Panama City Beach CVB
By Graham Templeton
Did you know St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in North America? It was 500 years ago the Spanish landed and the state of Florida has celebrated ever since. What’s to celebrate up here? How about historic sites, both Spanish and aboriginal? What about miles and miles of stunning beaches, tranquil towns, military history and unbelievable fishing? Find out more.
Established in 1565 by Spanish explorer and admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine is the oldest continually populated European town in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, the Oldest City in America has more than enough historical travel options to keep visitors satisfied; stone forts that predate the nation itself are a particularly popular stop. The local wax museum immortalizes several historical tableaux, freezing in time the landing of the Spanish explorers and the history-shaping actions they took on their first several landings along the newly-dubbed Floridian coastline.
Even St. Augustine’s commercial museums have a flair for the ancient, (the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum is within the walls of historic Castle Warden). Meanwhile, the Lightner Museum is housed within one of America’s oldest hotels and showcases St. Augustine’s true antiquity. Having charged itself with displaying the “Wonders of the Gilded Age” through the story of St. Augustine, there is so much history to display.
For more information visit www.www.floridashistoriccoast.com
By land area, Jacksonville is the largest city in the continental United States, and certainly the biggest in Florida. As a result, the sprawling metropolis has everything from beachfront properties to forested reserve parks, and something to fill just about any traveller’s needs. Still, its culture and larger significance within Florida is based on more than mere geography; Jacksonville is also a centre of Floridian culture, history, and education.
The Ritz Theatre and Museum is a good example of Jacksonville’s eclectic cultural scene, a 400-seat theatre with a small, attached museum. The Ritz focuses primarily on African American history and cultural communication, featuring folk art and history exhibits from the community. This sort of cultural diversity is a big part of Jacksonville’s commitment to being the most inclusive destination in the southern United States. Heritage centres exist for everything from Chinese immigrants to multi-generational Jacksonville fishermen.
The most elaborate of these is the Trail of Florida’s Indian Heritage, a non-profit, statewide network of ancient and contemporary Indian sites in Florida. The trail regularly features free speaking engagements from some of Florida’s top educators and commentators on the topic. Additionally, the trail itself is made up of well-planned routes for rewarding walks through the past of Florida’s Indian heritage, and its increasingly threatened present.
Art is a major focus in Jacksonville tourism. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is one of the largest collections in the state and a tribute to the meticulous collecting of the late Ninah M.H. Cummer. With nearly 5,000 pieces on display it will take travellers some time to chew through, but assuming there’s still a bit of daylight left there are ample options for more artistic stops. Broadway in Jacksonville runs a regular event called the Artist Series, which has showcased local and regional artistic talent for almost 50 years; today, a sizable portion of the artists who break out of Florida and Georgia do so via Jacksonville’s Artist Series. The Art Center Cooperative of Jacksonville is another such effort to help launch budding Floridian talents, and once again travellers get to reap the rewards.
Jacksonville is a place steeped in history and culture, and which has no trouble sharing its social riches with visitors from all over the world.
For more information visit www.VisitJacksonville.com
Florida’s capital city also happens to be its quintessential college town, a relatively quiet municipality that (ironically) empties around Florida’s Spring Break busy season. It is consistently named one of America’s best cities in which to live and features a thriving arts scene; it starts at the Tallahassee Regional Airport where you pass the Artport Gallery showcasing local and regional artists on your way out.
B Sharp’s Jazz Café is one great venue, and Tallahassee’s only traditional jazz club featuring both local and national talent. With gourmet appetizers, coffees and wines, the café runs out of the 1921 Historic Woman’s Working Bank Building. If even that doesn’t satisfy your search for artsy travel activities, the Back Talk poetry Troupe is one of Florida’s better-known slam poetry groups. For a less verbose form of expression, try the African Caribbean Dance Theatre.
As you might expect of any state capital, Tallahassee’s capitol buildings and their many attendant museums and galleries are enough to fill even a lengthy vacation. The Goodwood Museum and Gardens is one example with beautiful heritage architecture.
For more information visit www.visittallahassee.com
Panama City Beach
Though it has fewer than 8,000 permanent year-round residents, Panama City Beach boasts over six million traveller visits each year. That’s possible because Panama City Beach is built literally from the ground up to accommodate the tourism business, with its geographical blessing of long, white sand beaches. The city boasts that it’s renowned for its amazing beach experiences, and given the sheer number and popularity of them, it’s hard to argue.
The city certainly has enough awards under its belt. St. Andrews State Park has been named to several lists of America’s top beaches, popular not just for its long and flawless sandy beaches but for the lunch areas that abut them, and the piers that protrude from them into the water. The piers, for both fishing and lounging, are among the most scenic in the world, and combined with a wonderful town full of fun and affordable cuisine, and of course the Florida sun rising from clear over the water, it’s clear why this is a major American beach destination.
Panama Beach also bills itself as the perfect starting point for a scenic drive to Mexico Beach, a nearby beach that’s close enough for a day-trip, but far enough away to offer some distinctions from Panama City’s other luxurious beaches. The land is less developed than the beach-front properties closer to the city core, and residents refer to the area as a slice of Mexico itself. And don’t worry if you’re yearning to take a dip in the sea, since the area was designed with just that in mind; whether you’re in a shop or a restaurant, you’re never more than a five-minute walk from the water.
The beaches are only half the attraction for sea-faring travellers to Panama City. It also boasts one of the world’s greatest densities of bottlenose dolphins. They come, like the fishermen, for the abundance of trout, mackerel and other fish. Sightings are common along the shore, and even more common from the deck of a boat. Combined with a thriving scuba and snorkel tour industry, these wondrous sea creatures are the perfect highlight to one of America’s best beachfront destinations.
