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Trip to Florida Panhandle offers unspoiled beauty, history

Some call it the Redneck Riviera, though tourism boosters prefer the Forgotten Coast, or maybe even the more Celtic sounding Emerald Coast. • It's the Florida Panhandle and it is as different from the rest of Florida as Pepsi is from Coke. Yes, the Panhandle is in the same state as Tampa, Orlando and Miami, but it has its own flavor. The portion of the Panhandle south of Alabama, which is most of it, is even in a different time zone than the rest of the state. • Forget the nightlife, unless you count midnight fishing on the Choctawhatchee River. In the Panhandle, vacationers trade theme parks for state parks that have real thrill hills and sand dunes. The pace is slower, more genteel, and the food — and accents — more Southern. The white-sand beaches are wide and frequented by folks from Georgia and Alabama all summer long. And there's history there. When the peninsula was mostly swamp, settlers and explorers set up camp on the wide strip of northern Florida. • Today's installment of our yearlong Sunshine State Scrapbook series focuses on the Florida that stretches from Tallahassee to Pensacola. If you haven't been, gather the family and gas up the car. It's 470 miles from Tampa to Pensacola (more than the 455 to Atlanta). The drive will remind you what a big state you live in. The change in terrain and vibe shows its diversity. • Put these places and events on your to-go list. And make sure you stop somewhere for Apalachicola oysters. And grits. Lot of grits. • Janet K. Keeler, Times lifestyles editor

Sources: Times files, Orlando, Central & North Florida: Visitor's Guide by Sandra Friend and Kathy Wolf (Countryman Press, 2004), Backroads & Byways of Florida by Zain Deane (Countryman Press, 2009), visitflorida.com.



Florida Caverns State Park

A cave tour of Florida’s delicate limestone underpinnings will have you ducking and squeezing through places called the Wedding Room and the Cathedral. This state park in Marianna (3345 Caverns Road; (850) 482-9599) is just 70 miles northwest of Tallahassee and is the only state park that offers guided cave tours. The caverns were formed 38 million years ago by the acidic erosion of limestone, Florida’s native rock. Tours are every hour during the day, more frequently during school holidays and busy summer months, which is a cool time to visit because the temperature underground is a steady 68 degrees. For those who want to keep their entertainment above ground, there are camping and hiking, plus kayaking and canoeing on the Chipola River, the largest tributary of the Apalachicola River. Nearby stables rent horses for the trails. Entrance to the park is $4 per carload. Cave tours are adults $8, children 12 and under $5, free for age 2 and younger.

Falling Waters State Park

Just a few miles off Interstate 10, near Chipley, the sinkhole is celebrated at Falling Waters (1130 State Park Road; (850) 638-6130). This is the spot of Florida's tallest waterfall, but forget what you know about water cascading over a mountainside. You'll have to look down as water plummets 73 feet into a 20-foot-wide cylindrical pit. It's a good idea to call ahead to see how much water is flowing. It's better if there has been a lot of rain. Sinkhole Trail, which is lined with towering trees and sinkholes, leads to the waterfall. The 170-acre park bursts with blooming wildflowers each spring, and campsites are available. Take a detour and mosey through Chipley, population 3,600 and the county seat of Washington County, which says something about how sparsely populated the area is. Stop at the 1901 Gallery & Cafe on Main Street for a bite. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.



Highway 98

Take the winding slow road along the Gulf of Mexico clear to Pensacola, about 270 miles if you catch it in Perry. Go left off U.S. 19 after seeing the neon sign that says "Take a kid fishing" at Wilson's, an old-time bait, tackle and convenience store.

You'll pass through lots of scenic towns including Carrabelle, Apalachicola and Mexico Beach, plus drive by the wide beaches of Panama City and the newly engineered resort havens of Seaside and Watercolor. Think about sitting at the bar for lunch at Indian Pass Raw Bar in Port St. Joe (91 Indian Pass Road; (850) 227-1670). Get ready for super fresh oysters and some crazy tales. If you can hold out longer, head for the Red Bar in Grayton Beach (70 Hotz Ave; (850) 231-1008). Order the gumbo; they don't serve it at dinner. There are lots of cottages and big beach houses for rent in Grayton, where the unofficial slogan is "Nice Dogs, Strange People." Get information at graytonbeach.com.

Fort Walton Beach comes before Pensacola, where you can spend another night. Head back home via Interstate 10.



Flying High Circus

Think Florida State is just about football? Think again. FSU boasts one of only two collegiate circuses in the country — the other is at Illinois State University in Normal — and your opportunity to see the high-wire thrills comes next month. The circus was formed in 1943 as a way to integrate the newly coeducational campus. In case you didn't know, FSU was a women's college for a time. Student performers do their thing under the big top at Haskin Circus Complex right on campus. Performances are April 2-3, 9-11 and 16-17. To get more information and to buy tickets, call (850) 644-6500 or go to circus.fsu.edu. Tickets are less than $20 each.



