As a travel writer, I sometimes housesit as a means to explore a new area while saving some money. Recently, I found myself staying on a mini farm near Florida’s panhandle and exploring from the western tip of Gulf Shores National Seashore to the eastern panhandle’s imaginary border. Here are my favorite stops, plus a few delicious ice cream shops to visit along the way.
1. Gulf Island National Seashore
Driving through bustling cities and congested highways, I was simply stunned when reaching the bridge from Pensacola to the island, giving me a view of snow-white sand beaches bordering an emerald sea that blended into a baby blue sky. Soon, I was on the famous Gulf Island National Seashore, a barrier island bordering the panhandle coastline.
Rising and falling sand dunes speckled with long strands of leathery grass flowed on both sides of the road. The most remarkable feature was the smell of the sea and the taste of salt from the sultry air. The 25-mph speed limit was too fast and I must have stopped a million times to watch a bird, take a photo, or just stare at the pristine ocean scene.
Pro Tip: Allow plenty of time since it will take an hour to drive the entire route at the speed limit, but it’s worth every minute. I took the journey three times and never got tired of it.
2. Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens, located at the western tip of the island, is one of four military forts built in the 1800s to protect important waterways and seaports, especially Pensacola Bay. Designated a historic landmark and managed by the National Park Service, the grounds display ruins almost overtaken by the wind-swept dunes.
A short hike to the top of the gunnery is a popular spot to watch the sunset. A ranger-guided tour is available of the ruin’s interior sections of sleeping quarters, dining areas, escape tunnels, and where canons stood ready for action.
A nearby campground offers access to hiking trails, a fishing pier, and Langdon Beach. Swimming is allowed and accessible beach mats and wheelchairs are available at the Ranger Station.
Pro Tip: Stop at TJ’s Chilling Treats in Navarre, an off-the-beaten-path secret that is popular with families. Their creative flavors with fun names, such as my smurf cone with blueberry and raspberry ice cream mixed, make decisions difficult.
3. The Boardwalk On Okaloosa Island
Between swimming and sunning on the beaches as we moseyed along Highway 98, we stopped at the Boardwalk located on Okaloosa Island beach for lunch one day. An official county park serving as a public beach, the Boardwalk is a fun and lively shopping mall serving thousands of people with places to dine and listen to live bands. Shops there don’t mind sandy feet.
After checking out their pier and beach and dodging children making sandcastles, we went shopping for food. There were many places with mouthwatering menus, but we finally chose the Crab Trap Seafood and Oyster Bar on the second floor with a view of the beach from a shaded deck. Delicious and inspiring.
Pro Tip: Around the corner of the Crab Trap is the Pino Gelato Café, a nice little Italian ice cream shop offering very interesting flavors.
4. Henderson Beach State Park
Once a private ranch donated to the state by the Henderson Family, this exceptionally beautiful strip of coastline near Destin was our choice to hit the beach for a whole morning. We were almost the first person on the beach and had a serene hour before people started lining up along the shore.
The area is an important royal tern nesting site with a fence surrounding a small area about 60 feet from the ocean. We soon discovered little chicks right behind our beach chairs and watched terns dive in front of us into the churning ocean catching breakfast and then flying over our heads to feed their young. It was a magical morning. I never imagined I would be this close to such a heartwarming scene.
Pro Tip: Arrive early as they limit the number of people on the beach to lessen harm to the terns.
Early the next morning, my friend headed back to Louisiana and I continued east on Highway 98. Of all the beach towns I had driven through, Destin seemed to be the least crowded. There are five beachfront properties with twelve access points all with ample parking along the way, which is a major hurdle to overcome when visiting Florida.
I drove by the Dunes Rolled Ice Cream Shop that advertised coffee and realized I had not had breakfast yet! They hand mix fresh fruit (strawberries for me, please) with a secret recipe of rich cream spread on a very cold slab. When frozen, the ice cream is sliced into strips that are rolled resembling a sushi roll. Topped with more strawberries, the treat was a delicious and picture-perfect beach breakfast.
6. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
Still smacking my lips, I stopped at the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park mainly to see turtles. Take a detour on Highway 30A to Santa Rosa Beach to this wonderful park with five rare coastal dune lakes that can be reached through hiking trails. Vehicles go no further than a large parking lot and visitors hop on a tram to the beach. Well-maintained bicycle trails lead to the beach with ample bike parking at tram stations. Nearby is a long wooden accessible boardwalk leading to the beach.
This park is a major site in the U.S. for restoring sea turtle habitats for 3.25 miles along the Gulf of Mexico. Four nesting sea turtle species are protected at Topsail, in addition to shorebirds such as plovers and terns. For this reason, some areas are off-limits to humans. Dogs are rarely allowed on Florida beaches.
Pro Tip: Further on Highway 98 is Panama City, a good place for lunch and of course, ice cream. Two places for interesting twists on a cone are the Riviera Creamery (their mango is made with natural fruit) and Monkey Licks Sweet Shoppe (just as fun as it sounds). Both shops are located on Front Beach Road.
7. The Big Bend Scenic Byway
Catching the Big Bend Scenic Byway through the Apalachicola National Forest, I saw an unexpected site in Florida stretching for 220 miles along U.S. Highway 98. I took the Coastal Trail route where I saw a unique wiregrass ecosystem of longleaf pine trees blended with deciduous oaks thriving beside freshwater rivers and ponds. Deer cross the road instead of alligators in this serene forest. Numerous rare plants and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker live here. They are protected under the Florida Wildlife Legacy Initiative.
8. St. George Island
Take a slight detour off the Big Bend Scenic Byway via a very long bridge to St. George Island (a 22-mile barrier island). The main attraction is the Cape St. George Lighthouse which is open to the public. Collapsing in 2005 during a terrible hurricane season, the lighthouse pieces were saved and used to rebuild the lighthouse using original blueprints. I climbed all 84 steps to the top for a view well worth the effort. The island has one of the few pet-friendly beaches in Florida.
Pro Tip: This quaint fishing village offers many excellent eateries and ice cream joints. Residing in a yellow and blue house, Aunt Ebby’s Ice Cream gave me the largest scoop I’ve ever seen.
9. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge
My last stop before reaching my house-sitting destination was the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge mainly to see “Pinky.” Designated as a “Globally Important Bird Area” with over 300 species of birds recorded, migrating flamingos from Mexico stop here after their long journey across the ocean. However, a few years ago when the time came to migrate back to Mexico, one lone flamingo stayed behind and has never left.
The St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge also has a remarkable lighthouse with an intriguing history of survival. Built in 1830, the lighthouse has survived hurricanes, shelling during the Civil War, and water cracks. There was no road to the lighthouse until 1930. Soon afterward, the lighthouse was modernized with electricity. In 2000, the lights were turned off and a solar-powered light now blinks every 4 seconds.
Pro Tip: The lighthouse hours vary according to available volunteers. Even if not open, the lighthouse bay is perfect for a picnic and a good place to launch small fishing boats or kayaks.
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