In the Florida Panhandle, fish rule. Go into just about any restaurant and there will be a giant stuffed marlin swinging above your head. Thankfully, I love fish (as do these pelicans). Recently, I visited three Panhandle destinations to suss out what the area has to offer.
After landing at Florida Northwest International Airport in Panama City, I picked up a rental car and headed to Destin, about an hour’s drive west. First stop was at Harbor Docks, a restaurant on the water that opened in 1979. They specialize in locally sourced seafood and chef Dang McCormick, from Chaing Mai, offers Thai dishes every day at lunch. This is where I caught sight of my first panhandle marlin, hanging feistily from the rafters.
My accommodation was at The Island, by Hotel RL, on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. Built in the 1960s, it had been recently refurbished. My beach-view suite was spacious and well appointed with mini fridge, microwave and a roomy balcony. With cold drink in hand, I marvelled at the many beach volleyball games that were going on, despite the fact that a storm was set to break any minute. And rain it did!
The next day, thankfully, the sun came out and I took a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise. Captain Jason told us there were around 100 dolphins living in the area and we spotted quite a few darting after their fish dinners. This was a great outing for the families on board, the captain even took photos with all the children.
Just up the road from my hotel was Henderson Beach State Park. A ¾ mile nature trail wound through the dunes and I stopped often to read signs describing the flora and fauna of the region. Benches were scattered along the trail and I took a moment to just sit and breathe in the salty, pine-scented air.
Destin is an anglers’ heaven, as I found out at the Fishing and History Museum. Outside there was an historic seine fishing boat named Primrose, a cabin housing the old post office and a memorial walkway naming all Destin’s famous fishing families. Inside, the walls were hung with 75 mounts of locally caught fish. Black and white photographs chronicled the massive fish caught in the area over the years. One room was set up as an impromptu theatre with a video describing the birth of the 65-year-old Destin Fishing Rodeo – a fishing tournament with lots of history and prizes. “Originally a commercial fishery, Destin has now become a mecca for charter fishing boats,” Kathy Blue, the museum’s executive director, explained.
She was right. Wandering along nearby Harbour Walk later in the afternoon I came across a row of stalls where freshly caught red fish were being cleaned and packaged up for sports fisherman who had spent the day on the water.
Stopping in for a quick gander at Destin Commons, an outdoor shopping complex with more than 90 shops and restaurants, I stumbled upon the launch of a new Paula Deen restaurant. Who knew the controversial southern fried belle would be in attendance that day to sign her new cookbook?
NAVARRE BEACH, SANTA ROSA COUNTY
Driving west, in about 40 minutes I came to Navarre Beach. I had arranged to rent a bicycle from Sage Paddle Company and soon was peddling past houses and out to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Wow. Powdered sugar beaches and not too many people. This was pure natural shoreline with nothing but dunes and one covered picnic area. The sand actually squeaked underfoot!
After an exhilarating ride, I met the bike/paddleboard company’s owner, 16-year-old Sage Offutt who was camped out in the parking lot with her service French bulldog Oliver. Oliver had been trained to know when a migraine was coming on so Sage could take her meds before it became full-blown. “He knows because he can sense my serotonin levels as well as my sleeping and eating patterns. He warns me by licking me. I haven’t suffered from a migraine for almost a year,” explained Sage. Before getting Oliver a little more than a year ago, she was getting migraines up to four times a week. Sage told me she has a rare genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which affects the body’s connective tissues and is very painful. Who knew Frenchies could be such wonderful health canaries?
Sage’s business got off the ground when she was 11 and had just moved to Navarre Beach from Colorado with her family. Her dad wanted her to get involved in more than lying on the beach and as a pilot experiment he gave her $5,000 to start up a paddle board rental company. “There was no other rental company around and it really took off,” Sage explained. She was supposed to pay her dad back at the end of the year, but instead it only took 17 days. Now she also rents scooters, kayaks and bicycles. This won’t be a permanent career for her, though. “I’ll probably sell the business after I finish my undergrad. I want to study medicine, pediatric neurology, and help kids out like me who have health issues,” she explained. In 2016 she was named Florida’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Governor Rick Scott and in 2017 she was invited as a VIP guest, representing the state’s small business owners, to his State of the State address. I could tell that, although demure and self-effacing, Sage was a real force of nature. Now with Oliver on board, she’s unstoppable.
Lunch was at Cactus Flower Café, a California-style Mexican food eatery where everything is made from scratch. Salsa is made twice daily, and a whole avocado is used in each order of guacamole. No animal fat is added to the refried beans and extra virgin olive oil is used for sautéed items. Everything I tried was light and flavourful – chips and salsa, apps including queso bites, flauta and mango shrimp, mahi mahi fish taco and Mexican wedding cake for dessert. Speaking with the manager, I learned there are four Cactus Flower Cafes, two in Pensacola, one in Pace and the one I visited in Navarre.
