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Hidden gems of Florida’s Emerald Coast

Dubbed the ‘Emerald Coast’ by a local junior high school student in 1983 (he won $50 for his efforts), the thin stretch of coastline along theFlorida Panhandle between Pensacola and Panama City has long been featured on the itineraries of motoring families and spring breakers. But these visitors have mostly stuck to the main sights off Florida State Road 30A, the region’s main drag. Here we shed some light on the Sunshine State’s little-known destinations.

Secret beaches

Florida’s breezy Gulf Coast beaches are some of the quickest ways to fend off sweltering weather and take a few deep gulps of fresh, salty air. Popular beaches are plentiful near main resort areas like Panama City Beach and Destin, but the area still has a few hidden treasures worth seeking out.

Not far from Panama City Beach, Shell Island is a favorite among locals and a few in-the-know visitors. An uninhabited island separating St Andrews Bay from the gulf, this pristine stretch of sand features none of the usual amenities – no concessions, restrooms, picnic tables or trash cans (remember to pack out what you bring in). Wander along sugar-sand beaches and through mangroves where the only other visitor might be a nesting shorebird. Bring a pair of binoculars to spot bottlenose dolphins, which are frequently spotted off the coast of this slice of paradise.

A bit further afield, Grayton Beach State Park exemplifies the region’s precious moniker, providing secluded beaches with azure waters, as well as biking and hiking trails and two rare coastal dune lakes that are made for exploring via kayak. Plus, thirty onsite cabins make for the perfect quiet getaway.

Under-visited state parks

Far away from Florida’s theme parks, the Emerald Coast offers a more feral alternative to the manicured entertainment found in the center of the state. Archaeological evidence suggests the area around Topsail Hill Preserve State Park was once used by Native Americans for hunting and fishing, and little has changed since. The park still features a stunning array of ecosystems, including cypress domes, marshes, pine flatwoods, scrub and wet prairies.

Just north of the pastel-colored planned community of Seaside, Eden Gardens State Park provides a glimpse of Florida as it was in the 19th century. Set on 163 acres of historic land, the park’s central focus is the restored Wesley House, a two-story mansion encircled by columned verandas. Elsewhere in the Spanish moss–shaded park there are ornamental gardens, a few hiking trails and boat access to the nearby Tucker Bayou.

Local haunts and hangouts

Once the sun sets or a thunderstorm roars overhead, head indoors to a warm and friendly spot for a bite to eat. With a squad of affable bartenders and budget-friendly food and drinks, Destin’s Red Door Saloon is the stay-until-last-call hangout where locals can be found after hours. Pizzas and bratwursts are available to soak up the booze.

On Front Beach Rd, Panama City Beach’s main commercialized artery, you’ll find more airbrushed t-shirts and cheap sunglasses than anything considered local, but there are a few diamonds in the rough. Serving up a slice of the Big Easy in Panama City, Red Rae’s Restaurant is just a few blocks away from the beach. With a menu that features cajun dishes like blackened shrimp po’boys or spicy jambalaya, Red Rae’s is easily a favorite with locals and visitors alike.

Undersea adventures

With nine wrecks just off the coast of Panama City Beach, this area of the Gulf of Mexico has been dubbed the ‘Wreck Capital of the South.’ Diving the Emerald Coast is a sure way to explore something secret to most. Fortunately, with several dive charters along the coast, exploring this area has never been easier.

Panama City’s newest wreck dive, the Red Sea, was a 125ft tugboat that was intentionally sunk in 2009. Now she sits just 40ft below the surface, and several species of marine life have already taken up residence. The Emerald Coast also features several submerged bridge spans, including sections of the Hathaway Bridge, which was originally built in 1929 and connected Panama City to Panama City Beach, but is now home to angel fish, grouper and the occasional barracuda.

For landlubbers who still want to get a glimpse of life several fathoms underwater, head to Man in the Sea Museum, which showcases the variety of gear and undersea habitats used to explore the mysteries of the ocean.