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SAY HELLO TO FLORIDA'S EMERALD COAST
 
(2020 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: JULIE REKAI RICKERD



Along Florida’s northwestern hub we discovered some of the Sunshine State’s coastline wonders that meander along the Panhandle’s Gulf of Mexico known as the Emerald Coast.

PANAMA CITY BEACH

We began our adventure in Panama City Beach, a barrier island surrounded by crystal clear water and white sandy beaches that dazzle the senses.

Following a delightful swim, our taste buds were rewarded at Hang Five, a beachfront restaurant that serves unique tropical cocktails, hearty seafood gumbo and delicious fresher-than-fresh fish tacos.

Fishing is abundant off the many piers that jut into the water from the beach. We visited one of the most popular, the M.B. Miller Pier to watch dolphins and turtles surface during the blazing sunset in a bedazzling aquatic nature show.

The afternoon found us taking a fascinating airboat ride with a local operator dashing atop shallow water through the marshes in search of herons, egrets, osprey and bald eagles. We also kept eyes peeled for a mother alligator and her babies.

Dinner around a bonfire on the beach was a real treat and a very special way to enjoy more great gumbo, crawfish étouffée, rice and peas with “make your own” s’mores for dessert.

After a good night’s rest, we awoke for a southern eye-opener known as the Bottomless Brunch at Andy’s Flour Power Café & Bakery. The belt-loosening brunch was complete with free-flowing pitchers of mimosas, bloody marys, biscuits with gravy, and eggs with grits. We then retreated into childhood by spending several magical hours being challenged at WonderWorks, a genuine “amusement park for the mind.” Over 100 interactive exhibits combine scientific principles with fun. The young children found fast solutions to most of the problems while we were still searching for the problems.

We ended our day with a superb dinner at Firefly, a foliage-fringed restaurant punctuated by a natural centrepiece: a large tree by the dining room. The local dining gem counts the Obama family among its past clientele.

Next morning, we took a pontoon boat to Shell Island,  home to one of the largest concentrations of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the U.S. Although we had not signed up to swim with them, the dolphins decided to swim with us as we swam along the island's  secluded white sandy beach. We later enjoyed a leisurely stroll and collected sea shells.

Upon our return to shore, we readied ourselves for an hour’s drive northwest to our next destination: Destin.

DESTIN

We checked in to our beachfront accommodation, the Sea Oats on Okaloosa Island, a barrier island with sugar-white beaches. Its sand has a 98 per cent finely-ground quartz crystal content that not only makes the sand appear white but also keeps it cool. While the fish along the Emerald Coast are plentiful and come in dozens of varieties and sizes, Destin is called “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” because of the very short time it takes to catch the largest fish. It is also a mecca for fishers and boaters who venerate its elaborately-equipped charter fishing fleet.

Best of all, Destin is home to the annual, month-long Destin Fishing Rodeo, founded in 1948 that attracts thousands of fishers worldwide who compete in anticipation of “catching the big one.” Fish are brought in to be weighed at the Rodeo’s HarborWalk Village headquarters daily to see if they qualify for prizes galore.

A visit to the Destin History and Fishing Museum provided a good spot for filling us in on questions related to the town’s past and present ties with the fishing industry, both commercial and for pleasure.

Although we didn’t fish, we did take a wonderful catamaran cruise around Destin’s harbour during which we sighted a frolicking pod of dolphins, two sharks, a flock of pelicans  and several blue herons.

At a delectable seafood and fish lunch at Harry T’s in HarborWalk Village, we learned that most of the restaurants along HarborWalk will happily cook one’s catch for eating on the spot or steam pack it to take home.

PENSACOLA

Our last stop was Pensacola, an hour’s drive west from Destin, where, after a walk along the beach, we headed to The Grand Marlin, a casual restaurant known locally for its fine selection of fresh Gulf fish and sumptuous seafood. Never have I enjoyed such delicious seafood and so many oysters on the half shell at one sitting.

We had a wonderful time exploring downtown Pensacola the next day after a gargantuan lunch at The Fish House famous for its remarkable seafood and its pièce de résistance: the notorious Grits à Ya. This incredible southern specialty of smoked Gouda cheese grits is smothered with a fresh cream sauce, sautéed Gulf shrimp, spinach, portobello mushrooms, applewood-smoked bacon, garlic and shallots. Simply divine!

Ready for action, we toured Historic Pensacola Village, visiting homes of Spanish and French heritage that date from colonial days to the Victorian era, some original and others restored. Built in the Mediterranean Revival style originally as the City Hall, we visited the historic 1900s landmark which is now home to Pensacola's flagship museum, the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum. Apart from an eclectic permanent collection of artifacts that present Northwest Florida’s rich and diverse heritage, the museum’s third-floor gallery is for the display of frequently changing travelling exhibits.

Palafox Street is home to a cornucopia of art galleries, boutiques, bars, restaurants  and is footsteps to a cultural treasure trove, the Pensacola Museum of Art.

Our perfect day was capped by a superb three-course tasting menu at the casual-elegant Cypress restaurant where the first course showcased a Wagyu Beef Tonnato and Shrimp Toast while for the second course we dined on Shrimp Etouffée and ended the culinary feast with a sensational chocolate bread pudding.

Our last day in Pensacola was a special one. We had the privilege of experiencing the National Naval Aviation Museum. One of the world’s largest air and space museums, it still remains extremely family-oriented and interactive. Experiencing more than 4,000 artifacts, 150 restored vintage aircraft, flight simulators, special exhibits such as a replica of a North Vietnamese POW camp, and even an indoor playground for children that includes a cockpit trainer for them to climb into was informative, moving and memorable.

Our last evening coincided with the opening of the annual Foo Foo Festival, a 12-day fall celebration of events and moments of high artistic and cultural calibre, delivered with a hefty dose of southern sophistication.

It has always been difficult to leave Florida but now after a wonderful stay, it’s hard to say goodbye to the Emerald Coast.

Travel Planner

For further information about the Emerald Coast of Florida, see:

visitflorida.com

visitpanamacitybeach.com

emeraldcoastfl.com

visitpensacola.com

 
 
 
 
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