Exploring the area a little further, I came upon the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. As soon as I stepped through the door, I was greeted by the most wonderful little creature.
Sweet Pea was a green turtle who had been found on a Texas beach, tangled in fishing nets. She was transported to the Gulfarium, a Destin marine adventure park that does rescue and rehabilitation, where she underwent surgery. One of her flippers was removed and part of her shell. Despite such a horrific experience, the six-year-old, little Green turtle seemed genuinely happy zipping around her indoor pool. “We move the rocks around and float a ball on the surface so she gets a change of view,” Jared Lucas, a volunteer animal caretaker, told me.
Later, on the Navarre Beach Pier (the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 1,545 feet long and 30 feet above the water), I saw members of the Conservation Center in action. Crammed with fisher folk, I watched as one excited customer landed a small mahi mahi and another reeled in a Spanish mackerel. Parked at the far end of the pier was a turtle rescue vehicle.
“We have rescued more than 60 turtles since the program started a little more than a year ago,” Bob, a retired air force pilot told me. As we stood there looking out at the water, I saw a dark shadow swim by and then surface. A Green turtle, just about the same size as Sweet Pea! Bob told me that most of the shrimp boats in the Gulf now use TEDs – turtle evacuation devices, which allow the creatures to exit the bottom of the net without impacting the shrimp catch.
“We get green, loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley and leatherback turtles here. The Kemp’s ridley are the most endangered. There was a program to increase their numbers in the Gulf, but the BP oil spill happened in their prime feeding area, so the numbers are still declining,” Bob explained. My heart aches when I recall that sickening oil avalanche. But I am so glad in places like Navarre Beach people are being educated and turtles are being saved.
While in Navarre Beach I stayed at Beach Colony, a Southern Vacation Rentals condo complex right on the beach and very close to the Navarre Beach Pier. These rentals very spacious and a good option for families. Mine was three bedrooms, with a huge living room, dining area, kitchen, three bathrooms and a sprawling balcony overlooking the water.
Not wanting to cook, I headed over to the nearby Springhill Suites Resort by Marriott Navarre Beach. Cocktails were on the terrace and after sunset some people remained, huddled around a stylish propane terrace fire. It was starting to get a little chilly, so I went inside where chef James Fontaine told me he grew up on a sailboat. His love of the sea could be seen on the menu. I started with crab cakes jammed with claw meat and topped with a mustard caper remoulade. Next was a salad of greens, strawberries, blueberries and grilled salmon, coated with sweet, spicy pineapple juice. I sampled some of the grouper (by this time I was getting very full) and took home a slice of salty caramel cheese cake which I just managed to find some room for. Delicious.
PANAMA CITY BEACH
My final panhandle stop was Panama City Beach, just a half-hour from the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. I checked into the Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort, with fabulous beachfront access, a pool and close proximity to another pier. I noticed people came early in the morning and staked out spots under the pier where they would sling up hammocks. Armed with a towel, hammock and cooler, what more could you ask for? Oh yeah, sunscreen. I forgot to put it on one day and got really burned. The sun is wicked in Florida.
On a two-hour trip with Island Time Sailing, I was set to spot dolphins, but there weren’t many. Instead, it was the sunset that really had me in awe. The pinks, golds and oranges were stunning. Dinner later was at the Grand Marlin, not far from the cruise dock.
I dug into a kale Caesar salad topped with blackened Gulf Shrimp. So good.
My last water activity was jet skiing to Shell Island. I signed up at Lagoon Pontoon and was joined by a group of travellers from Brazil. Some of us were a bit nervous, but after following our guide Wesley’s instructions we were on our merry way. Shell Island is uninhabited and a nesting ground for various shore birds. It’s also a hot destination for pontoon boat tours that bring in groups to swim from the sandy shores.
Hungry after that jet skiing, I headed to FINN’s for fish tacos. It was Taco Tuesday and I got two for one! Stuffed with mahi mahi, tomatoes and coleslaw, these tacos draw fans from miles around. The kitchen was set up in a food truck, parked permanently by a patio next to a surf shop. Patron sit at picnic tables and munch their meals on the patio. Attached to the surf shop was a wonderful coffee café where I sipped one of the smoothest cold brews I’ve ever tasted.
To get a top-notch view of the area, I went to City Pier, a shopping destination and home to a monster big Ferris wheel called SkyWheel. The air conditioned wheel car was the perfect place to snap shots of the waterfront and beach area.
My final dinner was at Firefly, a sushi restaurant near the Edgewater Resort. I ordered the crab and tuna tower with mango, avocado and cucumber. It was amazing and a delicious end to my sunny, sandy, fishy adventure on the Florida Panhandle.