Florida Panhandle

Overview

Introduction

The coast of the far-western part of the state—known as the Florida Panhandle because of its geographical shape—is a popular summer vacation spot for visitors from the neighboring states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. They go there for good reason: It's one of the most beautiful stretches of white-sand beach and clear blue-green water in the U.S.

Sometimes called the Emerald Coast, the Florida Panhandle extends more than 100 mi/160 km from Apalachicola to Pensacola.

Beginning on the eastern end, the town of Apalachicola is famous for its oysters and for being the place where Dr. John Gorrie pioneered the technology of air-conditioning in the mid-1800s. A replica of his machine is in the John Gorrie State Museum on Gorrie Square. Apalachicola Maritime Museum celebrates more than 100 years of the American South, particularly Apalachicola's maritime history.

Just off the coast, St. George Island State Park is particularly attractive, with forests and coves for camping and hiking.

To the northwest is Panama City, one of the larger resort towns along the Panhandle coast, and just to the west of Panama City is Seaside.

Right next door to Seaside is Grayton Beach, the oldest town between Pensacola and Apalachicola (settled in the early 1900s). Beach fanatics should be aware that Grayton has been rated one of the best beaches in the U.S. in the annual rating compiled by the University of Maryland, one of the highest honors for a sandy shore. West of town is Grayton Beach State Park, a 355-acre/145-hectare oceanfront preserve with camping facilities.

Not far from Grayton Beach, in the northeast corner of Choctawhatchee Bay, the state has established Eden State Gardens Park at the homestead of a 19th-century lumberman, William Henry Wesley. After his death, Wesley's home fell into disrepair until it was refurbished by the late Lois Maxon in the 1960s. After restoring the antebellum mansion and its beautiful garden, Maxon gave it all to the Florida park system as a gift.

Highway 98 becomes scenic as you continue west from Grayton Beach. You'll get good views of the white-sand beaches as you near Destin and Fort Walton Beach. You'll probably want to spend most of your time in or near the water, but do visit the Indian Temple Mound Museum National Historic Landmark in Fort Walton Beach, which has exhibits on the Native Americans who lived in the area and a ceremonial mound that dates from the 1400s. Destin is especially popular as a fishing destination.

To the west is Gulf Islands National Seashore, which stretches 150 mi/240 km from Fort Walton Beach through Alabama to Gulfport, Mississippi. Accessible by bridge or boat, these islands have beautiful beaches and also some historic forts.

Near the Florida-Alabama border is Pensacola, a city that is older than many in Florida, with a rich and diverse history dating from before Civil War days.

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