Especially when it raubs -- which is often -- the beaches of Florida's western panhandle evoke the state's unspoiled past. Sandpipers cluster at the mouth of the inlet, their faces turned to the gentle wind, staring out across the pea-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico -- waters warmer than the air. Fish jump in the shallows, in schools so dense they can be scooped up in a net. Sea oats wave on deserted dunes. Silence covers the flat landscape of palmetto and scrub pine.
The return of the sun prompts a burst of familiar seashore activity -- children on brightly colored floats bobbing in the easy surf, tennis players on the courts, families fishing from boats and jetties. But even in the sun, the pace is slower, the crowds less dense, the sales pitches less urgent than at most beach areas in the eastern part of the country.
In fact, for more than 20 miles, between Panama City and Fort Walton Beach, the beaches are nearly empty because the coast is almost undeveloped. Only scattered hamlets and campgrounds abut the pristine shore, and even at the peak of the season it's possible to stroll for miles along the powdery white sand without encountering anyone.
This is the "Redneck Riviera," so called because most of the people who vacation here are from the surrounding deep-South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee. You'd never mistake the vacationers here for the preppy denizens of Nantucket: The clothes are more discount than designer and the parking lots contain more Fords than Volvos. It's also a different world from the heavily developed, pricey resorts around Miami, Palm Beach and Tampa. The panhandle still has some low-key charm because it has been insulated by time, geography and limited airline service from most of the development frenzy of south Florida.
In this part of the state, rates are highest in midsummer because that's when the weather is best for the beach; winter temperatures drop into the forties at night, though it's seldom too cold for golf or tennis. The palm trees are blighted and stumpy because they don't belong here -- this is the deep South, not the tropics, and the trees on the old estates are hung with Spanish moss. A mile inland from the beachfront of Bay and Walton counties, development stops and the land, indistinguishable from the terrain of southern Alabama, still belongs to the possum, deer and snakes.
If your beach geography is centered on Ocean City or Nags Head, it's hard to grasp the sheer distances that have insulated the Florida panhandle from overdevelopment. Panama City Beach is 375 miles northwest of Orlando and Walt Disney World. It's well west of Detroit and directly south of Louisville. The biggest city within 200 miles is Montgomery, Ala.
The difference between the western Gulf Coast and popular south Florida can best be described by listing what the Redneck Riviera does not have: horse racing, baseball spring training, direct air service to New York, large retirement communities, ethnic neighborhoods, big-time football, interstate highways, chic department stores, big-name night clubs, pretentious architecture, heavy narcotics traffic.
There's a bush-league jai alai fronton and a greyhound track in Panama City for those who want to gamble, but mostly it's like small-town America, except that it happens to be on the water. Panama City is the biggest town between Tallahassee and Pensacola, but it's still so small it rated space in the newspaper when a local man used the wrong flea dip on his cat and called police when the animal passed out. The year-round population of Bay and Walton counties together is only about 125,000.
This of course doesn't mean that the area is wilderness. Fort Walton Beach and Panama City have beach strips like any other. The "Miracle Strip" at Panama City Beach is 10 tacky miles of the usual beachfront motels ("Sea Witch," "Trade Winds"), T-shirt shops, restaurants ("Sir Loin and His Knightly Buffet") and amusements ("Snake-a-Torium," "Petticoat Junction" and the "Sui-Slide," which bills itself as "The World's Longest and Meanest Waterslide"). If you want to OD on miniature golf, this strip is for you.
Driving this stretch of U.S. Rte. 98 can be a nightmare -- especially, we were told, in the spring, when armies of students from southern colleges migrate to the beach -- but there's a wide-open bypass road half a mile inland.
In most of the area, the relatively low density keeps the crowds manageable, even in peak season. There are fewer than two dozen high-rise buildings along the entire 35 miles of beach from St. Andrew's Recreation Area -- south of Panama City -- west to Destin. This means the attractions are accessible: If you want to fish off the pier, there's room; if you want to be alone on the beach, there's space; if you want a pizza, you can just walk in and order; if you want to picnic by the lake at Eden State Gardens, a restored gem of a 19th-century estate, you can get a table; and if you want to play tennis, you can usually find a court.
