Its sugar white sand is legendary, but that’s not all that’s special about the Florida Panhandle.
Known as the Panhandle or the Emerald Coast, Northwest Florida is justly famed for its beaches. Without barrier islands, the sugary sands are washed clean by the translucent green water of the Gulf of Mexico. For many years the coast was relegated to a status of Redneck Riviera and swamped by generational tidal waves of college kids, but now the Panhandle is growing up. This mixed blessing has produced many upscale developments along the beach, miles of strip malls, and created rivalry between former spring-break towns now scrambling for the year-round family tourist and residential dollar.
However, much of the Panhandle’s interior has been largely untouched by “upscalization,” and is still well-connected with its long colonial and American history. Traditionally, this sparsely populated region has been home to forest products, fishing and farming. After living in the frantic D.C. area for six years, this corner of Florida has been my home for seventeen years. It’s a soothing place of soft sunrises tinting placid lakes and soft piney air. The interior has been almost bypassed by the fads and fancies of early twenty-first-century America. Culturally, it has so much more in common with Alabama than with the peninsula of Florida, that some residents call the area “L.A.” for “Lower Alabama”. Unlike the theme parks of south Florida, there are no epic multi-media rides, no overwhelming packaged experiences. Away from the beach, no crowds and no lines, either. It’s a welcome return to slower-paced, less costly, family vacationing.
“This is so different than what the rest of the state has to offer,” explains Florida Park Service Specialist Scott Sweeney, “You feel like you’ve stepped back in time.”
And as if to illustrate his point Sweeney notes that next year Florida will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon discovering one of the springs that dot the interior of the panhandle—the result of the honeycomb of limestone bedrock under this part of Florida. About twelve miles beyond DeFuniak Springs and just a couple miles off Interstate 10 is Ponce de Leon State Park.
“It’s always been a favorite local watering hole,” says Park Manager Jacob Strickland. “The water is crystal clear, it’s a constant sixty-eight degrees. We pump fourteen million gallons a day out of that spring.”
Nearby, Vortex Springs also boasts the same crystalline water at the same brisk year-round temperature—refreshing in simmering summers. Vortex Springs is most famous for its cavern and cave diving, and offers dive instruction as well. Swimming, camping, hiking are all available as well.
A bit further down the road, Falling Water State Park offers a seasonal waterfall, the state’s highest.
“It falls into a cyclindrical hundred-foot-deep sinkhole. They estimate that the limestone rock at the bottom of the sinkhole is thirty million years old,” say Sweeney.
“It varies from a drizzle—to so strong that you can’t hear yourself talking at the waterfall overlook,” he adds noting that the amount of water in the falls varies based on rainfall. But the sinkhole is an impressive sight, even without the waterfall. “We have another twelve sink holes, most of them a hundred feet deep. There’s an elevated boardwalk that goes around them.”
Sweeney explains that when he first moved to the Panhandle from the much flatter lower part of the state, staring from the boardwalk into the abyss below was a new experience. “If you’re not used to that it can make you quite queasy.”
A bit further along I-10 is the only state-run cave system, found at Florida Caverns State Park, near Marianna, about six miles north of the interstate highway. The caverns are beautiful, but not as spacious as those found in the Ohio valley or the southwest; some people (like me) may find them claustrophobic so be advised.
Swinging back, if you take US 331 south from I-10 at Defuniak Springs you’ll come upon Eden Gardens State Park near Highway 98.
Perched on manicured grounds within the park, the Wesley mansion evokes the famous grand plantations of the South. In fact, the beautiful mansion is actually well-post-bellum and was built with timber, not cotton, money, to recall a bygone age. The mansion is open Thursday through Monday. I like to stroll past the reflecting pool, through many themed gardens and on to the docks on Choctawhatchee Bay, from whence the timber was loaded for market.
And finally, edging back toward the beach, Pensacola was the first, albeit temporary, settlement of Europeans in the present-day United States and shares a Spanish and French lineage with New Orleans. It is the most urbane of Panhandle cities, thanks to a core of history-loving locals and a stream of out-of-town military personnel who have made it their permanent home. I especially like the city’s historic district, Seville Square, bounded by Government, Zaragoza, Alcaniz and Adams streets. In 1964 the Pensacola Heritage Foundation was formed to restore a house on Seville Square, and then went on to preserve the larger neighborhood. The Square has been a historic district for only a few decades, so its provenance is not quite as old as the French Quarter. However, it still offers an echo of the colonial past. Within walking distance are several good restaurants, shops, and an eclectic mix of architecture. The square is home to a number of community events, including the Evenings in Olde Seville Square concert series and each November, the Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival. Not far from Seville Square is the marina area with its own cluster of eateries and stores.
The Panhandle’s interior has much to offer the South Louisiana weekender—a low-gear way of life, quiet tourism, a chance to reconnect with nature, and that world-famous seafood. Get out the calendar and pencil in a Panhandle weekend. Or two.
Details. Details. Details.
More on all of the state parks mentioned at floridastateparks.org.
This year the three-day juried Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival draws more than two hundred of the nation’s best painters, potters, sculptors, jewelers, graphic artists, craftsmen and other artists to Seville Square on November 2, 3, and 4. ggaf.org.