A Road Trip Along Florida’s Gulf Coast
I sat hunched over my laptop, hustling for a deadline on one of London’s darkest days. Every now and then I’d google “warm places in Europe in February” or “places with sun in Europe today” and came up dry.
I’m desperate for sun this time of year and daydream about that special spot of paradise where the days are sunny, the water warm and the seafood tastes just like the ocean.
Last year, I ran away to do the iconic Miami to Key West drive. This year, I wanted to find Old Florida. Back roads and beaches, Southern charm and back-porch sittin’, sweet tea and the Salt Life. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Time to head to the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Planning My Florida Road Trip
I bought a road map (yes, they still exist), made a few random circles with a sharpie and traced a line from the Alabama/Florida border along the Gulf Coast until I hit the Everglades. My road trip goal was to stay on the back roads and find places that still have that “Old Florida” soul.
Estimated road trip time: 7 days Actual time: Way longer.
Alabama/Florida State Line
So many stops on this road trip started as “are you sure this is a good idea?” moments, including my very first stop at a famous roadhouse on (or close to) the Alabama/Florida state line. The Florabama Lounge and Package Store is a beach bar with history.
Jimmy Buffett and Kenny Chesney love it so much, they wrote songs about it. ‘Bama fans, bankers, bikers and bubbas mix happily at the bar.
The walls are lined with license plates and dollar bills. A clothesline hangs the dance floor, filled with bras flung up by willing patrons.
Fancy it isn’t, fun it is.
If “drinkin’ and dancin’ ain’t your thing”, you can show up to the annual Mullet Toss competition (that’s a fish, not a hairstyle…although I’ve seen plenty of both here) or come to Worship on the Water for church every Sunday morning before heading to the beach. Six Days a Sinner, Seventh Day A Saint, eh?
It’s a great idea to stop, btw.
It makes sense a city so steeped in military history would host the National Naval Aviation Museum. Florida Panhandle culture was heavily influenced by servicemen settling back in the area after serving in the wars. Huge areas of Panhandle land is still owned and controlled by the US Military.
A mind-boggling collection of aviation history hangs from the rafters in this museum…Blue Angels jets, and WWI/WWII fighter aircraft. If you’re into planes and history, you’ll be in heaven. If you aren’t, you can take selfies in a Blue Angels cockpit and re-live your Top Gun fantasies in their IMAX theater or flight simulator. Honestly, I don’t love planes, but this museum was amazing.
Admission is free (the movies, etc. are extra), but you must have a photo id since the museum is located on the military base.
I missed watching the Blue Angels practice/flyovers while I was there. I’m married to an Academy grad, lived the Navy life for 20+ years, but I’ve never seen them fly. Don’t be me…check the schedule here.
While you’re on base, you can also check out the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum, Fort Barrancas and pay tribute to the fallen at the National Cemetery nearby. The view from the top of the lighthouse is fabulous and (if you time it right), you can watch the Blue Angels practice from there AND enjoy the view at the same time.
A leisurely drive through Pensacola will wind past some beautiful, historic homes and neighborhoods. The Historic Pensacola Village was closed on the day I drove through, so I opted for a leisurely walk through the historic district and stuffing my face at Dharma Blue.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
It’s time to head to the beach. Pay the toll and cross two bridges to Santa Rosa Island. Turn right past the odd fingers of high-rise condos poking up through the dunes and head to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The sprinkling of jellybean-colored houses and low-rise condominiums thin out to wide-open vistas of rolling ocean and hills of pearl-white sand.
You’ll have to pay to enter the National Seashore ($8.00 per car, good for a week), but it’s worth it to play along the pristine, unspoiled coastline. Softly piled dunes dotted with sea oats, white sand sifting across the road, the emerald green waters of the Gulf on your left and the sparkling blue bay on your right.
If you can drag yourself away from the ocean, head to Fort Pickens at the very end of the National Seashore. The Fort was built in 1829-34 to defend Pensacola Bay. It has a long and interesting history and the dubious honor of holding Geronimo and 15 of his Apache warriors as prisoners.
The crumbling remains are fun to explore and the tunnels, turrets, and maze of connecting rooms will occupy an afternoon. Pick up a paper map on your way through the entrance. It will lead you through the places everyone else seems to miss.
It’s hard to tear myself away from the scenery, but I weave my way back along the park road, dipping in and out of the small pull-offs that give you a reason to stop “just one more time.”
I head back through Pensacola Beach and blow past the funky beach bars and high-rise hotels. I’ve been spoiled by the National Seashore and I know another section of this broken chain of Paradise lies on the other side of civilization.
Rte 399 runs past clusters of beach houses, most new(ish) and built high on stilts thanks to a series of hurricanes that hammered the area in 2004/2005. As you approach the second section of National Seashore, the houses disappear and you’re treated to unobstructed water views on both sides of the road.
Families on bicycles pedal along the road, buckets on handlebars, towels flapping in the breeze. Surfers pull on wetsuits and get ready to catch waves churned up by a recent storm.
This is where you start to fall in love with the Emerald Coast.
And the best is yet to come…stay tuned for the next segment on my Florida Road Trip.
What did I miss? Anything I should add to this part of the trip? What else do you want to know? Let me know in the comments below!
Things to Know
Nearest airport: Pensacola International Airport. I have no idea what makes it “international.” All flights connect from another Stateside location. Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport is another option.
Car rentals are available at the airports or in town.
March weather in the Panhandle is unpredictable. I had 50 degree, cloudy and windy days and 75 degree and sunny days. Consistent beach weather doesn’t show up until the end of March. Locals, correct me if I’m wrong.
If you plan on visiting more than one National Park or Florida State Park (and I recommend you do), consider getting a pass. Do the math before you buy.
Interested in great reads and sources for this trip? Try Beaches and Hills 3: (Best Backroads of Florida) by Douglas Waitley and The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera by Harvey H Jackson III.
Note: The fabulous photos of the Florabama are courtesy of and credited to the fabulous Florabama itself.