Day Tripping: Vacations in the Florida Panhandle

Depending on where you live in the U.S. there are excellent vacation getaway choices within a day or two drive of home. In southeastern states, the beach communities of the Florida panhandle should be on your vacation list. Let’s take a tour!

The Emerald Coast, as it is known, stretches along the Florida panhandle from Pensacola to Panama City. The area is known for its white sand and clear, blue green water. The area began stirring as a tourism destination as early as the 1950’s and the boom began with condo development in the 1970’s. Several military installations also dot the area.

Interstate 10 runs east-west just north of the beach communities described here, and state Highway 98 covers most of the distance as well.

Beginning from west to east, here are the communities and their features.


Tourism and military are two of the main drivers of the economy of Pensacola. Naval Air Station Pensacola was the first such naval aviator base in the U.S., founded in 1914. A number of festivals attract thousands of visitors each year, such as the Pensacola Seafood Festival, The Pensacola Crawfish Festival and the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival.

Fort Walton Beach

This town has two Air Force bases nearby, Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base, providing a significant part of the economy. Tourism peaks in the summer months.


Originally renown as a fishing destination called “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”, Destin is the undisputed tourism king of the Florida panhandle, with 4.5 million visitors annually. The 1970’s saw the beginning of a relentless condominium and hotel build up for tourists drawn to the sugary white sand beaches and crystal clear aqua-green waters.

Great restaurants abound, from The Back Porch, Pompano Joe’s, The Crab Trap and LuLu’s. The largest collection of vacation rentals is the veritable city known as Sandestin Resort, a group of 1,600 condos, villas, town homes and hotels over 30 neighborhoods. Technically part of Miramar Beach, Sandestin features the Baytown Wharf, a festive collection of shops, restaurants, live music and children’s play areas.


Begun on eighty acres of family owned land in 1979, Seaside is a privately owned master planned development. The focal point of the town is the semi-circle town center, with shops and restaurants surrounding a grassy bowl amphitheater where outdoor concerts and plays are frequently held. The town is known for being the beginning jewel of the string of beach communities along road 30A in Walton County. Indeed, you will see cars with “30A” stickers driving throughout the southern U.S., a tip off for where that person spends their vacation.

Notable places to eat are The Great Southern restaurant, Bud and Alley’s, Modica Market and Marketplace Cafe. Right along 30A and beside the town center are a series of trailer food hot spots such as Barefoot Barbeque, Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs and Frostbites snow cones.

Sundog Books offers great beach reads and Duckie’s Shop of Fun is a kid magnet of gag gifts and toys. Upscale clothing boutiques finish out the shopping experience.

Seaside Chapel is a non-denominational church of stately beauty standing just behind the town center, its white bell tower soaring above the tree tops. During the tourism months of summer, the church is packed each Sunday with visitors to the community.

Seaside is also noteworthy as the filming location for much of the 1998 Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show.

Seagrove, Grayton Beach and Watercolor

Surrounding and adjacent to Seaside are the communities of Grayton Beach, Seagrove and Watercolor, continuations of the high density vacation rental housing and restaurants on which the area depends for its economy.

Rosemary Beach

Also a master planned development, Rosemary Beach is fifteen minutes east along 30A  from Seaside. It features densely built condo rentals, shops and restaurants. Notable places to eat include La Crema Tapas & Chocolate, La Cocina, Havana Beach Bar & Grill and Edwards Fine Food and Wine. Between Rosemary and Seagrove is the very upscale development of Alys Beach.

Panama City

Less of a tourism spot is Panama City. Two military bases, a ship building company and a major air conditioning manufacturer supply the bulk of the local economy.

Why vacation along the Emerald Coast?

If you love the beach, you’ll love the white sands and crystal clear waters of the Florida panhandle beach towns. From Memorial Day through mid-August they do get crowded and rentals are at their most expensive, but the shops, excellent seafood and relaxation are superb.