In the northwest corner of Florida, known as the Panhandle, fish rule. Rods line every pier and charter boats do a roaring deep sea business. Go into just about any restaurant and you’ll see a giant stuffed blue marlin swinging above your head. Sugary beaches, excellent dining, and abundant marine wildlife also make this Gulf Coast destination a dream for families, couples and nature lovers.
My first stop was Navarre Beach, a two-hour drive west from Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, near Panama City. Renting a bicycle from Sage Paddle Company, I peddled past houses out to Gulf Islands National Seashore park. The pristine, powdery beaches contained nothing but dunes and the occasional sunbather. Walking down to the water, I could almost hear the sand singing under my feet.
Further down the road was the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center. Stepping through the door, I was greeted by a wonderful little creature. Sweet Pea was a green turtle who had been found on a Texas beach, tangled in fishing nets. She had to undergo surgery and one of her flippers was removed as well as part of her shell. Despite such a horrific experience, the determined six-year-old 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 explained.
The Navarre Beach Pier (the longest in the Gulf of Mexico at 471 meters long and nine meters above the water), was packed that afternoon. I watched as one excited customer landed a Mahi Mahi and another reeled in a Spanish mackerel. Scanning the waves below the pier were members of the Conservation Center rescue team. “We have rescued more than 60 turtles that get tangled in fishing line since the program started a year ago,” Bob, a retired air force pilot and team volunteer, explained. He 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 said sadly. That oil disaster was sickening, but I was glad to hear the fishing folk were being educated and turtles were being saved.
Destin, an another anglers’ paradise, was half-an-hour’s drive east along the coast. Entering the Fishing and History Museum, I gazed at walls of mounted, locally caught species including tarpon, cobia, sailfish, grouper, and red fish.
Black and white photographs chronicled the massive fish caught in the area over the years (the biggest blue marlin ever hooked was 475 kg, in 1985). Watching a video, I learned about 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, told me.
She was right. Wandering along nearby Harbour Walk, a waterside area filled with restaurants, vendors and watercraft, I came across a row of stalls where freshly caught red fish were being cleaned and packed into coolers for sports fisherman who had spent the day on the water.
I yearned to get out on the water too, so I took a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise for a tour of the harbour. Captain Jason told us there were around 100 dolphins living in the area and we spotted quite a few darting after their fish dinners. Myself, many squealing children, and smiling parents were ecstatic.
Before leaving Destin, I stopped into Henderson Beach State Park. A one-kilometer nature trail wound through the dunes and I stopped often to read signs describing the flora and fauna of the region. Sitting on one of the benches scattered along the trail, I breathed in the salty, pine-scented air and listened to the surf pounding. It was a calm, meditative space, readying me for an hour-and-a-half’s drive to Panama City Beach, my final Panhandle destination.
My first activity there was a two-hour trip with Island Time Sailing. I wanted to spot dolphins, and did spy a few dorsal fins, but it was the sunset that had me in awe. Magnificent waves of pink, gold and orange washed the sky as we sailed over the glass-like water.
The next day, my aqua outing was jet skiing to Shell Island with Lagoon Pontoon. A nervous first-timer, I followed my guide Wesley’s instructions and soon was on my merry way. Shell Island was uninhabited except for a variety of nesting shore birds, but quite a few day trippers were there, swimming in the warm, clean water.
For a goodbye, aerial view of the area, I went to City Pier, a shopping hub that was also home to a monster Ferris wheel called SkyWheel. The air-conditioned wheel car was the perfect place to snap shots of the waterfront.
Gazing out at the endless blue horizon, I was a little sad to be ending my sunny, sandy, adventure on the Florida Panhandle. But, I was comforted knowing that once back in Canada, I had many a fish and turtle tale to tell.
WHERE TO EAT
- Cactus Flower Café: Healthy California-style Mexican food eatery where everything is made from scratch.
- Beach House Bar and Grill, Springhill Suites by Marriott: Grab a cocktail on the terrace then dig into house specialties such as crab cakes, or grouper.
Harbor Docks: Specialities include locally sourced seafood. Spot the stuffed marlin, hanging from the rafters.
Panama City Beach
- Grand Marlin: Near the dolphin cruise dock, great fresh seafood choices.
- Firefly: Sushi restaurant with specialties such as the crab and tuna tower.
- FINN’s: Famous for fish tacos. The kitchen is in a food truck, parked permanently by a patio next to a surf shop.
WHERE TO STAY
- Beach Colony: A Southern Vacation Rentals condo complex on the beach, close to Navarre Beach Pier. Excellent for families.
- The Island, by Hotel RL: Built in the 1960s and recently refurbished, the hotel’s beach-view suites are spacious and well appointed.
- Edgewater Beach & Golf Resort: Fabulous beachfront access, with pool and close proximity to fishing pier.
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