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

April 30, 1995|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Universal Press Syndicate

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."

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