From Pensacola’s vibrant street life, to swimming with manatees on the nature coast, northern Florida blends history with nature – and then adds a good-old-fashioned dash of Southern-style hospitality for good measure.
Pensacola is well-accustomed to having its fair share of visitors. Over the course of history the city has been ruled by the British, the Spanish, the French, the Confederacy and the United States – hence its nickname: ‘The City of Five Flags’.
Considered to be ‘Florida’s First Beach’, not only geographically from the northwest, but as the country’s first major settlement back in 1559, the Pensacola Bay Area has long been known for its award-winning sugar-white sand beaches.
As the destination witnesses the continued renaissance of its historic downtown district, what was once a sleepy beach town is now being transformed into a thriving city with a vibrant, culturally-rich downtown scene that is garnering attention from travellers from across the globe.
At the epicentre of this cultural revival is Palafox Street, which was recently named one of the ‘10 Great Streets in America’. Running through the heart of downtown Pensacola, Palafox Street plays host to a variety of unique local restaurants, chic boutiques, trendy bars and plentiful art galleries. The cultural big five – ballet, opera, symphony, theatre and a museum of the visual arts – all add big-city flair to this charming Southern-style street.
On seven special nights each year, Palafox Street opens to pedestrian traffic only, transforming it into a block party known as ‘Gallery Night’, which welcomes thousands of locals and visitors. This free event features more than 40 restaurants, art galleries, bars and boutiques, which stay open late into the night to celebrate the area’s distinct culture.
Visit South Walton/Tommy Crow
Located along a 41-kilometre stretch of the northwest Florida coast, South Walton encompasses an unparalleled strand of 16 distinct beach neighbourhoods, each with its own traditions, charm and visual style.
An upscale yet casual place to unwind, art events and exhibitions fill the calendar in South Walton, showcasing the passionate talent of the area’s many artists.
Held every month in Seaside, the First Friday Ruskin Place Art Walk features live music, gourmet hors d’oeuvres and wine to tempt visitors to stroll along the largest collection of art galleries on the northwest Florida Gulf Coast.
Alternatively, each May the week-long ArtsQuest celebration features gallery tours, artists at work, performances, road races, a fashion show and a Champagne shopping tour; while from May to July, Rosemary Beach plays host to the West Indies Market, an open-air market that offers paintings, pottery, jewellery, stained glass and wood carvings.
June’s Digital Graffiti event, which is held in Alys Beach, is an outdoor art festival where artists use the latest technologies to project original video art onto the resort town’s iconic white walls and rooftops; while September’s Baytowne Wharf Art Expo features world-class art and live music under the stars.
Budding artists are sure to love the Flutterby Children’s Art Festival in November, which celebrates the colourful migration of the monarch butterfly through the region. This Rosemary Beach event features an open air art market, as well as crafts booths and interactive art projects for children. Visit Florida
Panama City Beach
Beautifully located on Florida’s Emerald Coast, Panama City Beach has some of Florida’s most enticing beaches right on its doorstep. This is a great destination for families, as it’s all about enjoying the great outdoors.
‘PCB’, as it’s affectionately called, features some 43 glorious kilometres of white sand and turquoise waters, and as the coastline that angles slightly toward the west, you can watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico every single day of the year.
The crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico are excellent for snorkeling, and there’s a good chance of meeting sea turtles or giant manta rays. Nicknamed the ‘wreck capital of the south’, the area offers a choice of natural, historical and artificial reefs to explore, including the famous Empire Mica, a British tanker that was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942. And these waters are rich with enough red snapper, mackerel and flounder to keep anglers happy.
Hikers adore wildlife-spotting on the Blue Heron Trail or Gator Lake Trail in St. Andrew’s State Park, while bikers can let loose on the 35 kilometres of biking trails in the new Panama City Beach Conservation Park.Visit Tallahassee
Tallahassee shares a deep-rooted history and culture with an unparalleled upbeat vitality. This winning fusion of cosmopolitan flair and charming personality defines the spirit of Florida’s capital city.
Stretching along the Florida Panhandle, Tallahassee is a place where a college town meets cultural centre, where politics meet the performing arts, and where history meets nature. And with its rolling hills, oak-canopied roads and quaint plantation homes, Tallahassee simply oozes genteel Southern hospitality and good manners.
The New Capitol building rises at the centre of Tallahassee’s downtown district, next to the more classic Old Capitol. A gallery atop the 22-storey New Capitol provides a sweeping view of the hilly city and its tree-lined streets.
Tallahassee’s famous canopy roads – originally old Indian trails that are now lined with huge, moss-draped oaks – provide great opportunities for scenic driving adventures. Covering 125 kilometres, there are nine designated canopy roads throughout the area. Visit Florida
It’s possible to effortlessly blend the best of both worlds in Jacksonville’s year-round sunshine. That’s because you have all the urban pleasures of the big city alongside the endless opportunities for some serious down-time on the city’s 32 kilometres of wide Atlantic beaches. What more could you wish for?
This city is a cultural hub extraordinaire. With its symphony orchestra, Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Science and History, Cummer Museum of Art and The Alhambra – one of the last remaining dinner theatres in the country – Jacksonville is consistently ranked in the top 25 arts destinations in the U.S.
