dinner rendezvous. The food is on the no-fuss spectrum of restaurant menus, but you can sample local specialities including the blackened Mahi, creole redfish and something you rarely see on British menus, Alaskan snow crab. The latter is a particularly meaty but fiddly affair, so make sure you are dining with patient guests if you are ordering the dish.
In some respects, Panama City Beach is the polar opposite of Miami. It’s not about dressing to impress, putting on makeup and fussy fine dining. It is all about being a family-friendly, all-inclusive experience. Outstanding natural ingredients are given a chance to shine in their own right without overcomplicated preparation work.
Next up, we’ll be visiting art-focused South Walton, which is affectionately known as 30A by the locals.