The only really dense crowd we encountered at the peak of the season was the Friday-night mob waiting for tables at Capt. Anderson's, the most popular restaurant in Panama City. This is a vast mass-production place where you can wait two hours for them to call your number and where they justify the $4.95 charge for a margarita by letting you keep the glass.
The food at Capt. Anderson's, especially the fresh local fish such as grouper, pompano and snapper, is almost worth the wait. But the one memorable restaurant in the area is the hard-to-find Paradise Cafe, well off the beaten track in the hamlet of Grayton Beach. The waitresses wear shower shoes and the Atlanta Braves game is on the television set over the cash register, but there's nothing frivolous about the Louisiana creole delicacies served up by owner Skip Kirkland.
Kirkland, who says he "got tired of running restaurants for other people" in Baton Rouge, borrowed a camper and roamed the Gulf Coast looking for the ideal spot for his restaurant. He settled on an abandoned dance hall in a tiny village that doesn't even have a grocery or gas station. Because the Paradise Cafe is right on the beach, it doesn't need air conditioning; ceiling fans enhance the ocean breezes. Try the Crabmeat Louisiane with almonds or the Shrimp Lujon.
Otherwise, you don't go to the Redneck Riviera for the food. What you do go for is magnificent, uncrowded beaches on the gulf and splendid fishing. We aren't a fishing family, but we seemed to be the only ones who weren't. Deep-sea fishing on the big cruisers that go out every morning can be expensive, but there's plenty of free fishing from piers and jetties on the gulf and from the shores of fresh-water lakes a few miles inland. And if your haul of snapper, bonito or flounder is big enough to take home, a crew at Capt. Anderson's marina will clean your catch and pack the fish in ice for 25 cents a pound.
The entire environment of the Redneck Riviera emphasizes family vacations in a tranquil environment. Most motels, for example, have kitchenettes and two-bedroom suites so you can feed the kids without going to restaurants. Beer blasts and late parties are viewed with disfavor. A typical motel, the Trade Winds, directly on the gulf in Panama City Beach, informs prospective guests that "during holiday times, reservations are made for families only." It also publishes rules that include "No stereo equipment allowed in motel."
A call to the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce (904-785-5206) will soon bring you brochures and rental information on dozens of motels and rental condominiums. Most of them are right on the beach and, because of the area's low-key atmosphere and relative isolation, rates are considerably lower than they are in prime Atlantic Coast resorts.
We selected a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in a condominium complex called Pinnacle Port, which is isolated at the extreme western end of the Panama City Beach area. The living room overlooked the gulf. The apartment had its own washer and dryer, as well as a full kitchen with dishwasher, and bed linens were provided. We had the use of four lighted tennis courts, two swimming pools and a fishing pier. The fee for seven nights for our family of five was $590.
This was among the highest rates in the area. More typical are peak-season rates in motels such as the Shalimar, $72 a night for two bedrooms and kitchenette, or the Gulfcrest, $68 a night for a two-bedroom apartment with kitchenette but no view of the gulf. Most of the beachfront motels are in this price range, and offer similar facilities, with swimming pools. The differences are in atmospherics: Some of the swimming pools are postage-stamp-size facilities surrounded by parking lot and overlooking Rte. 98. And some of the motels are uncomfortably close to the most congested parts of the strip. In general, crowds are thinner at the extreme eastern end of Panama City Beach, near St. Andrew's State Park, and at the far western end, near Hollywood Beach and Lake Powell. West of Lake Powell, there is hardly any development for nearly 20 miles.
There are several well-equipped campgrounds in the Panama City area. Most of these are not on the beach, but much of the beachfront is unrestricted so access is not a problem. One of the lowest-cost facilities, and one of the best located, is a campground run by the state, directly on the gulf at Grayton Beach.
The little town adjacent to that campground is almost silent, shielded from the world by the dunes and scrub pines of a tranquil coast. It seems a long way from the beachfront strip of Panama City, where, in the words of a local promotional brochure, "the fun never sets." But it probably can't last. The march of development, eastward from Fort Walton Beach and westward from Panama City, seems destined to overtake this land within a decade. See it now.