Occasionally overshadowed by its chic and more popular brethren down the south of the state, the Florida Panhandle has quietly become a world-class vacation option. The Panhandle is a unique for its coastal beauty combining the Spanish moss, wisteria and willow trees of the Old South with Florida's beach world. It's a land unto itself with superior fishing off the Gulf of Mexico, scenic coastal drives through small towns, and a growing cuisine climate known for indigenous ingredients and creative nouvelle courses updating classic seafood dishes.
Start your trip to the Panhandle in Panama City at Panama City Beach (tel. 800/722-3224; www.thebeachloversbeach.com). Known as a spring break paradise made popular by MTV, the unofficial capital of the Panhandle is also a quiet getaway for adults. Panama City Beach is like a small town. The population hovers around 7,500 fulltime residents, keeping the area manageable and quaint. Boasting an average yearly temperature of 78 degrees and nearly 320 days of sun per year, PBC can practically guarantee you good weather. St. Andrews State Park (tel. 850/245-2157; www.floridastateparks.org/standrews), a 1,260 acre state park with swimming lagoons, fishing jetties, hiking trails, marshlands, nearly two miles of beaches and several campgrounds.
For accommodations, the Boardwalk Beach Resort (tel. 800/224-4853; www.boardwalkbeachresort.com) has regular rates of $59 to $189 lasting through March 2, 2006. When booking, ask about the hotel's "Buy two nights, get one night free" special. Located on the beach, the 320-room hotel has meeting facilities and water activities. Available room types include regular hotel rooms, suites, and one-, two- and three-bedroom condominium units.
Driving around and discovering the Gulf Coast can be a load of fun. Travelocity (tel. 888/872-8356; www.travelocity.com) has fly-and-drive deals that allow you the flexibility of going where you want when you want and choosing where you stay. One package into Tallahassee, just a 50-mile drive to the Panhandle and Panama Beach City, starts at approximately $290 per person for a trip leaving on a Thursday and returning on a Sunday. With these "Last Minute Deals," you just have to check the prices a weekend or two before you want to leave. Availability is rarely a problem as you'll pick up and drop off your rental car at the Tallahassee airport.
Once in your car, you're free to visit any of the tiny towns along the Florida Intercoastal, the main artery slicing through the Panhandle. Apalachicola Bay (tel. 850/653-9419; www.apalachicolabay.org) is not to be missed. Nicknamed the Forgotten Coast for its miles of undeveloped, untouched coastal marsh lands, Apalachicola Bay is composed of Eastpoint and St. George Island. Ninety percent of Florida's oysters and ten percent of those in the United States are harvested here, so get ready for some serious eating. If you're into architecture, over 200 homes in Apalachicola are on the National Register rolls. The history of Apalachicola stretches back to 1831 when cotton was king. Later, its port became the largest port in Florida. Rich in colonial and modern history, Apalachicola combines beach fun with Florida industry and Southern charm.
For a place to stay in and around Apalochicola, the Apalachicola River Inn (tel. 850/653-8139; www.apalachicolariverinn.com) has rooms starting at $95 in the Main Inn. Rooms at the River Cottage Jacuzzi Suites start at $160. The sunsets from the Inn are some of the best in Northern Florida, turning the sky into a fury of oranges, hot pinks and dark reds over the scenic bay. When it comes to food, Boss Oysters (tel. 850/653-9364; www.apalachicolariverinn.com/boss.html) is a metaphor for Apalachicola's total offerings. The famous oyster spot was voted one of the ten best oyster bars in the United States by Coastal Living magazine. They even serve roasted oysters hot in the shell for you to shuck yourself. If oysters aren't your thing, the Blue Crabs will feed you well and the view nourishes the mind. The fishing off the Bay is allegedly some of the best in all of Florida, taking advantage of the deep sea and proximity to marine wildlife along the shore. Any of the hotels or inns in the area can hook you up with a local fishing boat.
Further down the Intercoastal heading east toward Alabama, the Watercolor Inn (tel. 888/775-2545, www.watercolorinn.com) in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida promises a romantic getaway. Designed by world-famous hospitality architect David Rockwell, the Watercolor Inn is where hotel meets work of art. Located directly on the beach, each room offers privacy and a special path to the beach. While the Watercolor Inn is a luxury property, you can take advantage of certain travel deals. Nearby golf facilities, an in-house spa and miles of trails good for hiking, biking and running keep guest's hearts beating quickly while the white sandy beaches are sure to slow the ticker down to a level of supreme relaxation. Stay two nights at the Watercolor Inn from now until February 28, 2006, and you get an extra night free of charge. Rack rates start at $365 per night for a Dune Side King Room with direct pool, beach access and full use of the hotel's activities and amenities. Once every three months, the hotel gives away a "Free Weekend" Package if you fill out a travel survey at www.watercolorinn.com/questionnaire.asp. An "Art of Cooking" Valentine's Day package offers two nights' accommodations for two in a king-sized room, a cooking class and seminar, two breakfasts, a bottle of champagne, two massages, and other goodies like chocolate-covered strawberries for the total price of approximately $830 for two. The cooking seminar takes place Saturday, February 18, 2006. Friday night you're free to celebrate Valentine's Day by taking in a sunset, a massage or downing that complimentary champagne.
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