Friday 21 October 2016

Florida: Seduced by the Sunshine State

American Holidays

Published 25/07/2016 | 02:30

Pensacola Beach in northern Florida's Panhandle is a perfect base for exploring the beaches and national parks of an area that's rich in history and home to fantastic southern cuisine
Pensacola Beach in northern Florida's Panhandle is a perfect base for exploring the beaches and national parks of an area that's rich in history and home to fantastic southern cuisine
Panama City Beach is a seriously fun place and a favourite destination for both 'spring breakers' and families alike
Madeleine swims off Shell Island in Panama City Beach, Florida
Outdoor centre Pier Park
Food to die for: Fisherman's corner
Self-taught artist Justin Gaffrey

Madeleine Keane of The Sunday Independent spends an unforgettable week in the Sunshine State.

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A couple of Christmases ago, our family decided to spend the festive season in Key West (don't ask). This was my first introduction to the Sunshine State of Florida and its southernmost tip, the toe which reaches out to Cuba, where Ernest Hemingway lived and loved for a time. It was wonderful: a sunny, funny place which, for many reasons, has lingered long in my memory.

So it was fascinating to return to Florida recently ­- this time to its most northern part. Known as the Panhandle, this is the north west section of the 'land of flowers' (as Juan de Leon, who first discovered the state in 1513 called it), edged and influenced by those southern states Georgia and Alabama.

Our six-day trip in early May took in three cities. So an eight-hour flight to Atlanta was followed by a mercifully brief (50 minute) hop to Pensacola Beach. Supper at the happening Grand Marlin is short but sweet - seafood hors d'oeuvres and pomengranate martinis ­- and we do more justice the next morning to typical southern fare of eggs, catfish, grits and fried green tomatoes (and French toast stuffed with strawberry cheesecake for one of our party) at the Ruby Slipper. Located on trendy Palafox Street, the long line of locals who stream through its doors as soon it opens testifies to its deserved popularity.

Panama City Beach is a seriously fun place and a favourite destination for both 'spring breakers' and families alike
Panama City Beach is a seriously fun place and a favourite destination for both 'spring breakers' and families alike

With the American National State Parks ­- a quintessential feature of US life ­- celebrating the centenary of their foundation this year (Yosemite opened in 1916) we visited several on this trip. The first of these is Tarkiln Bayou and Big Lagoon, where exquisite orchids and rare pitcher plants grow and where they regularly burn controlled fires to reboot the flora. Fauna are a critical part of Florida's package too and later, at the Gulf Islands National Seashore, though it is the mating season, hard as we try, we fail to see the threatened sea turtles crawl up the beach to lay their eggs.

Pensacola is naval territory ­- the plane over was packed with dozens of new recruits in their dazzling white uniforms en route to the Naval Air Station. Later we get a fantastic bird's-eye view of it from the top of Pensacola Lighthouse. And at Fort Pickens we're treated to more military history ­- the antebellum stronghold was also an unwelcome home to the legendary Apache chief Geronimo. The massive walls, and the visible pride of the young park ranger, both demonstrate how the US is a force to be reckoned with.

It's an area rich in history ­- for this is where Don Tristan de Luna settled, attempting the first colonisation. Here Andrew Jackson savaged the native Seminole before going on to become seventh President of the US. All this information is delivered to us by Nick, a history teacher turned novelist, who also runs a Segway company. Soon we're all aboard these quirky scooters, hearing local lore before stopping for a historically (obviously) themed beer at the Pensacola Bay Brewery. I can't recommend this highly enough ­- you learn to Segway, get a history lesson, have a drink and then whizz around Downtown and on to your next appointment with Cap'n Jim, who's taking us cruising in search of dolphin pods, before dropping us to the dock for our dinner date.

