The Florida Panhandle: tacky, terrific, thoroughly Southern RICHES OF THE BEACH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Florida, folks say the farther north you go, the closer to the South you get. In the Sunshine State, north is South. And the "Southernmost" place in Florida is the northwest corner, the Florida Panhandle.

It's an area where Old South grace and haute kitsch mingle; where beaches of unsurpassed beauty give way to bungee-jumping joints; where the primeval beauty of bayou and forest compete with tattoo parlors.

This is not the Florida of the Everglades or Disney World or Miami Beach. It's not even the Florida of sun-baked Yankee retirees, nor is it the multicultured polyglot Florida of Cubans, Haitians and Latin Americans.

The Panhandle is so contentedly out of step with the rest of the state it's even in another time zone. It keeps Central Standard Time while the rest of the state observes Eastern Standard Time.

Just about everybody in the Old Confederacy who liked to swim or fish knew about the Panhandle's coast. It was a "Southern thing," a secret to which the rest of the country was not privy.

This was the South's vacation hideaway, a band of sugar-white sand beaches and blue-green water -- "the Emerald Coast" -- along the Gulf of Mexico, washing the Panhandle, Mississippi and Alabama. An easy drive from much of the Southeast, this is still where Southerners in the know go to the beach.

The essence of the Panhandle Coast is its powdery beaches made of the finest quartz, a geologic phenomenon and a treasured resource for the resort towns strung out along the coast. (Promoters mail little plastic bags of the stuff to potential visitors.)

It took eons for rivers to grind mountain quartz and then carry it down to the coast and more eons for the ebb and flow of tides and waves to polish and distribute it along the Panhandle Coast. Other beaches will seem like gravel pits after you've walked on these.

A highly regarded survey of 650 of the nation's beaches by the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research annually rates beaches on 40 criteria, including width of beach, softness of sand, water temperature, water quality, wave size, currents, solitude and climate. In 1994, five Panhandle beaches were ranked in the top dozen, with Grayton Beach No. 1, giving northwest Florida the finest collection of watering holes in the United States.

The heart of this shore stretches about 200 miles along the Panhandle from the old Spanish Colonial city of Pensacola on the west to the sleepy backwater oystering town of Apalachicola on the east.

If beaches are not enough, there is the interior of the Panhandle, vast stretches of pine forest and bayous, through which flow 12 major rivers, where visitors can canoe, backpack and hike.

Grand though all this is, it is not without flaws.

After World War II and into the 1950s and '60s, the Panhandle's Gulf Coast experienced a development boom that produced the "Miracle Strip" -- the 100-mile stretch of coast from Pensacola to Panama City Beach. The application of the word "miracle" depends largely on one's notion of what constitutes a miracle.

The strip begins in antebellum Pensacola, a city that has known pirates and conquistadors and flown the flags of five nations. For the next 100 miles along U.S. Highway 98, the road dips toward and then retreats from the shore, through a gantlet of roadside signs that proclaim the availability of guns, pawnshops, seashells, waffles and fundamentalist churches.

Along the way you encounter "the world's largest speedboat"; wild newspaper stories about mutant alligators; the Beach Bunny Topless Club; a giant plastic dinosaur presiding over an 18-hole Jurassic Park-theme miniature golf course; and Air Boingo, which is not a regional airline but a bungee-jumping joint.

This coast has long touted itself as "the other Florida" -- an older Florida, a more Southern Florida. The stars and bars, the banner of the Confederacy, still fly here. In the Panhandle, they ain't just whistlin' "Dixie."

Is it any wonder that the Panhandle and nearby bits of Alabama and Mississippi have long been called the Redneck Riviera?

Lately, the Panhandle has been wooing college students with a pull-out-the-stops campaign by Panama City Beach that boldly challenges Florida's other resort towns, such as Daytona Beach, as a destination for spring break.

But spring-breakers aren't the only visitors here. Florida's Panhandle has become a major winter destination for "snowbirds," Yankees and Canadians fleeing the comparative cold. (It's cheaper than southern Florida.) Midwinter daytime temperatures average in the low 60s, cooler than Miami but warmer than Milwaukee. In the past year, northwest Florida has pitched itself to Europeans, particularly Germans, Scandinavians and British. Last year, when Florida logged a record 41 million visitors, 7 million of them came to the Panhandle.

But before you get to all this, stop at Sam's Oyster House in Navarre, just east of Pensacola, to see the "topless oysters and live waitresses."

Sam's, a virtual shrine to the bivalve, is a splendid introduction to the Panhandle's coast. On the shady waterside deck, overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and the snow-white sands Santa Rosa Island, you first feel its pull. For despite much of the ticky-tack of the Miracle Strip, large stretches of the coast remain unspoiled, part of a 150-mile stretch of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

After Navarre is the boom town resort of Fort Walton Beach, the largest city on the Emerald Coast and home to Eglin Air Force Base, which, with 724 square miles stretching across three counties, calls itself "the largest air force base in the Free World."

Beyond frenetic Fort Walton Beach, where Choctawhatchee Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, is the modern, family-oriented beach resort of Destin, which began life in the early 19th century as a fishing village.

Destin (or the nearby 2,600-acre resort of Sandestin) makes a perfect base for travelers. There are condominiums, rental beach houses, apartments and motels for every budget, and the central location allows easy day trips east or west along the coast and into the interior.

East of Destin, Florida Highway 30A hooks off U.S. 98 for a 17-mile detour through a slice of the Emerald Coast that has blessedly escaped man's handiwork. There are no miniature golf emporiums or water slides here, just a back road through beach villages bordering pine forests and bayous.

