Our Ocean Reef Resorts guests are aware of many of the beautiful beaches along the Florida panhandle, especially between Destin and Panama City Beach. We have been providing all kinds of distinctive, highly acclaimed vacation rentals to our guests since 1982. Most of our esteemed travelers enjoy a traditional family stay with close friends at our vacation beach rentals and create wonderful magical memories every year.
However, there are some folks just now learning about our precious piece of paradise, and don’t even know that Florida has a “panhandle!” Just so you know, the Florida Panhandle is the wide, but narrow, extension of the state that is bordered by Alabama to the north and west. It includes the Northwest Beaches of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. This area was once called “The Forgotten Coast.” The Panhandle was the last region to be fully developed, unlike the burgeoning east coast on the Atlantic Ocean that extends from the Florida Keys and Miami - all the way to Jacksonville at the Georgia state line. The Panhandle is actually in the Central Time Zone, while the highly populated rest of Florida is in the Eastern Time Zone. Nowadays, most of this stretch of beach is famously known as The Emerald Coast due to the clear, gorgeous jewel-like waters that are found here beside dazzling beaches composed of pulverized pure white quartz crystal. It is easy to get here since cities like Atlanta are only a six-hour drive away. The Destin-Ft. Walton Airport, Northwest Florida Beaches International in Panama City Beach and Pensacola International make it quick hop down. Here is a view of individual beaches that are found here.
Ocean Reef properties are found in Destin, Miramar Beach, in South Walton along Scenic 30A, and in Panama City Beach. There are some other shimmering shores nearby. Navarre Beach and Pensacola are only a little over an hour away from Destin by car, so they provide a great “day trip” for our guests with some fun places to explore. The scenic Gulf Islands National Seashore runs westward along Highway 98, going five miles across Okaloosa Island from the Destin Bridge over to Fort Walton Beach. It then continues 26 miles away at Navarre Beach. This beach can be accessed off Highway 98, where you cross the Route 399 Gulf Boulevard Bridge over to Santa Rosa Island, where the National Seashore resumes. This pristine park preserve provides a stunning setting for a drive over to Pensacola Beach. It is nestled between Santa Rosa Sound and the open emerald toned waters of the glittering Gulf. This 20-mile stretch goes past rolling sugar-white dunes sprinkled with sea oats that sway in the gulf breeze while the sparkling unspoiled bright beaches beguile you to stay awhile. Free parking facilities with beach walkovers, picnic pavilions, bathrooms, and showers sit conveniently beside this route.
Culminating at Pensacola Beach, which is at the end of this narrow island, replete with several great seafood restaurants, beach bars, and specialty shops. The Gulf Pier is located there, extending out almost 1,500 linear feet with a pavilion, snack venues, souvenir shops, and volleyball courts. It is open from 6 Am till 9 pm, and visitors can get a day pass for only $2.25 each to go fishing, do some sightseeing or catch a stellar sunset. At the far end of Santa Rosa Island is the historic Fort Pickens, which was completed in 1834, overlooking Pensacola Harbor. Despite Confederate attacks, Union forces never surrendered the fort during the Civil War. Famed Native American War Chief Geronimo was held there in 1886 and 1887. In World War II, it was revitalized with gun defenses for fear of German U Boats. The fort can be toured with a $20 vehicle entry.
Read more: Destin vs Penscola Beach
Dazzling Destin has been around for over 150 years but not as a beach tourist destination. It was founded by fishermen who discovered that an underwater chasm sited its harbor closer to deep water angling than any other place on the Gulf. Today it is home to the largest private charter fishing fleet in all of North America. Although fishing is still a big thing here, the impressive beaches weren’t really discovered until the late 1970s. Many exclusively gated championship golf course communities and fine beachfront resorts became established. Ocean Reef guests receive special discounts up to 20% off for golf at two of them, including Emerald Bay and Seascape.
