100 miles E of Pensacola; 100 miles SW of Tallahassee

Northwest Florida is sometimes sneeringly referred to as the "Redneck Riviera" due to the waterfront destination's popularity with vacationing Southerners from nearby Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia.

The implicit snootery in that nickname may suggest there's something inferior about the beach preferences of SEC football fans compared to sunbathers in, say, the South of France. But have you ever set foot on the beaches of Southern France? You'd remember if so because it hurts to set foot on a bunch of sharp pebbles. (Here's a transcript of any given beachgoer walking barefoot to the sea in Nice: "Ow! ow! dang-it! mon Dieu! ow!") 

Say what you want about Florida—and there's a lot you can say about Florida, much of it unflattering and most of it deserved—but if your primary standards for judging beach quality involve soft white sand and clear, greenish blue water, Panama City Beach's 27-mile coastline deserves to rank up there with just about any other waterside area in the continental United States. 

The calm Gulf of Mexico puts the emerald in the Emerald Coast (another nickname for these parts), but it's the sand that's truly remarkable. Washed, bleached, polished, and deposited in the Panhandle by the Apalachicola River, PCB's sand is composed almost entirely of quartz crystals—or, going by the look and feel of it, powdered sugar. Take your pick.

Astounding sand aside, Panama City Beach feels like a rebranding still in progress. Once synonymous with spring break debauchery, the town has made a concerted effort to pivot toward a more family-friendly image, restricting alcohol sales in certain areas during parts of the year and adding more upscale resorts and condos, welcoming restaurants that take an innovative approach to the region's fresh seafood, and installing retail and entertainment venues at the fun (but not out-of-control fun) Pier Park complex. 

Mind you, rowdy bars, kitschy souvenir shops, and rickety amusement parks aren't exactly hard to find in PCB.

But neither are peaceful coastal hikes, dolphin-watching boat tours, and laid-back beachside restaurants with dazzling views of pink, orange, and scarlet sunsets over the Gulf.