In the little town of Grayton Beach, you'll find the Grayton Corner Cafe, where huge jars of sun tea line a porch trimmed with sea oats and wild grasses. This is pretty much the center of life here, and the life is very easy. A sign in the cafe advises, "Hours may vary due to quality of surf."

Across the street from the cafe, under a bright mural, is the grave of one of Grayton Beach's pets: "In Memory of Tippy, A Damn Good Dog."

Grayton Beach, one of the oldest communities on the Panhandle Coast, dating from the mid-1880s, is a beachside town of turn-of-the-century homes. Its houses sport palm-tree-studded lawns, wide porches and hammocks swinging lazily in the shade. Beyond people working in tourism, it's a town of surfers, beach bums, aging hippies and what is probably the Panhandle's equivalent of Generation X.

The chief attraction is Grayton Beach State Recreation area, 400 acres of sea oats and white quartz sand, towering barrier dunes and green gulf waters that border inland salt marshes and pine forests.

County Road 395 winds north to Point Washington off U.S. 98. Here at the end of the road is Eden State Gardens and Mansion, a 19th-century Florida lumber baron's estate on the edge of a remote bayou. Eden, a 12-acre preserve of moss-draped live oaks, camellias and azaleas, represents a vanished way of life, a poignant reminder of the old Florida.

A reminder of the new Florida is down the road back on the state Route 30A detour. It's the village of Seaside outside Grayton Beach.

Seaside, an upscale yuppie beach resort/planned community, is faux village of well-manicured second homes and chic boutiques and restaurants. There aren't many permanent residents, and it may seem a bit too well-groomed after scruffy Grayton Beach.

Beyond Seaside is Panama City Beach, which boldly claims the dubious honor of being one of the latest spring break destinations in the Free World. This is pretty much the halfway point in the 200-mile coast drive from Pensacola to Apalachicola.

After the frenetic offerings of Panama City Beach, U.S. 98 runs straight down a stretch of the Panhandle's coast that has escaped major tourist development, to the old oyster town of Apalachicola. The last stretch from the west runs 35 miles along unsullied beach land and a dense, uninhabited pine forest. It is the perfect way to cross to "the other side."

Folks in Apalachicola like to tell visitors that the name means "people on the other side" or "land of the friendly people" in the lost language of the American Indians who built their burial mounds and left huge piles of oyster shells on the coast.

When people use the expression "Southern hospitality," they're thinking of places like Apalachicola.

There are no traffic lights in "the land of the friendly people" nor in all of Franklin County. And they like it that way. (There's a yellow caution light on U.S. 98, but they don't count that.) It's a long way from the nearest interstate, too.

The turn-of-the-century Gibson Inn, a magnificently restored three-story piece of Southern Victoriana, sits like an old riverboat moored in the center of town. Enter the inn off the sweeping front porch through the cool, dark, wood-paneled bar, the air stirred by ceiling fans.

Nearby, under a canopy of live oaks, is the 158-year-old Trinity Episcopal Church, its green lawn punctuated with palm trees. Across the square, past the public library, is a tiny monument to Apalachicola's most famous son, John Gorie.

If life were fair, John Gorie would be a household name -- especially in the summer and most especially in warmer climes. Gorie was a country doctor in the 1830s and '40s who was trying to make his yellow fever patients more comfortable. His tinkering produced a machine that made ice artificially, laying the groundwork for what would become refrigeration and air conditioning.

Walk a few blocks down to the John Gorie State Museum (he's buried right across the street), and chances are you'll find Fred Ingley, the ranger in charge. Mr. Ingley keeps Apalachicola time at the museum. If you happen to stop while the museum is "closed" for lunch, it's no problem.

"Well, we just stay open," he says, then adds by way of explanation, "This is Apalachicola."

IF YOU GO . . .

Tourist information:

* Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, (904) 653-9419; Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, (904) 837-6241; Fort Walton Beach, (Emerald Coast Tourist Information: [800] 322-3319); .

Panama City Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau, (800) PC-BEACH; Pensacola Convention & Visitor Information Center, (800) 343-4321; and Walton County Chamber of Commerce in Grayton Beach, (904) 892-3191.

Beaches:

* Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, rated as the best beach in the country last year, is a 400-acre park next to the village of Grayton Beach; (904) 231-4210.

* Panama City Beach, with 27 miles of beachfront, is pretty much the centerpiece of the Panhandle Coast. St. Andrews State Park, one of Florida's most visited state parks (ranked fourth in the nationwide beach survey), is three miles east of Panama City Beach. It is a more-than-1,000-acre point of land between the gulf and St. Andrews Bay; (800) PC-BEACH.

* Gulf Islands National Seashore, a 150-mile stretch of gulf coast, includes several barrier islands off Florida and Mississippi. Florida (904) 934-2600; Mississippi (601) 875-0821.

* Fort Walton Beach has 24 miles of shoreline, including John C. Beasley State Park on Okaloosa Island and nearby Eglin Reservation Beach and Henderson Beach State Park.

* St. George Island State Park, near Apalachicola on the eastern end of the Panhandle, has nearly 2,000 acres of undeveloped barrier island. The park has nine miles of secluded beaches along the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay; (904) 927-2111.

For general information on Florida tourism, telephone Tourism Visitor Services at (904) 487-1462.

Eden State Gardens at the end of County Route 395 in Point Washington is open for tours 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday; (904) 231-4214.

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