Destin is anchored by HarborWalk Village, which features a number of dockside restaurants, rollicking bars, free outdoor concerts, fun festivals, and fabulous seasonal fireworks. There are lots of other fun options available there, including the use of water recreation craft, sunset cruises, dolphin excursions, a pirate’s ship adventure, charter fishing boats, and pontoon boat rentals. Many rent pontoons to join an on-going anchored boat party at Crab Island for frolic and fun on the shallow part of the bay near the Destin Bridge. Ocean Reef Resorts guests enjoy receiving reduced rates on lots of these venues through our complimentary Reef Rewards program.
Another highly popular destination is the Disneyesque retail shopping village known as Destin Commons that’s anchored by a giant Bass Pro Shop and Belk’s Department Store. It offers a wide assortment of fine clothiers, fashion boutiques, restaurants, bars, and an AMC Multiplex-14 Movie Theater.
Visiting guests are drawn to beach vacation rental properties at Holiday Isle, which is actually an isthmus offshore Destin’s harbor - and at Crystal Beach as well as Destiny along Scenic Highway 98. Public Beaches include Noriega Point at the end of Holiday Isle overlooking Destin’s harbor, Henderson Beach State Park off Highway 98, The Shore at Crystal Beach, and James Lee Park on Scenic Highway 98 beside Destiny.
Magnificent Miramar Beach is located just east of Destin proper and is home to opulent resorts along Scenic Gulf Drive which include: The urbane Miami Beach-like towers of Ariel Dunes I and Ariel Dunes II; The giant sandcastle inspired Majestic Sun; the tropically landscaped Amalfi Coast and the French Riviera-inspired ship-like masterpiece of design known as Edgewater. It is also home to the world-class Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. This exclusively gated place of privilege has four championship golf courses that meander across 2,400 acres of lush resort grounds that extend from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Choctawhatchee Bay. Sandestin also features an enchanting picture-perfect New Orleans French Quarter inspired Village of Baytowne Wharf and a swank town center known as Grand Boulevard. Both have abundant restaurants, friendly bars, specialty shops, galleries, and amusements for all ages. Free outdoor concerts, fun festivals, and fantastic seasonal fireworks are celebrated year-round.
Ocean Reef vacation rentals are available at Sandestin’s luxury beach towers like Beachside Towers I, Beachside Towers II, Westwinds, and Luau I, along with homes at Beachwalk Villas, Tivoli Terrace, and Tuscan Breeze. Finely furnished value-priced condos are also available at Bayside at Sandestin and Bahia in Baytowne Wharf. When enjoying the beach, many guests head to the Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Miramar Beach, which happens to be one of the nation’s largest designer discount centers. It attracts 7,000,000 visitors every year. Shoppers enjoy up to 65% off on designer clothing, accessories, jewelry, crystal, china, cosmetics, and famous footwear.
South Walton (30A)
South Walton, sometimes known simply as 30A, is actually southern Walton County located on the gulf side of the bay. Although it technically includes Miramar Beach, it is primarily known for the precious picturesque coastal villages that have been created along Scenic 30A in recent years. This gorgeous 18-mile route goes through thousands of acres of protected state forests, beach parks, and shimmering shores of pure white sand that sit beside the toned emerald gulf. Rare coastal dune lakes which are found hardly anywhere else in the world are located here. Their exotic mixture of salted freshwater occurs when periodic dune break connections allow creek-like tributaries to ebb and flow beside the Gulf with the changing tides. These natural treasures support a huge variety of fish, birds, wildlife, flora, and fauna. Scenic 30A also has national acclaim for having the longest stretch of shoreline in the nation to receive Blue Wave Beach status. The Blue Wave program was the first national environmental quality certification of beaches based upon extensive studies completed. A Blue Wave Beach is an award designating the nation’s highest award of excellence for cleanliness, unspoiled pristine conditions, and natural beauty.
Read more: What is 30A?
Coastal villages that extend along Scenic 30A going from west to east include the following.
