I just got back from a weeklong visit to my hometown. You’re probably conjuring up idyllic scenes of Main Street, U.S.A., but I hail from the Panhandle of Florida. Instead, I was treated to stretches of sugar-white beaches, boiled peanuts, and crystal-clear waters.
As gorgeous as my old stomping grounds are, they’re still pretty quiet in terms of tourism. Here’s my Local’s Guide to the Emerald Coast, including stops in Panama City Beach, Rosemary Beach, Destin and more.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of affordable hotels to choose from on the Emerald Coast. The real question is: what town do you want to stay in? Some of the most popular choices are: Panama City Beach, Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and Watercolor.
Your most affordable options will be anywhere other than Seaside or Watercolor. Seaside is the idyllic community where “The Truman Show” was filmed and Watercolor boasts restaurants celebrated by the likes of the New York Times.
Once synonymous with cheap motels and spring break, Panama City Beach has revamped itself and today is very family friendly. But my personal favorite is Rosemary Beach. Older and less cutesy than Seaside, Rosemary Beach still offers the lively vibe and shops of Seaside, without the hefty price tag.
Where to Eat:
Nearly all of the communities offer a wide variety of dining options, from high-end restaurants all the way down to food trucks. Here are a few I enjoyed this past trip.
George’s at Alys Beach: It was the line outside George’s at both lunch and dinner that piqued our interest. Situated in the half-built, uber-fabulous community of Alys Beach (between Rosemary Beach and Seaside), this mid-range spot offers excellent seafood and wines by the glass. My grilled grouper sandwich was divine.
Stinky’s Fish Camp: Not far from this area in a little town called Apalachicola, the best oysters in the world are raised. Don’t miss your chance to try them–but be careful about which spot you choose to serve them to you since nearly all local fish shacks have signs boasting “Apalachicola oysters!” Stinky’s offers the real deal all day, every day and prepared in a variety of ways, including with cheddar and bacon, dosed in a cream sauce, or coated in lemon and parmesan. Delicious!
Food Trucks in Seaside: One of our favorite food outings was to the strip of food trucks in the main square of Seaside. After careful scientific sampling, we agreed that the “vittles” from Barefoot BBQ were the best. But feel free to try them all!
What to Do:
You’ve already guessed that every day should include bobbing in the balmy Gulf of Mexico waters and building sandcastles, but here are a few other things you shouldn’t miss on your trip.
Rent Bikes: This was the first trip where we parked our car and spent the rest of the week biking among the communities. Our spot in Rosemary Beach meant that we were just a quick ride away from most shops and restaurants. There are plenty of bike paths and this is the preferred way to get around.
Night Walks on the Beach: When the sun goes down, head for the beach — but be sure to leave your flashlights behind since they confuse the sea turtle hatchlings trying to make their way to the water.
Instead, enjoy the sound of the surf, the gorgeous stars above, and the scattering of the ghost crabs, desperate to get out of your way! This one is a favorite with the little ones.