The Emerald Coast, Florida
By Joe Berk
What: The Emerald Coast, a stretch along the Florida Panhandle’s coast running from Pensacola to Panama City.
How to Get There: Drop south from anywhere along I-10 until you hit US 98.
Best Kept Secrets: The cuisine: grilled amberjack, hush puppies, cole slaw with raw horseradish and a draft beer (life just doesn’t get any better). Don’t miss the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum; it’s definitely worth a visit.
Avoid: Leaving home without rain gear. Also avoid spring break, as the Emerald Coast is a favored destination for testosterone-and-tequila-fueled college students.
The Panhandle. The Redneck Riviera. LA (as in Lower Alabama). The Emerald Coast. Of all the names for this exotic region, in my opinion the Emerald Coast captures it best. It’s the Gulf, a brilliant green and sparkling body of water that contrasts with and is sharply accented by the area’s sugary white beaches. The beaches are amazing; the sand is so fine and so clean it actually squeaks when you walk on it. Florida’s Emerald Coast is not so much a single destination as it is a region, stretching from Pensacola on the western end to Panama City to the east, with lots of little towns dotting the coast in between.
Of all the little towns, Fort Walton Beach and Destin are the Emerald Coast’s crown jewels. Destin is a sport fisherman’s paradise, but even if (like me) you don’t fish, you can sure enjoy the seafood. My favorite is grilled amberjack, a local delicacy with incredible flavor. You can find it in any of the Emerald Coast’s many eating establishments. Don’t worry about finding a bad restaurant; in all my years of visiting the area, I have never had a bad meal. Fort Walton Beach is touristy and kitschy (refrigerator magnets, anyone?), but the beaches make it worth a visit.
But wait, you say. Florida has no mountains, no curves, it’s hot and humid, it’s crawling with snakes and alligators … what does it hold for motorcycling? The no mountains part is correct. Florida is mostly a huge sandbar (Britton Hill, only 345 feet above sea level, is Florida’s highest point), but that part about no curves is wrong, especially if you turn inland from nearly any point along US 98. And make no mistake, US 98 is the quintessential Emerald Coast road.
US 98 loosely parallels I-10 (which is farther inland to the north) and it runs right along the coast. Views of white sandy beaches and the emerald sea are interrupted only by the many condos, hotels, restaurants and other buildings along the coast. Riding US 98 can be a challenge. Heat, humidity, stop-and-go traffic and no lane splitting are frustrating for this California boy. And Florida’s nickname (the Sunshine State) doesn’t quite ring true in the summer when the thunderstorms start. All that notwithstanding, the Emerald Coast has its pleasures. You can grab nearly any road heading north from either US 98 or I-10, and just allow yourself to get lost. There are some beautiful roads and homes out there. The loop from Panama City Beach through DeFuniak Springs, in particular, is an awesome ride (just grab SR 79 north and follow the signs).
The U.S. military has a large presence in this area. The Army Rangers do their jungle training on Eglin Air Force Base, which gives you a hint as to what the terrain is like (think alligators, snakes, and … well, you get the idea). Eglin shares its runways with Fort Walton Beach’s commercial airport. It’s a munitions engineering and test center and home to America’s largest inland bombing range. Eglin has a dynamite (no pun intended) armament museum, and it’s open to the public. The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels are based out of Pensacola Naval Air Station. Air Force AC-130s regularly depart on secret missions from Hurlburt Field.
The Emerald Coast’s stark beauty makes it a favored film location. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Twelve O’Clock High (one of my all-time favorites), The Truman Show and Jaws 2 were all filmed in this area.
Great food, great scenery, brilliant colors and great riding just about sum up Florida’s Emerald Coast. It’s a superb destination and its Gulf Coast location makes it rideable year-round. Just don’t forget your rain gear! — Joe Berk
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