Dune Allen Beach is at the first bend in the road off the Emerald Coast Parkway, which is a stretch of sand beside the Topsail Hill Preserve State Beach Park. The park features miles of remote sugary beach that sits beside towering dunes that rise almost 20 feet tall. Park interiors include trails that pass through wooded areas beside two coastal dune lakes. Vacation rentals in Dune Allen are located directly on the Gulf or near Oyster Lake beside it.
Santa Rosa Beach adjoins Dune Allen and has many vacation homes on a gulf front dune or in perfectly planned upscale residential neighborhoods nearby. The town center of Gulf Place sits across from the Ed Walline Public Beach Access. It features family-friendly restaurants, bistro bars, specialty shops, boutiques, amphitheater concerts, and seasonal festivals.
Blue Mountain Beach is a somewhat Bohemian residential village that sits on rolling forested bluffs just east of Santa Rosa Beach, in between two exotic crystal dune lakes. Besides its beautiful beach, it is famous for having the highest elevation on the Gulf of Mexico.
Grayton Beach was originally established by a real estate entrepreneur back in the late 1800s, but the lack of paved road connections and electricity caused it to fall asleep for many decades. In the late 1940s, artists and other interesting people started to call it their home. A bumper sticker summed up its ambiance when it was rediscovered in the 1980s saying, “Grayton Beach: Nice dogs, strange people!” The old historic village center is a popular vacation rental destination, as well as the nearby splendid residential community of Gulf Trace. The Grayton Beach State Park wraps around this village with almost 2,000 forested acres and a large lovely coastal dune lake available for kayaking or fishing. It was recently named in Forbes Magazine as one of the most beautiful beaches in the nation and is open 365 days a year from sunrise till sunset for only $5 per vehicle.
Read more: Why this South Walton Beach Tops Forbes List
Watercolor is just across a narrow isthmus that crosses Western Lake at Grayton Beach State Park. It is a beautifully planned community that encompasses 500 acres beside the Gulf and Western Lake. Old Florida styled homes are available to provide a charming golden beach vacation experience of yesteryear.
Seaside sits beside Watercolor and is the famous iconic original coastal village created in the mid-1980s to resemble a beach town from the early 1900s. It received international renown for introducing a pedestrian-friendly town design that was dubbed New Urbanism. This enchanting “seaside” village is actually right on the glorious Gulf featuring restaurants, bars, galleries, specialty boutiques, outdoor concerts, and fun festivals year-round.
Seagrove Beach was the only real beach community along what was then called County Road 30A until Seaside was famously introduced. It started to become established in the late 1940s on towering dunes covered with groves of scrub live oak trees. Today charming old Florida styled homes, beachfront condos, and mansions provide vacation quarters. There are also several restaurants, bars and a grocery store nearby.
Prominence is a newly established residential community of vacation homes that are centered on what is called “The Hub.” This community focal point features a wide variety of restaurants, bars along with snack venues on a grassy lawn with assorted seating and tables. A concert stage provides live entertainment of all kinds while visitors eat, drink, and are merry.
Watersound Beach is a preplanned, exclusively gated residential community of mostly New England Cape Cod styled homes beside the gleaming Gulf and adjoining Deer Lake State Park. The sensational 1,920 acre beach park is aptly named since you may sometimes catch a glimpse of deer near a precious coastal dune lake. A raised walkway traverses areas forested with magnolias, pines, live oaks and palmetto palms. Cola colored creeks flow from the lake where you may go fishing over towards the Gulf where you may enjoy a beach picnic or swim. There is an abundance of wildlife, rare wildflowers, and butterfly habitats located here. Visitors pay $3 Honor System fees per vehicle.
Alys Beach is a very exclusive community of multi-million dollar homes that spans across Scenic 30A with white alabaster exteriors reminiscent of a Greek village. The Caliza Restaurant located in cabanas on their lavish palm-studded Sultan styled swimming pool is open to the public for upscale dining.
