PENSACOLA, Fla. - The gleaming white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Florida's Panhandle draw millions of visitors each year, but this area isn't known for glitz, glamour and high-end hotspots like some of Florida's other beaches. Instead, the Panhandle offers a laid-back vibe, Southern hospitality and family atmosphere. The region caters to budget-conscious travelers who often drive from nearby Southern cities like Atlanta, Birmingham or New Orleans.
Hotel and restaurant costs climb during the peak summer months, but even the priciest Panhandle resorts are generally less expensive than Miami Beach, Naples or the Florida Keys. And the Panhandle offers many opportunities for great memories visiting local attractions that cost nothing at all.
From Pensacola in the western Panhandle to Apalachicola in the east, you'll find more than 200 miles of relatively undeveloped beaches. Walk the sand in the early morning or late day to glimpse a spectacular sunrise or sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. Because the beaches don't get lots of traffic — except for a few towns that draw college spring breakers in March — shell seekers often make unique finds such as small conch shells and sand dollars. Beachgoers often glimpse pods of dolphins frolicking in the distance and schools of stingrays gliding just offshore.
NATIONAL NAVAL AVIATION MUSEUM
The museum is located on Pensacola Naval Air Station and is open to the public 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, navalaviationmuseum.org/. The museum offers an extensive collection of vintage military aircraft from all eras of flight and has numerous hands-on displays that give visitors a taste of what it was like to be a naval aviator through the generations. On most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings March through November, 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron practices in the skies above the museum, navalaviationmuseum.org/explore/blue-angels-practices. Visitors are treated to a full, jaw-dropping performance by six of the world's best fighter pilots. Team members gather inside the museum after some practices for an autograph session with visitors.
The picturesque village of Seaside — seasidefl.com/ — is located on the Gulf of Mexico between Destin and Panama City and includes some of the priciest beach homes in the region. Developed in 1981 as a planned resort community, Seaside was the setting of the 1998 film, "The Truman Show," starring Jim Carrey. Seaside is known for its pastel-colored beach bungalows built in the old Florida tradition and for its beautifully landscaped walkways and public areas. The town has a selection of upscale boutiques and restaurants, but there is lots of fun to be had in Seaside without spending any money. Seaside often has live concerts during the evenings in its outdoor amphitheater. Visitors are encouraged to pack a picnic and enjoy the music; details at seasidefl.com/highlights/events-calendar/.
WENTWORTH MUSEUM AND HISTORIC PENSACOLA
A collection of historic homes, museums and other sites (historicpensacola.org/default.cfm) highlights Pensacola's history dating to the mid-1500s under Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American control. Admission to the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum (historicpensacola.org/photo_gallery_images6fec.cfm) is free. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
For a look inside the historic homes in Historic Pensacola Village, you can take a tour for $6. The University of West Florida Archaeology department often conducts digs in the area and visitors can get a close-up look at a dig in progress.
THE DESTIN DOCKS
The sign welcoming visitors to the well-known Panhandle resort city of Destin calls Destin "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village." The sign is an homage to a time when the area was known for its fine snapper fishing and shrimping rather than high-rise condos, but fishing remains a huge part of local culture. Destin has a large charter boat fleet and visitors can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars searching for marlin and mahi on a deep-sea fishing expedition. For visitors who don't have their sea legs or who don't want to spend serious money trying their luck at offshore fishing, Destin's fishing docks still offer an entertaining stroll. Fishermen unload and clean their catch and display the fish for passers-by to view, and the large grouper, snapper and other fish are usually an impressive sight.
Harborwalk Village and the Emerald Grand resort (emeraldgrande.com/harborwalk-village.aspx) located on the west end of Destin, have a variety of seasonal events year-round and make a fun place for visitors to stroll before or after checking out the day's catch.