I took my first trip to the Florida Panhandle this month, and I wanted to see it all at once. The Big Bend Scenic Byway was soon to become our gateway to the Emerald Coast. Right where the body of Florida meets the arm, there is a small town called Perry, FL, sometimes referred to as the armpit of Florida (due to its geographical location). Turning off of U.S. 19 onto U.S. 98 in Perry, the Big Bend Scenic Byway begins. You start in the woods, but you end up seeing some of the most beautiful parts of the state. Driving through Wakulla, you cross the spring-fed Wakulla River before reaching the Forgotten Coast, home to some of Florida’s most quiet, undeveloped coastal towns and villages. These are all the places in Florida you’ve never heard of, like Apalachicola, Carrabelle and Lanark Village. These are fishing towns, not tourist towns. I couldn’t help but notice all of the Mom & Pop seafood and oyster shacks lining the roadway as we passed through on our way to our first stop: Panama City Beach.
Driving through Big Bend and the Forgotten Coast on the Big Bend Scenic Byway
Eating oysters and seeing Panama City Beach
If you eat only one thing in Panama City Beach, it should be oysters…or at least that’s the impression I got from visitpanamacitybeach.com. “Welcome to Oyster Country” the headline reads. In a foreign town, unexpectedly looking for a bite to eat, online articles can be a real godsend. I had about 10 minutes to find and navigate us to some Panama City Beach oysters, so I chose to visit one of the restaurants mentioned in the article, the Montego Bay Seafood House & Oyster Bar on Richard Jackson Blvd. After trying the shrimp, crab cakes, and baked oysters, I can say with confidence that the baked oysters are the star. Our oyster sampler came with three different types of baked oysters: baked oysters, oysters Montego, and jalapeño-baked oysters. All of the oysters were baked in a metal tray with a dozen egg-shaped impressions, where each oyster was placed, and then topped with cheese and other goodies. I don’t even like oysters, but I loved these. We wished we had skipped the shrimp and crab cakes, and just ordered an extra tray of these oysters instead.
After lunch, we made our way to the closest beach access point – Panama City Beach has almost 100 of them – Beach Access 41. Panama City is where the Emerald Coast begins, and the water is already starting to take on a beautiful shade of green near the shoreline.
Visiting a Destin Beach: Henderson Beach State Park
Beaches were the theme of this particular road trip, and driving along the Emerald Coast, there are many coastal cities with great beaches. But most people visiting the Emerald Coast, over 80% to be exact, go to Destin (stats are from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection). The official website of the Emerald Coast specifically recommends Destin’s Henderson Beach State Park and James Lee County Park. Henderson Beach State Park is a beautiful natural beach with bountiful sand dunes, sea oats, and parking. It’s definitely worth a visit.
As much as I loved every single beach I saw, stopped at, photographed, and drove past on our journey across Florida’s Panhandle, I liked them best as a collection. It was seeing the miles upon miles of coastline, sand, and beaches that made the trip unforgettable.