Did you know the best beaches are in Northwest Florida? Spoiler Alert! This post is about 12 reasons to plan a trip to Northwest Florida, and the beaches are at the top of the list! My good friend, Karen, and I had an opportunity to hit up several Northwest Florida destinations in partnership with VISIT FLORIDA and local tourism boards, South Walton, Emerald Coast, and Visit Pensacola. From East to West, we visited Inlet Beach, Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, Seaside, Destin, Okaloosa Island, Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key.
These towns are just a few inside the larger region called the Florida Panhandle or the Emerald Coast. It’s a stretch of over 200 miles of white sugar sand beach and emerald green water on the Gulf of Mexico from the border of Alabama, on the west, to as far as Tallahassee, on the east. I’m sure most people think Miami, Orlando, or the Keys when planning a trip to the Sunshine State. But in my opinion, Northwest Florida has so many unique things to offer and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever laid my eyes on! Suitable for families, a girls’ getaway, couple’s or solo travel, here are 12 reasons to starting planning your next trip to Northwest Florida.
1. The Beaches!!!
No surprise here that the beaches tops the list. Although each town we visited had a unique feel to it, the one common thread was the gorgeous beach. In NW FL, the white sand is made from nearly pure quartz crystals. Originally from the Appalachian Mountains, they eventually washed onto the beaches by water currents and waves from the Gulf of Mexico! Northwest Florida has some of the purest white sand in the state, and certainly anywhere I’ve ever seen! Apart from the sugary, white sand, the water is warm and comes in all shades of green and blue – from emerald green (hence the name “Emerald Coast”) to turquoise.
I also loved the cute solid blue and blue striped umbrellas that lined the beachfront!
Yes, I’m listing the entire town of Seaside, Florida as your 2nd reason to plan a trip to Northwest Florida! Have you seen the movie The Truman Show? It was filmed right in Seaside. This tiny town is marked by colourful houses with painted wood exteriors and white picket fences, and is one of the coolest I’ve ever been to. If it wasn’t for the long list of people trying to scoop up real estate here, I’d already be planning my move!
Seaside’s motto, “A simple, beautiful life” is exemplified in the way it’s laid out. It’s touted as the birthplace of New Urbanism, a design movement promoting environmentally friendly habits, walkable neighborhoods, and intended to reduce urban sprawl. A master-planned community, inside its 80 acres, you can find a town square, one school, one post office, a chapel, restaurants and food trucks, boutiques and shops, and lots of houses. My favourite part? It was designed so that no matter where you are, you’re never more than a 5-minute walk from the beach!
Some other fun facts about this quirky town:
- Each house has a white picket fence, and no two white picket fences are alike (by law)
- Each house has its own name, like “In Surf we Trust” pictured immediately above (and in case you’re wondering what the interior of this 4,500 sq. ft. home looks like, there’s a great article about it here)
- There are no chain restaurants or stores – everything is boutique
- It’s used as a model for urban design internationally
- Streets are intentionally made narrower to slow traffic in residential areas and promote walking
- No one can build here, unless they’ve gone through the architectural review board
- There are hidden foot paths behind the houses and streets to take you down to the beach, so you don’t have to walk on the main roads
3. Neighbouring Towns, Rosemary Beach & Alys Beach are just as cool
Neighbouring Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach (pronounced “Alice Beach”) were also modelled after new urbanist principles. Like Seaside, they’re close to the beach, walkable (even more fun to bike through), completely safe, and have ridiculously pretty houses!
4. Great Accommodation
In Northwest Florida, you can find accommodation to suit all budgets – from luxury to mid-range and affordable. The variety of accommodation type make Northwest Florida a great place to vacation, whether you’re planning a couple’s trip, girls’ trip, or large group trip. We stayed at 3 different hotels during our trip.
The Henderson (Destin)
Luxurious Southern Charm meets the beach is kind of how I’d describe The Henderson. The beautifully designed rooms are spacious and have a colour palette of sea foam green and neutrals. Hello, when can I move in?! The rooms also have a big, comfy beds, separate living rooms with couch, a desk, and large en suite bathroom with tub and stand-up shower. Service here was exemplary, and our dinner at The Primrose was a standout.
Oh, and how could I forget about the cute 50s inspired ice cream shop in the basement and the outdoor pool *heart eyes*?!
