Tallahassee & the Big Bend
Florida's gracious state capital, blanketed by moss-draped live oaks and infused with a blend of historic and university cultures, sits inland at the edge of what's known as the Big Bend region – a little-traveled arc of the Florida coastline that curves around the Gulf of Mexico.
Pensacola & Pensacola Beach
The Deep South meets Florida in Pensacola – quite literally. The Alabama border is just a few miles down the road, and the city has the small-town friendliness and sleepy pace of its Southern neighbor. But Pensacola (or P'Cola, as locals say), keeps it colorful with lively beaches, a thrumming military culture and a sultry, Spanish-style downtown.
Panama City Beach
While much of the Panhandle's charms rely on its mellow 'Old Florida' roots, don't expect to find any of those vibes in Panama City Beach – an insanely overdeveloped gulf-front pocket that's in love with its recent transformation from an old-school resort to a mind-numbing, over-commercialized mob scene of condo-mania.
Destin & Fort Walton Beach
These twin resort towns – slightly calmer, smaller and less developed than Panama City Beach, but still more on the party-hearty and high-rise end of the scale than the Beaches of South Walton – offer more luminous waters and sugar-white sands, plus plenty of happenin' spots to eat, drink and be merry.
Beaches of South Walton
Sandwiched between Destin and Panama City along scenic Hwy 30A, this collection of 15 unincorporated communities makes up what is collectively known as Santa Rosa Beach, or the Beaches of South Walton. Each town has its own identity – some have a matchy-matchy country club vibe, while others are arty and funky.
Slow, mellow and perfectly preserved, Apalachicola is one of the Gulf's most irresistible villages. Perched on the edge of a broad bay, the oak-shaded town combines an old-fashioned fishing-based economy with a new wave of bistros, art galleries, eclectic boutiques, and B&Bs in renovated old mansions.
St George Island
Located just over a 4-mile causeway from Apalachicola's neighbor of Eastpoint, this 28-mile-long barrier island is home to white sandy beaches, bay forests, salt marshes and an inoffensive mix of summer homes and condos. It's a great place for shelling, kayaking, sailing or swimming.
Wakulla Springs State Park
Glowing an otherworldly aqua and overhung with Spanish moss, the natural spring at the center of this 6000-acre park feels like something from the set of an exotic adventure movie – in fact, parts of the old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies were filmed here, as were parts of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The spring, which gushes 1.
About 12 miles southwest of Pensacola, off Hwy 292 (which becomes Hwy 182), the easternmost Florida piece of the Gulf Islands National Seashore spans Perdido Key's crystalline waters. These dunes are home to the endangered Perdido Key beach mouse, which blends in well with the white-quartz sands here.