Summer Guide 2015: ReTREAT - A trip to the Panhandle

click to enlarge Henderson Beach State Park, near Destin. - DANIEL VEINTIMILLA
daniel veintimilla
Henderson Beach State Park, near Destin.

Head north by northwest to enjoy a Florida region that’s not just a little more “Southern,” but a wildly diverse swath of the Sunshine State. The Panhandle not only offers nature preserves you can easily get lost in (it’s no wonder several X Files episodes were filmed there) and those famously cool springs and caverns, but the breathtakingly scenic Emerald Coast beaches and towns along Scenic 30A.

Around an hour and 20 minutes west of hectic Panama City Beach, Destin has some of the whitest, most sugary sand in the world, made of finely ground quartz crystals that were washed into the gulf many millennias ago from the Appalachian Mountains. If you’re looking to stay in the area, which recently won kudos from the Huffington Post (“These 12 Places Are Reason Enough To Head To Florida”), stay at the Beachside Inn ( It’s a boutique hotel with an affordable but sophisticated homeyness that’s hard to find along any shore (rooms start at $154 and include a delicious fresh loaf from Karboo Bakery). The café in front of the property serves delicious brunchy items and cold-pressed juices, too.

If you enjoy sleeping outdoors, most of the state’s camp-able beaches can be found along the North Florida gulf shore. Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park combines beach vistas with the hidden wonders of a nature preserve. According to the publication Florida Rambler — which offers great tips on intra-state travel — the Gulf Islands National Seashore encompasses several islands in both Florida and Alabama, with campgrounds where you can pitch your tent right on the beach.

For those not so much into roughing it, the Village of Baytowne Wharf at nearby Sandestin offers accommodations, retail, dining, kids’ recreation and even a dog playground, all situated along a picturesque boardwalk with a long, meandering wooden path along mangroves and seagrass. For a refined romantic dinner, make a reservation at the Marlin Grill at the Wharf, which has indoor-outdoor dining, fresh-caught seafood and excellent fusion fare. But if Old Florida fine dining is what you’re after, your best bet is the Harbor Docks in Destin, a local tradition since 1979 that’s renowned for its fresh Gulf catches.

The arts are heavily accented in Destin and the towns along 30A. Some towns have colorful studios that are open to the public. The Mattie Kelly Arts Festival, which actually takes place in the fall, has been recognized as one of Northwest Florida’s premier fine art shows and has events throughout the summer. The fest’s foundation members are kicking off their 20th Anniversary with Concerts in the Village, a 9-week outdoor concert series on Thursdays in the Dugas Pavilion at 7 p.m. Shows continue through July 2.

Every Floridian should drive along the scenic highway 30A at least once in a lifetime. Located between South Walton Beach and Panama City, the strip offers amazing views of more sugar-white sand beaches and rare coastal dune lakes — and picture-perfect towns where tacky strip malls and neon are strictly forbidden. This summer, one of those towns, Alys Beach — which resembles a hybrid of a Greek island village and old colonial Americana — will be home to the Digital Graffiti art festival, June 4-6. The event is a one-of-a-kind projection art festival during which artists beam their works onto the beachside town’s iconic white walls.

Other towns along 30A have that upscale-quaint planned community vibe. One of our favorites is Rosemary Beach, which, like Alys Beach, has a European ambiance with tree-lined boulevards and row townhomes with balconies. Travel a little ways west to visit the planned community of Seaside, filming location for the 1998 movie The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. More homey and broken-in than the version you see on film, it’s still eerily adorable, but more Dunedin than Stepford. On our last visit, we encountered a sunset food truck confab, but instead of trucks, the vendors served their grub out of old silver Airstreams, bordered by a white picket fence.


Digital Graffiti Art Festival:
Mattie Kelly Arts Festival:
Destin's Beachside Inn:
Florida Rambler:
The Village of Baytowne Wharf:
Marlin Grill:
Harbor Docks: 

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