Flora-bama Lounge

The address says Pensacola, but the "last authentic American roadhouse" is actually on Perdido Key, which straddles the Florida-Alabama state line (17401 Perdido Key Drive; (850) 492-0611). The location spawned one of the most curious annual events in Florida: the Interstate Mullet Toss, April 23-25 this year. There's a lot of beer drinking and tossing dead mullet across state lines. A golf tournament and beach party also accompany the fish-throwing festivities. If you're not up to that spectacle, stop by the rambling beach bar another time and take a sip of the rowdy South. It's been said Jimmy Buffett stops by every once in a while. Margaritaville meets mullet mayhem.





Scalloping in Port St. Joe

Snorkel for sweet bay scallops in St. Joe Bay, west of Apalachicola, from July 1 to Sept. 10. Or wade through the shallows and sift the hiding mollusks from the water. The wading is free and the snorkeling, too, if you have your own boat and gear. If not, book a three-hour charter trip with Seahorse Boat Rental out of Port St. Joe Marina (340 Marina Drive; (850) 227-9393) for $45 per person, including gear. (Riders who aren't scalloping are only $10.) The water where the scallops hide in seagrass beds is generally no deeper than 6 feet. You'll learn how to catch, clean and cook your catch. Need a place to stay? Consider the quiet gulf-front Turtle Beach Inn (140 Painted Pony Road, Port St. Joe; (850) 229-9366). Rates start at $165, but book early — there are only four rooms in the B&B — if you're planning your trip around the annual St. Joseph Bay Scallop Festival Aug. 7-8. Cottages for families have a minimum two-night stay and start at $225. Go to gulfchamber.org for more information.



The Capitol

How long have you lived in Florida? And you haven't toured the statehouse? Shame on you. There are actually two capitols in Tallahassee and, no, one is not Doak Campbell Stadium. There is the historic Capitol, built in 1845, restored and added on to in subsequent years and then saved from the wrecking ball in the 1970s, and the high-rise next door where state business is conducted today. The historic Capitol sits graciously on a hill on Monroe Street. The domed building rises up to meet you if you drive into Tallahassee on the Apalachee Parkway, which is what U.S. 19 becomes as it hits Tally. (If you get to the capital from I-10, you'll miss that view.) A museum and tour are available. There are also tours of the new Capitol, which is worth your time especially to see the eight murals depicting Florida history, all the way to the space shuttle and Disney World, in the House of Representatives chambers. Those were painted by Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still, who also painted Gov. Lawton Chiles' official portrait. (Look for the he-coon in the background, a reference to a famous Chiles line.) You can see that, along with other portraits of past governors, in the new Capitol. Get information about touring the new Capitol from the state Welcome Center at (850) 488-6167. For more information about the historic Capitol, including hours of operation and other activities, call (850) 487-1902.



Great flying machines

The U.S. military, largely the Navy, has had a major presence in Pensacola since at least 1825, when a Navy shipyard was commissioned by the federal government. Once the military took to the skies, Pensacola really boomed. Track that history at the National Museum of Naval Aviation (1750 Radford Blvd.; (850) 452-3604) or just marvel at the more than 150 restored aircraft, including wood-and-fabric biplanes. Plus, there are more than 4,000 artifacts from military aviation and the chance to see what you're made of in the FA-18 flight simulator. From March to November, you might be able to see the Blue Angels practicing for their air shows. Did we mention the movies shown on the seven-story IMAX screen? Five movies are showing now, including Stormchasers and Fighter Pilot. Museum entry is free; charges for movie and simulator. Check the Web site for a calendar of events.



Sand dunes at St. Joseph

Sand dunes? On the gulf coast of Florida? Yes, and you can see them at the popular St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, near St. Joe. The unspoiled beach routinely ranks as one of the best in the nation according to Dr. Beach, who is a big fan in general of Florida beaches. Nature lovers flock there to see more than 250 species of birds and the annual migration of monarch butterflies in the fall. You can camp, paddle and hike, too, but it's the towering sand dunes, some as tall as 25 feet, that make St. Joseph special. Cabins tend to book up early so call ahead. For more information, call (850) 227-1327.



Honey by the side of the road

Keep your eyes open for roadside stands selling tupelo honey, mayhaw jelly and cane syrup, all products of the American South, including North Florida. You'll see them if you've been smart enough to get off Interstate 10 to drive the smaller highways and byways. There is often a man selling all three from the back of his truck where U.S. 98 meets Highway 267 at Newport, south of Tallahassee near Wakulla. Arthur Robinson has been selling honey, jelly and nuts at Robinson Pecan House, U.S. 27, Monticello, for nearly 40 years. Pick up a few jars and a bag of pecans to take home as souvenirs. There's an annual Tupelo Honey Festival in Wewahitchka, this year May 15. For more information, go to visitgulf.com.

Trip to Florida Panhandle offers unspoiled beauty, history 03/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 1:02pm]

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