Unless you own a multi-million dollar estate sitting smack on the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, you may think deserted beaches in the state are a long gone thing of the past. Beaches minus Frisbee throwing tourists who have not yet learned the perils of feeding potato chips to seagulls. Places you don’t have to access through public parking because investors have plopped down condos, over-priced hotels, and putt-putt golf courses on every other square inch. But unspoiled beaches are still waiting, if you know where to find them.
The northern Panhandle of Florida, or the “Redneck Riviera” as it is sometimes affectionately referred to, is largely ignored when compared to the percentages of out-of-staters who end up fighting crowds in beachfront cities like Clearwater, Naples, Sarasota, Daytona Beach, and Tampa. It is also often called “Florida’s Forgotten Coast.” While the Panhandle is home to some larger cities such as Pensacola, Panama City, and Destin, they are not quite as commercialized as the towns to their south, and there are still wide open stretches between them as well as the occasional small beach town.
Starting in the quaint oyster capital of the world, Apalachicola, and driving west along the coastline, here is what you will encounter.
Apalachicola is a Mid-19th-century town that used to be an important hub for the cotton industry. Now the town is known for its huge plump oysters, blue crab, and shrimp. Roughly 90% of all harvested Florida oysters come from here.
So much has happened in this town throughout the ages, there are 900 historical markers all within walking distance of each other. Not known for wonderful beaches, there are still charter boats available for fishing or pleasure, and the town is chock full of museums and family-style restaurants.
Their annual Seafood Festival is very well attended. Apalachicola is a great place to experience the Florida of yesterday. The population is right around 2,500.
Take Hwy 98 to 30A to continue along the water, then join up with 98 again when the two merge.
Port St. Joe
Home to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, the beaches have been rated as a Best Beach pick. The oldest and tallest sand dunes in Florida can be found here and they are protected. Prior to the development of the rest of Florida, Port St. Joe was a bustling port. It is now a peaceful quiet town where people go when seeking a restful retreat with picture postcard perfect scenery.
Fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, sunbathing, and getting away from the crowds are high on the list here, but there is also golfing, great dining, and a small but enjoyable nightlife. The population is 3,400.
Mexico Beach offers some of the best-uncrowded beaches in the entire state with the whitest sand you’ve ever seen. There are zero traffic lights. It’s an artsy type town which is evident by the art seen everywhere. If you are looking for an incredibly laid-back beach community full of friendly people, this is the place.
Of course, charter boats are available, and fish that were breathing earlier in the day are served in the restaurants that night. You’re looking at about 1,100 full-time residents.
Keep following Hwy 98 along miles and miles of empty beaches. Pull off the road and enjoy the solitude if you like.
You’ll eventually be routed away from the water but only for a short time as you pass through Panama City. Once you get through town, jump down to Front Beach Road, or Hwy 30, and it’ll take you through Panama City Beach.
Panama City Beach
Still a gorgeous beach and a great city, Panama City can get congested, especially during spring break, though still not nearly as bad as beach towns in the rest of Florida. If you want to use Panama City as a base to drive to the more secluded areas so you’ll still have every imaginable amenity, go ahead and reserve a room.
If your idea is to lounge on the beach during the day and party at night like there is no tomorrow, welcome to Panama City Beach.
Anytime Hwy 98 exits to Hwy 30, take it. The drive will continuously route you between the two. You’re going to pass several very nice state parks on your way out of Panama City Beach, and once again, miles of deserted beaches just waiting for your footprints.
Destin is the most expensive city in the Panhandle. Many corporate type functions are held at beachside resorts and the nightclubs and restaurants, many of them owned by chains, have a tendency to stay more crowded. Since we are looking at small towns with less crowded beaches, let’s keep the pedal to the metal and pass on through.
Fort Walton Beach
Just the other side of Destin, Fort Walton Beach is less crowded but still receives its fair share of visitors. Nonetheless, it’s a nice town with all the amenities and still more on the laidback side. Beachfront hotels aren’t stacked right up against each other and there is still plenty of room to stretch out, but you’ll still be sharing the sand with others. Just not as many of them as South Beach, Miami.
Between Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola, things start becoming more populated. There are still some nice spots but they become fewer and further in-between the closer you get to Pensacola. Not that Pensacola isn’t a very cool city in itself, but if you are wanting to get away from the maddening crowd, this is not the place to do it.
At least along Florida’s coastline, the further south a person goes, the more development they are going to find and the more crowded things are going to become. Many people are under the false assumption they have to drive as far south as they can to find the real Florida they’re seeking. That that’s where the real beaches are. It’s a shame they feel this way because they are missing out on the best part of Florida, and chances are they may have driven right past it without a second thought. The next time you come to Florida, think about trying the Panhandle. It would be extremely difficult to be disappointed with what you will find.