This April, the city is set to become a magnet for innovation and ingenuity. The One Spark ‘crowd-funding’ festival will hit the streets from April 9 to 13. Artists, entrepreneurs and innovators will display their projects on a 20-square-block, multi-venue gallery in downtown Jacksonville.
There are $10,000 prizes up for grabs for the top five creators in each category, as well as another $10,000 for the top five juried prizes, plus whatever funding is collected from the public.
Surrounded by beaches, nature parks and wildlife, St. Augustine is a tranquil and historic haven that is pure heaven for history buffs.
Founded back in September 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain, the city is the longest continually-inhabited European-founded city in the U.S.
The north side of the Plaza de la Constitucion, the oldest public park in the country, features the magnificent Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, which was built back in 1797. The Trinity Episcopal Church, which was completed in 1831, occupies the south side of the plaza.
The atmospheric, brick-paved Aviles Street runs south from the plaza and is lined with cosy restaurants and quaint antique shops. King Street leads west from the plaza and passes the Casa Monica Hotel, which was restored to its Spanish Renaissance greatness in 1999. It dates back to 1888 and embodies all of the opulence of the Gilded Age.
Check out Anastasia Island, which lies just five minutes from the city. Anastasia’s pearl-white sands make a rewarding stop during an extended vacation. Alternatively, go in search of bobcats and bald eagles in the nearby Faver-Dykes State Park.
Beyond the hustle and bustle of Florida’s urban attractions, lies the Nature Coast, a conservation paradise that runs from Clearwater to Ochlockonee Bay. Covering nine counties, this coast is a sanctuary to some 19 endangered species.
One of the area’s hidden gems, the Plantation on Crystal River, has two packages that give guests the opportunity to swim with the West Indian manatee in Crystal River – the only location in North America where you can legally swim and interact with sea cows in the wild.
During prime manatee viewing season, which usually runs from October to April, depending on temperatures, you can swim with up to 350 manatees as they play, eat and socialize. Sandestin Wine Festival
Northern Florida: Dates For Your Diary
• Mardi Gras, Pensacola and Pensacola Beach, January 4 – March 4 One of the country's original celebration sites, Pensacola and Pensacola Beach host family-oriented fun. The Kick-Off celebration takes place January 4; there’s a Mardi Gras Run With Colour on January 18; the Grand Mardi Gras Parade on March 1; and the Fat Tuesday Celebration on March 4.
• A Songwriters Festival, South Walton, January 15 – 20 More than 120 artists perform in intimate venues and large amphitheatres allowing you to experience a wide variety of music and beach neighbourhoods in South Walton.
• Canada Day, Panama City Beach, February 9 The largest single gathering of Canadian Snowbirds and their neighbours in the Florida Panhandle. An evening of dining, dancing, prizes, fellowship and celebrating being Canadian at the Wyndham Bay Point Resort.
• Gulf Coast Medieval Fair, Pensacola, March Step back to the days of old with jousting exhibitions, falconry, medieval musicians, jesters, jugglers, fire breathers, belly dancers and bagpipers.
• Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival, April ‘Worm grunting ‘is a method of attracting earthworms from the ground. It is usually performed to collect bait for fishing, but it can also be a competitive sport.
• Annual Wakulla Wildlife Festival, Tallahassee, April 19 The festival is a celebration of outdoor activities and area heritage. Local musicians, artists, and experts offer festival participants one-of-a-kind experiences, helpful advice, and personal enrichment in a neighborhood family atmosphere.
• South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival, April 24 – 27 With 800 wines available to taste and an array of fine cuisine, the South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival promises to deliver a world-class experience.
• Montecello Watermelon Festival, June The Watermelon Festival started over 50 years ago to recognize the watermelon growers of the county. The festival includes beauty pageants, dinners, street dance, arts and crafts and sports events.
• Digital Graffiti at Alys Beach, South Walton, June 6 & 7 Digital Graffiti at Alys Beach is a projection art festival, with artists using the latest technologies to project their original works onto the town’s iconic white walls.
• 23rd Annual Tallahassee Model Railroad Show & Sale, June 28 The event will host experts on model train design, layout, equipment and construction, vendors featuring a wide range of trains and other model railroad items.
• St Marks Wildlife Refuge Monarch Butterfly Festival, October View thousands of monarch butterflies as they prepare for their long journey across the Gulf of Mexico to wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico.
• Baytowne Wharf Beer Festival, October Beer connoisseurs can sample more than 100 domestic and international craft beers while viewing over 100 of America’s favourite sports cars on the Grand Lawn during the annual Baytowne Wharf Beer Festival at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
• Seafood Festival, Apalachicola, November Seafood, arts and crafts exhibits, musical entertainment, oyster-eating contest and blue crab races. Visit Florida
North Florida has as many options for the kids as for the parents. While you browse open-air clothing stores along the Jacksonville beach, let the kids enjoy a game of laser-tag at Adventure Island, or Florida’s only uphill water coaster at Adventure Landing. Or take a short drive over to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, with its more than 2,700 gators and crocodiles – which makes it the world’s most complete collection of crocodilians. Take a walk along the easy trails of the coast of South Walton then let the kids go beach combing on the terrific white Florida sand.