The Pointe (Inlet Beach)
Newly opened in April of 2017, The Pointe is a gorgeous, modern, vacation rentals hotel with a large outdoor pool and breakfast restaurant on-site. The suites have multiple bedrooms, bathrooms, and large kitchens. They’re perfect for families or large groups who want to self-cater. All guests enjoy free bike rentals (to explore nearby Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach) and lounge chairs on the beach.
Hilton Pensacola Beach
Location, location, location – you could not get any closer to Pensacola Beach than at the Hilton Pensacola Beach! But if you’re more the pool type, there’s a big outdoor one too! We had spectacular views of Casino/Pensacola Beach and the pier from our suite balconies, and I loved the direct access to the beach. Our suites were humongous; and with 2 queen-sized beds, a bunk bed, large living room with couch and kitchen, you could fit an entire family of 8!
5. The Food & Drink
Familiar with farm-to-table? Well, in these parts, they specialize in Gulf-to-table. All along the coast of Northwest Florida, you’ll be treated to some of the freshest fish from the Gulf of Mexico, including Trigger fish, Redfish, Bluefish, Pompano, Amberjack and Grouper, to name a few. Try any of them blackened, grilled or fried – that’s the way they do it in these parts! Many of the restaurants we visited also had beautiful decor and fantastic views!
6. Wildlife Spotting
A sunset dolphin cruise is a truly special experience, so make time in your itinerary for one. There are a couple local tour operators that offer these cruises in Destin, including Southern Star Dolphin Cruises and Olin Marler. It’s so much fun to get on a boat to chase after some of the 10,000 or so bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico! They periodically pop out of the water, and when they do, it’s such a treat!
7. Outdoor Adventure & Activities
If catching, rather than spotting, sea life is more your thing, Okaloosa Island Pier is a popular place to cast your rod. Destin claims to be the world’s luckiest fishing village, so it’s a great place to catch some of the finest in Gulf fish.
Apart from wildlife, there’s no shortage of adventure and activities in Northwest Florida. In Destin, in particular, head to HarborWalk Village, where you can zip line over top with HarborWalk Adventures. After flying through the sky, head over to Margaritaville for some casual fare and some margaritas with a view!
One of the most unique experiences we had in Pensacola was a trimaran cruise with Condor Sailing Adventures in Pensacola. A trimaran is essentially a catamaran with 3 hulls, rather than 2, and is wider than an ordinary sailboat (28 ft. versus 10 ft.). A ride on one is smoother, safer and stabler, without the risk of keeling over because of its construction. Captain Kirk sails the only Condor trimaran used for commercial tours, out of only 21 Condors in the world. The other 20 are used for racing. While out at sea, we got to witness the world-famous U.S. Navy Blue Angels practicing right above our heads!
8. Cotton candy sunrises
I will pass up sleeping in on a trip for the opportunity to catch a beautiful sunrise any day! In Pensacola, we witnessed one of the most beautiful cotton candy sunrises I’ve ever seen.
9. Pretty pastel vibes
If you love pretty pastel colours as much as me, you’ll have ample eye candy in Northwest Florida. Since pictures are worth a thousand words, I’ll just let them do the talking…
10. Architecture like you’ve never seen
In South Walton, the housing units range from Victorian to Neoclassical, and Modern to Postmodern. A standout for interesting and unique architecture was Alys Beach. It features Bermudian style, multi-million dollar homes, which we marveled at on our bike ride through the town. In each destination we visited, house spotting was one of our favourite activities. And could you blame us? The houses are all so cute!
11. State Parks
Each of the 3 main destinations we visited in Northwest Florida have expansive state parks. At 2,200 acres, Grayton Beach State Park in South Walton is one of the most popular parks in the state of Florida. You can partake in any number of outdoor activities, including biking, boating, birding, fishing, swimming or kayaking. In Emerald Coast, I absolutely loved Henderson Beach State Park, which was just miles and miles of beautiful beach and sand dunes. Finally, in Pensacola head to Big Lagoon State Park to go kayaking in the lagoon or participate in other water activities.
12. Southern Hospitality and Charm
Last, but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Southern hospitality. Since Northwest Florida borders, and is close to, other Southern U.S. states, including Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, you’ll hear that typical southern drawl when people speak to you. I didn’t expect for Northwest Florida to feel more like the south, but it makes sense to me now. The people we encountered were super hospitable and friendly!