The Florida Panhandle is to the state as Jan Brady of TV's The Brady Bunch is to her family. Cindy, the cute younger sister, could represent Orlando and Tampa, with their amusements. South and Southwest Florida could be Marcia, the gorgeous older sister whom everyone fawns over. Then there's the misunderstood, underestimated, Jan -- in this case, Northwest Florida, also known as the Panhandle -- always getting the shaft, even though she has great qualities, if only people took the time to discover them. For the Panhandle, this is a particular shame, as it is a dynamic, uncommonly beautiful part of Florida.
If you like beaches, you'll love the Panhandle, the land of the two-way sun, which runs east to west along the Gulf of Mexico and, therefore, has sunrises and sunsets. It was once known -- and sometimes erroneously still is known -- as the Redneck Riviera (thanks to a steady crowd from Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana), a refreshing change from the glitz and glamour oozing from South Florida. The Panhandle, while still rugged in a sexy, Marlboro Man kind of way, has slowly shed that reputation with the emergence of upscale residential developments and boutique hotels.
Three other reasons to love this zone: water as turquoise as colored contact lenses, smaller crowds than at other Florida beaches, and ghost-white sand so talcumlike that it squeaks when you walk on it. The sand in these parts is brilliantly white because, over thousands of years, quartz particles were washed downstream from the eroding Appalachian Mountains and pummeled into grains as fine and soft as baby powder before finally landing at their resting place: under the towels of the three million sunbathers who flock here every year. Speaking of walking, you can, because some 100 miles of these incomparable sands are protected in state parks and the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Pensacola, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Panama City Beach are summertime meccas for families, couples, and singles from the aforementioned adjoining states -- a geographic proximity that lends this area the languid charm of the Deep South. Indeed, Southern specialties such as collard greens and cheese grits appear frequently on menus here.
And so people don't ignore the 227 miles of coastline on Northwest Florida's Gulf Coast, a marketing plan came up with the nifty, collective moniker of THE Beach to represent Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, and Franklin counties, all of which exude that small-beach-town charm that is strictly preserved and staunchly thwarting extinction.
But there's more to the northwestern Panhandle than beaches and Southern charm. Record catches of grouper, amberjack, snapper, mackerel, cobia, sailfish, wahoo, tuna, and blue marlin have made Destin one of the world's fishing capitals. In the interior, near Pensacola, the Blackwater, Shoal, and Yellow rivers teem with bass, bream, and catfish and also allow for some of Florida's best canoeing and kayaking adventures.
The area is steeped in history as well. Rivaling St. Augustine as Florida's oldest town, picturesque Pensacola preserves a heritage derived from Spanish, French, English, and American conquests. Famous for its oysters, Apalachicola saw the invention of the air conditioner. Tallahassee, seat of the state government since 1824, has a host of 19th-century buildings, including the majestic Old State Capitol.
One note to those traveling the entire state: While "season" in South Florida tends to fall in the winter months, due to the Panhandle's geographic location and tendency to get chilly or downright cold during the winter, its "season" is during the summer, so hotel rates will be higher during that time.
Exploring Northwest Florida by Car -- Both I-10 and U.S. 98 link Tallahassee and Pensacola, some 200 miles apart. The fastest route is I-10, but all you'll see is a huge pine forest divided by two strips of concrete. Plan to take U.S. 98 instead, a scenic excursion in itself. Although it can be traffic clogged during summer, U.S. 98 has some beautiful stretches out in the country, particularly as it skirts the bay east of Apalachicola and the Gulf west of Port St. Joe. It's also lovely along skinny Okaloosa Island and across the high-rise bridge between Fort Walton Beach and Destin. From the bridge, you'll see the brilliant hue of the Gulf and understand why this is called the Emerald Coast. If you turn off U.S. 98 onto 30A, a magnificent 20-mile drive along the coastline, you will be transported back in time to the pre-Golden Arches-lined highways of Florida. Along this scenic stretch, you'll see not only sand and surf but also, believe it or not, pine forests, saw palmettos, the Choctawhatchee Bay, and Hogtown Bayou, a magnet for fiery sunsets.