We've already selected and bought what we're planning to eat at Joe Patti's Seafood, another must if you find yourself this way. A Gulf Coast landmark. Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe 'Joe' Patti founded it back in the 1930s and we have a priceless chat with his octogenarian son Frank in his office: with its banks of monitors keeping an eye on all the goings on of his busy emporia, the shelves stuffed with religious statuary and family memorabilia, while he talks about everything from Hitler and the Mafia to the stretch he did in jail. It's hard not to feel you're on a movie set.

We leave, our bags groaning with prawns, grouper, red snapper and tuna steaks which are transformed into a spectacular dinner on the lawn at the Fish House. My Floridian food is mostly amphibian - next day at the uber-cool Red Fish Blue Fish, our leaving lunch comprises soft shell crab po-boys (sandwiches, in case you've wondered) and 'gator bites.

Regretfully we leave this diverse and hugely welcoming place. Our second layover is a beast of entirely a different colour. South Walton county is intriguing in that it comprises a number of artificial, self-contained, purpose-built neighbourhoods. We visit three.

Madeleine swims off Shell Island in Panama City Beach, Florida
Madeleine swims off Shell Island in Panama City Beach, Florida

We're staying in Rosemary Beach, which is pretty and strange. It's pure Stepford Wives in the sheer perfection of the place ­- the houses are Ralph Laurenesque in their loveliness ­- as are its immaculate denizens. Nearby, Seaside is an earlier incarnation and prime example of this movement known as New Urbanism. The patina of age has given this classic beach neighbourhood character and its white picket fences and gingerbread-trimmed clapboard homes are vintage Norman Rockwell. If I told you The Truman Show was built here and we visited Jim Carrey's character's actual house, it might give you an idea of the vibe.

A little further down the coast, Alys Beach is a baby at only 10 years old and is composed entirely of all white buildings which are blinding in the glaring sunshine. It's a billionaires' playground here and it's compelling to observe the Wall Street titans, their serene wives and perfect children at play.

None of the above is a criticism. Au contraire, I found it fascinating and each resort was lovely in its individual way. It would be Heaven indeed to have a family holiday here.

While Florida is fabulous in every sense - climate, fun, diversity - and there were many standout moments during our week, really it's the people who are exceptional. I'd always heard about the fabled southern hospitality but this was something else.

There was affable, unflappable Keith, who drove us hither and yon for the week and urbane, amusing James who hosted dinner for us at his chic restaurant Summer Kitchen in Rosemary Beach. The minute the formal dining and speeches were over, he grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and brought us down to the beach, where we watched the sun sink into the ocean, talked about the meaning of life and looked in vain for those elusive sea turtles.

By far the most interesting character I met was Jeff Archer. A gentle, chilled man, he patented the motto 'You Only Live Once'. His passion for paddle-boarding (which involves standing up on a surf board and paddling) inspired him to set up YOLO Board and Bike in Santa Rosa Beach in 2006. We choose our boards. A friend who is an enthusiast had forewarned me to select a big one, adding how good it would be for my inner core.

I need plenty of my inner reserves when I see the sign beside the lake with its big drawing of an alligator and a request to respect the local wildlife. The fact that the previous day I'd eaten 'gator bites gave me courage - although as my daughter later pointed out: "All the more reason to eat you, Mum!" Hey what can I say? The kid believes in karma.

In fact, this was an enchanting experience - not only was it relatively easy, nearly all of us stood up and no one fell in, but it was so relaxing and calming - as I exited the water, unscathed, my core felt fab. We were in Grayton Beach State Park where, after a cycle through the sand dunes, we took a quick dip in the briny: with its sugar-white sand and jade waters, this stretch of the Panhandle deserves its recent inclusion as one of America's top 10 beaches, as decided by Steve Leatherman, considered the States' leading expert on best strands.

For our final leg and a total change of scene we pitch up to Panama City Beach. This is a seriously fun place and is a great favourite for 'spring break', the annual US college party week, and is also much loved by families.

