Florida: in a Sunshine State of mind

Great food, wildlife, beaches and shopping... there’s lots to discover off the beaten track in northwest Florida

 

There is a certain shade of emerald green that I’d only seen on the mermaid tail of a Barbie doll I had when I was six years old. But I find it again in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. When you live by the crashing Atlantic in northwest Donegal, it is the kind of sea you can only dream about and beautiful in an entirely disarming way when you realise it actually exists.

Florida is not all Disney and retirement villages, the northern part of the Sunshine State is a visually arresting, beautiful place to visit, with lots to choose from for any type of traveller and holiday; wildlife, watersports, golfing, friends, couples, family, relaxing or cultural.

Sure, there are theme parks if you want them but, above everything, Florida’s natural beauty is the jewel that will take your breath away. It is easy to see why it is such a popular destination and gets repeat visitors year after year. Florida is an enormous state with distinct tourist areas. We visit the “Florida panhandle”, which is an unofficial term for the northwestern part, a strip of land about 200 miles long between Georgia and Alabama.

We visit Pensacola, Rosemary Beach and Panama City Beach along the Gulf Coast, where every photograph I take has what I call a “Florida filter” – which was no filter at all. Every photograph’s colours exploded into the frame in bright, visceral pops of sunshine – exactly what a holiday photo should be.

Florida is a haven for seafood lovers; local fish such as grouper and shrimp are excellent. Natives flock to Joe Patti’s Seafood Company on the Pensacola waterfront, where every type of fish and shellfish is on sale. The inimitable Frank Patti now runs the business after taking over from his father, Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe “Joe” Patti who founded it in the 1930s. We choose our fresh seafood with Frank’s help, and it is cooked for us later that evening just down the dock at The Fish House restaurant.

One of the many highlights of the trip is a Segway tour of the Pensacola historical district. Our guide from Emerald Coast Tours brings us on a very enjoyable pedal-powered zip around and we stop off for a refreshing drop of local beer in the Pensacola Bay Brewery. To build up an appetite before our seafood feast, we have a sunset cruise around the picturesque Pensacola Bay, finishing in The Fish House, where we tuck into our haul from earlier that day.

Pensacola is where I have my first quintessentially southern dining experience: grits, promptly followed by my second: hot sauce. Grits, a traditional southern dish made by boiling ground corn and usually served at breakfast, is also a frequent accompaniment with seafood, especially shrimp. Slathered in the hot sauce – as much a staple on tables as salt and pepper are in Ireland – it is a fiery favourite now.

If your interests reach to nature and history, take a visit to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and go to Fort Pickens, a historic US military fort on Santa Rosa island which played an important role in the US Civil War and was later used as a prison, with Geronimo, the Apache war chief, amongst those held there.

Further on in South Walton’s Rosemary Beach you will find a family-orientated destination which is “a neo-traditional community”. The core of the ideology created by Rosemary Beach Land Company is in new urbanism and traditional neighbourhood development. It stretches over more than 100 acres and is designed to bring back “the notions of community, neighbourhood and convenience” so families go back to the same holiday home year after year. For excellent seafood here, visit Summer Kitchen restaurant on the Main Street, which was the first restaurant in Rosemary Beach.

Twenty minutes west along Highway 98 you’ll reach Grayton Beach State Park, which was recently named one of America’s top 10 beaches on Dr Beach’s annual list. Fine, white sandy beaches with safe swimming fringe this nearly 2,000-acre park, which also also has a rare coastal dune lake where we try paddleboarding with Jeff Archer, founder of Yolo paddle boards, a company that he started in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, in 2007 with the motto “You Only Live Once” (Yolo) and a passion to bring stand-up paddling worldwide.

If you are a fan of the 1998 movie The Truman Show, then head just outside the state park to Seaside, the town where it was filmed and where you can see the house Jim Carey’s character Truman Burbank lived in. Seaside is also acclaimed as an example of new urbanism – a movement which promotes an environmentally friendly lifestyle through walkable neighbourhoods with mixed use buildings and mixed housing. We stroll to dinner in Bud and Alley’s, a great restaurant on the waterfront that serves outstanding crab cakes. That night there is live music from Nashville songwriters, including Earl Bud Lee who wrote a certain song, Friends in Low Places, that Garth Brooks made famous. Getting to sing a verse of it on stage with Lee is the kind of thing that can only happen in America.

Local artist Justin Gaffrey’s work can be viewed at his gallery, Curate, at Rosemary Beach. A former chef, he creates works of art that actually look edible. We are treated to a live demonstration when we visit, and he creates a painting as we watch. After this we take a tour of the dune-filled Topsail State Park, which is a hikers paradise. We are guided by a real-life park ranger, who knows everything about the flora and fauna of the area – you can learn about all of Florida’s state parks on the useful site floridastateparks.org.

Panama City Beach is our last stop and one of my favourites. It is very relaxed, with great beaches, entertainment and shopping. A cruise is a must.You can head out at sunset with Paradise Adventures for a relaxing couple of hours with a live musician on board (who takes requests) and a busy bar. Or you can take a three-hour day boat trip out of Bay Point Marina to Shell Island with Captain Greg of Osprey Charters.

At Shell Island we swam, and in the clear waters we searched for “sand dollars” (a flattened sea urchin that fits in the palm of your hand), and spotted pods of dolphins having a play in the surf.

For brunch visit Andy’s Flour Power, run by New York chef John Certo, and do not leave without ordering the pistachio muffin. A trip to the US is incomplete without a spot of shopping. With more than 900,000sq ft of stores, bars and restaurants, Pier Park in Panama City Beach has all you’ll need to sate that desire.

Florida may make many of us think of Mickey and Minnie, but take a detour from the theme parks and you’ll see the Sunshine State has so much more to offer.

HOW TO... NORTHWEST FLORIDA

GET THERE: Delta flies from Dublin to Northwest Florida Beaches Airport (ECP) via Atlanta, from €1,092 return, delta.com

STAY: Pensacola Hilton Pensacola Beach, 12 Via De Luna Drive, hiltonpensacolabeach.com; Rosemary Beach Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company, 78 N Barrett Square, rosemarybeach.com; Panama City Beach Holiday Inn Resort, 11127 Front Beach Rd, hipcbeach.com SEE ALSO: visitflorida.com

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