Want to beat the long lines, pricey park tickets, and expensive lodgings on your next Florida vacation? Then check out Florida’s Emerald Coast. This magical strip of shoreline is loosely defined as the stretch along the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola Beach on the western end and Panama City Beach at the eastern end. The Emerald Coast has become one of the state’s more popular vacation destinations. Named as such because of its sparkling green Gulf water, the Emerald Coast also boasts sugar-white sand beaches, endless outdoor activities, and abundant year-round Florida sunshine.
Noteworthy stops along the Emerald Coast include Panama City Beach, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Seaside, Seacrest, Rosemary Beach, Grayton Beach State Park, Santa Rosa Beach, and Blue Mountain Beach. Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A connects the smattering of towns along the route. It offers gorgeous views of the Gulf of Mexico the entire trip. Each stop along the way also features its own unique shopping, dining, and entertainment experiences. Starting in Panama City Beach on the eastern end, and ending at Fort Walton Beach on the western side, here’s a rundown on some of the Emerald Coast’s most popular towns and attractions.
Panama City Beach
With over twenty-seven miles of sugar-white sand, Panama City Beach attracts beach lovers of all types. The spring break crowd takes over here and there throughout the year, but families and couples love the little city as well. Panama City Beach offers a bit of everything with great dining, shopping and nightlife. You can also charter a fishing trip, take a sunset cruise, or rent a Jet Ski. Kid-friendly fun includes the Cobra Adventure Park, Shipwreck Island Waterpark, and Coconut Creek Family Fun Park. On the two-hour Sea Dragon Pirate Cruise, the little ones get a chance to sword fight, search for hidden treasure, and experience life as a pirate. Gulf World Marine Park features aquatic shows, an interactive stingray tank, and a chance to swim with the Dolphins. For some grown-up fun, stop in for a tasting at Panama City Beach Winery or enjoy a pint at one of the city’s many watering holes.
Further along the coast, one unique place stands out for its charm: the town of Seaside, which attracts families and couples looking for magical time together. Everything in Seaside is designed to be in walking distance of everything else. Its beach was recently named “Best Beach on Earth for Families” by Travel and Leisure magazine. And its central downtown (featured as the setting for the Truman Show film), combined with the pastel colored, quaint townhomes and cottages that make up the Seaside vacation rentals, provides a beach-colony feel to get lost in time in. With all these needs of life, including boutique shopping and wonderful eateries, in walking distance of each other, Seaside offers a laid-back vibe and a chance to park the car for the entire vacation.
The Beaches and Parks
Travelling west along Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A, you’ll encounter twelve distinct beach communities, four state parks, twenty-seven miles of greenway trails, and eleven (very rare) coastal dune lakes. All of the beaches along the route have earned Blue Wave certification (think Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval). There’s also a wide variety of accommodations, some of our country’s best seafood restaurants, and no shortage of attractions along the way.
Deer Lake State Park offers amazing photo-ops with Emerald green Gulf water, shimmering powder-white sand, and its deep blue lake all in the same frame. The historical Wesley family mansion located in Eden Gardens State Park provides a glimpse into the life of wealthy turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Floridians. Next, stop at the Eastern Lake Hike & Bike Trail in Point Washington State Forest. Three greenway trails loop through titi swamps, Cypress ponds, and sand hills. You may catch a glimpse of deer, alligators, and maybe even a gopher tortoise.
The century-old town of Grayton Beach sits amid a gorgeous coastal pine forest at the edge of one of the largest and most scenic dune lakes, Western Lake. Henderson State Park Beach has a nature trail that you can walk or bike, barbeque grills, and covered pavilions for picnicking. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park features three miles of pristine beachfront, coastal dune lakes, and a large campground. Recognized as one of the nation’s best state parks, the park boasts dunes over twenty-five-feet tall.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach
Many Gulf Coast visitors come to Destin. Widely known as the “world’s luckiest fishing village,” Destin earned its name thanks to record-sized catches by area boats across several species of fish. Along with being voted one of the Top 10 “Most Popular Beaches in the United States,” Destin also has a bustling harbor and boardwalk section known as HarborWalk Village. This features a wide variety of waterfront eateries, weekly concerts and fireworks, lots of nightlife, and fantastic sunset views. Destin’s harbor also boasts the largest fleet of charter fishing boats of any North American port. You can rent a watercraft, book a parasailing adventure, or catch a Dolphin cruise out of Destin’s harbor front as well. The nearby Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park offers a break from the heat and makes Destin a popular family destination. Destin fills with hordes of Spring Breakers at certain times of the year, so plan accordingly.
Although it’s located just a stone’s throw from Destin, Fort Walton Beach maintains its own distinct flavor. Along with a wide range of dining, shopping, and lodging options, downtown Fort Walton has several unique museums. The Indian Temple Mound Museum, for example, houses artifacts from Native Americans, European explorers, and even pirates (the Gulf Coast of Florida was a common refuge for pirates). The Air Force Armament Museum keeps twenty-nine aircraft on display, and other vendors make Downtown Fort Walton Beach a great place for antiquing.
So, skip the crowds, the long lines and the pricey park tickets on your next Florida vacation. Come to where the real fun happens, Florida’s Emerald Coast.