For more information visit www.VisitPanamaCityBeach.com
Emerald Coast stretches along almost 38 kilometres of white-sand beach and runs through five different counties, which makes it one of North Florida’s most diverse localities. The sand is made up of pure Appalachian quartz, giving the water that distinctive emerald-green colour.
Destin is known as the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, and the name is well earned; the waters are stocked with all manner of fun and fighting aquatic game. Fishermen who venture out into deeper water will be rewarded with sailfish, marlin, wahoo and other deep-sea fish. However, inshore fishermen can also expect ample weight on their lines, especially in the form of cobia, bluefish, tarpon and mackerel.
No aquatic survey of Florida is complete without considering its greatest reptile. Gator Beach makes for a fun family vacation into the world of large and hungry alligators. Visitors can feed the beasts as well as view educational shows about their odd and varied ways. Gator Beach recreates the natural habitat of these animals and strives to educate the public on their needs, and how to safely deal with them in the wild.
Just down the beach is the world’s oldest continually operating live marine show, Florida’s Gulfarium. It’s best known for its regular live shows with trained dolphins and sea lions, as well as displays containing most other forms of aquatic wildlife found in Florida’s gulf. When you’re done touring, be sure to return to the dolphin enclosure for some quality time with the sea-faring mammals, as the Gulfarium also offers poolside “meet and greets” with the aquarium’s biggest stars.
For more information visit www.EmeraldCoastFl.com
South Walton is a collection of 15 beaches stretching along the coast in North Florida, an absolute no-brainer of a destination for anyone looking for the quintessential Floridian beach experience. However, South Walton also features a number of off-coastal activities geared toward occupying those few moments travellers might not want to spend on the sand.
First, there are the spas. Many of them line the beach areas, just a quick sandaled stroll from the water, and many capitalize on this sort of spontaneous walk-in business with enticing deals and buy-now offers. Still, most of the spa treatment in South Walton is of the traditional sort, scheduled, and includes everything from aromatherapy to deep, stress-relieving massage. You don’t even have to leave the beach area to get to Grayton Beach Massage and the attractions just keep coming as travellers move inland.
Serenity by the Sea Spa focuses on both physical and spiritual health and wellness. Soak in a salt-infused hot tub or enjoy cleansing facial scrubs before heading for a trip to the gym and a relaxing rub-down. On the other side of the spa spectrum is Salon Centric, a family-oriented relaxation centre with solutions for every member of the family.
The pampering can only last so long, however, and after you’ve gotten loose and limber, there’s still the matter of the rest of the day. Fortunately, spread liberally in and among the spas, cafés and restaurants, South Walton has any number of diverse shopping solutions. Bridging the gap nicely between luxuriating and purchasing is L’Occitane, where visitors have been buying virtually any sort of scent or skin-care product since the mid-seventies. Then there’s one of Florida’s more distinctive shopping experiences, the Market Shops at Sandestin, which offer the feel of a well-manicured resort. This impeccably landscaped outdoor shopping centre has more than 30 stores, each addressing some under-served segment of the shopping world, from innovative kitchen gadgets to gourmet chocolates.
Emerald Coast Parkway is studded with small boutiques and independent bookstores, and is known particularly as a hotspot for antique hunters. Try Summer House Village Antiques and Decoratives for a classy and high quality answer to big-box retail. South Walton does have its fair share of such department stores, however, and Emerald Coast Parkway is also home to Silver Sands Premium Outlets. Silver Sands is a collection of over 100 designer outlet stores, and one of the ultimate Floridian destinations for those couture summer fashions.
For more information visit www.VisitSouthWalton.com
Pensacola has been designated by the Nature Conservancy as a hotspot for biodiversity, and is particularly known for its number and assortment of colourful birds. Foremost on the list of endangered birds native to the Pensacola area is the Snowy Pover, a small and finch-like bird that’s considered one of the luckiest sightings on a Pensacola nature tour.
The Edward Ball Nature Trail makes for great walking or biking, and runs near a series of small rivers that give Pensacola claim to the title of “Canoe Capital of Florida”. There’s no better venue from which to go bird watching, and more than that there’s no better way to see the varied geography of the Florida coastline.
Guided tours are run on foot, by kayak and via small watercraft, and can be geared towards either ecological education or more leisurely wildlife spotting. Common sightings include sunning otters, jumping dolphins, and swimming sea turtles. You don’t have to wait for the underwater wonders to breach the surface for you, however, as ample scuba and snorkel opportunities exist to take you into the alternate world of the undersea. One favourite area is the Perdido Watershed, which houses an unknown number of rare and endangered species of fish, bird and insect. From starfish to octopus, Florida’s biodiversity is just as rich on the river and ocean floor as it is on land and in the sky.
For more information visit www.visitpensacola.com
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 making 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. www.alligatorfarm.com
North Florida is home to America’s oldest city. Cultural and educational events will be hard to miss in the early weeks of 2013, exactly 500 years after Poncce de Leon’s arrival in 1513. Major focus will be given to the Spanish and Native American traditions, and their roles in shaping early Floridian history. Several local forts and historical sites are running extra tour times, as the anniversary brings interest in the state’s long and influential history to new heights.
Flagler County has been described as the “Pebble Beach of Florida”, and with good reason. Several courses in the Flagler area were designed by golf’s biggest names, like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson.
Of course, nothing can compare to Ponte Vedra, a municipality near St. Augustine that is home to The Players Championship and the PGA Tour. Many PGA champions have made their home in Ponte Vedra, due mostly the abundance of professional courses and of great Florida weather.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville serves all needs, from high end private country clubs to open pitch-and-putt family courses.