Seacrest Beach is a vacation home community of fine homes that sits upon a sugary crest of dunes above the white sugar shore. A decorative lifeguard tower along this palm-lined section of Scenic 30A mark the boundaries of this delightful community that celebrates casual living at its absolute best. A giant multi-level 12,000 square foot set of interconnected community swimming pools featuring a large fountain, cascading waterfalls, and lush tropical gardens provides a heavenly place to be. Lovely vacation rental residences include bungalows, Americana styled homes, lavish gulf-front townhomes, and beach condos.
Rosemary Beach is right next door and is a captivating picturesque coastal village that features a long, lush lawn and enchanting Dutch West Indies colonial-style architecture. One main street winds down the hill of a dune to the beautiful beach with charming shops, boutiques, and bistros that make you feel like you’re in Europe. This charming world features outdoor concerts, family activities, and wonderful seasonal festivals.
Inlet Beach is at the far eastern end of Scenic 30A, where it comes into the Emerald Coast Parkway. This is primarily a residential community but is also the location of 30Avenue, a distinctive upscale retail center that bills itself as a sophisticated premier lifestyle center. Besides specialty shops and boutiques, it features a number of great restaurants, including Italian, Mexican, Seafood, along with American Gourmet fare.
Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is sandwiched between the open Gulf and the largest coastal dune lake in Florida, known as Powell Lake. A long bridge crosses over this lake from southern Walton County into Panama City Beach from the other side where Camp Helen State Beach Park is located. This beach park was originally a 185-acre family retreat and is nestled beside Powell Lake and the gleaming Gulf. You may enjoy the beach, wade in the shallow flowing creek that connects the Gulf to the lake, rent a kayak to explore the forested shoreline, or go fishing. Fees are only $4 per vehicle from 8 am till sunset 365 days per year.
Panama City Beach vacation rentals include accommodations in beachfront luxury towers, condos, townhomes, and some grand single-family homes in the wonderful world of Carillon Beach. Besides the brilliantly bright shoreline, Panama City Beach has created a popular tourist destination known as Pier Park. It offers a wide variety of restaurants, friendly bars with live bands, and excellent shopping along a palm-lined boulevard. A Grand IMAX 16 Movie Theater and an amusement park also provide fun entertainment. Fantastic free festivals throughout the year feature live music, great food, drinks, and fabulous fireworks. A giant 1,500 linear foot wharf anchors this setting and is one of the longest piers on the entire Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can fish here all day for $7 or pay $3 to take a stroll and to enjoy the views.
Panama City Beach boasts many amusement parks for the kids, with the largest being Shipwreck Island Water Park and Coconut Creek, which is an expansive tropically landscaped miniature golf course. Gulf World has Dolphin and Sea Lion shows, while over 250 animals may be seen at Zoo World. A Ripley’s Believe It or Not “Odditorium” features 500 exhibits showcasing oddities and mind-boggling illusions along with a soaring ride across a virtual landscape, a Laser Obstacle course race and a Mirror Maze Challenge. Wonderworks features a building turned upside down, but a spiraling “inversion tunnel” turns you right side up to begin an awesome adventure with 100 exhibits. They feature hands-on “Wonder Zone” lab experiments of Natural Disasters, experiences with Light and Sound, special Space Discoveries, and an Imagination Lab with a “Far Out Gallery.”
Read more: Nerd-Out in Panama City Beach
Plan Your Flordia Panhandle Vacation
For those of you who have never been here, you may enjoy planning your upcoming adventure by checking out our very user-friendly website. It shows satellite views of all individual beach locations along with detailed descriptions, vivid property imagery, seasonal rental rates, specials, and calendar dates available for reservations. Our regular Ocean Reef guests may also find a beach that you have never tried before or want to share this information with favorite friends and family members who have yet to come down. Welcome to our excellent Florida Panhandle beaches!