After checking into the Holiday Inn, (with its poolside DJ and Gulf-facing bedrooms, this joint is all about the pursuit of pleasure), we depart for yet another sunset sail with Paradise Adventures - sipping chilled white wine as dusk descends in an apricot haze, the dancing dolphins competing with the on-board singer, a grizzled performer who delivers an entertaining running commentary and even proposes to one of our group.

There are yet more cetaceans the next morning when we clamber aboard Captain Greg's boat with a picnic lunch. We set out from Bay Point Marina and are soon mesmerised by the pods of dolphins who are taking their frolicking seriously. They are making babies - their white tummies turn pink when aroused. We moor off Shell Island for some snorkelling and dive for starfish, sea anenomes and sand dollars (the latter cousins of the sea urchin). On the island we explore the dunes before jumping into the Gulf of Mexico for a vigorous swim.

Our final evening and we're like a bunch of spring breakers, infused with the spirit and light-hearted ambience of Panama CB and it has to be said, helped along with margaritas and lobster at the trendy Saltwater Grill.

Nothing will stop us afterwards from heading to infamous Tootsie's Bar for a raucous country 'n' western session where an international incident is narrowly averted.

A bullish bouncer refuses me entry because I've no proof of age. Given I've put in just over half a century on this planet, I'm flattered but absolutely furious. A call to the owner ends the nonsense. However, be warned ­- keen to clean up the resort's wild spring break reputation, they are vigilant about underage drinking so carry ID (whatever your age) at all times.

Our delicate constitutions are profoundly grateful the next day for the location of our farewell lunch. The Zen Garden and Lotus Cafe does everything it says on the tin and veggie wraps and green juices in a lush, verdant space set us up for the long return home.

It's been an unforgettable week. This is an unexplored part of Florida ­- off the well-trodden theme park track ­- and its vivacity and variety is very alluring.

There's so much to see here in the Panhandle: it's home to the state capital Tallahassee,the town of Destin (known as the world's luckiest fishing village), the pretty port of Apalachicola and the rest of the state has much else to offer. There's St Augustine, oldest European-established city in the US, the mysterious Everglades, the Gold Coast, Miami and the beautiful Keys.

I know one thing for certain: I'm going back. After all ­- or y'all as they say in this part of the world ­- you only live once.

Getting  there

Based on September 18-25, 2016

Fly from Dublin to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport via Atlanta, with Delta from €1,092 per person.

Hilton Pensacola Beach

From €170 per room, per night

Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company

Carriage House property (sleeps four)

From €235 per night or one of the bigger properties (sleeps 10) from €451 per night

Holiday Inn Resort, Panama City Beach From €126 per room, per night

Take three: Top attractions

Fisherman’s Corner

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At first glance, Fisherman’s Corner looks a bit rough and ready, but the food’s to die for. Located on the Intracoastal Waterway near Perdido Key, this unassuming eaterie packs a punch. A raft of zinging mimosas precede bowls of seafood gumbo, seared yellowfin tuna, spicy oysters and New Orleans barbecued shrimp. Truly, this is Cajun and Creole food at its finest. And the waiters are as handsome as they are hilarious.

Justin Gaffrey

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Formerly a chef, Justin Gaffrey (above) now works as a self-taught artist. Sculpting with paint, the Walton County painter applies large dollops of vivid acrylics to a canvas, creating an effect that initially looks culinary — creamy meringue with chocolate ganache — and becomes a bold impasto landscape. 2005 Artist of the Year, Gaffrey’s oddly compelling, sensuous works can be viewed at Curate in Rosemary Beach.

Pier Park, Panama City

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Shopping beachside: it could only happen in the States! Pier Park is a super outdoor centre with everything from vintage boutiques to classic Americana — JC Penneys, Target, Dillards, Aeropostale. Try a burger at Five Guys or an ice cream cone from Kilwins. There’s also entertainment aplenty: amusements and rides for the kids and for the grown-ups, an insanely fun country ’n’ western scene at Tootsie’s Bar.

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