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Road trip attractions: The Panhandle's beaches

Florida's Panhandle has some amazing beaches, and I spent Sunday wandering through some of them. These are beaches of white sand that is fine and soft. The waves are bigger and noisier than anything we see in South Florida -- unless a hurricane is approaching. Two of the three that I visited are state parks with expansive camping areas and walking trails where park rangers have made an effort to teach the public about some aspect of nature.

St. Andrews, near Panama City Beach, had the most traditional beach of the three, long and medium-wide, with boardwalks that allow beach-goers to cross the dunes without damaging them. The temperature was in the low 80s, and the sand was crowded with people young and old. In the water, people surfed and kite-boarded.

Andrews beach.jpg

Next to the St. Andrews campground, pelicans have claimed this jetty for themselves.

Andrews pelican.jpg

Grayton State Park, not quite halfway between Panama City and Pensacola, has a coastal dune lake. The white sand on the dunes is so stark that it looks more like borax deposits at Death Valley than beach sand. On Sunday, a brisk wind blew in late afternoon, chasing some people off the beach, erasing footprints in the sand, and raising faint white clouds at the far ends of the beach. By the time I got back to my car, I felt the fine grit in my mouth and my hair.


It was close to sunset when I walked the length of the Navarre Beach fishing pier, not far east of Pensacola. The pier opened just under two years ago, and at 1,545 feet, claims to be the longest in Florida.

The pier bristled with fishing poles, some anglers working three or four of them at a time. The big catch of the day appeared to be king mackerel.

Navarre anglers.jpg

I could hear cheering before I reached the end of the pier, and when I got there, I found out why. A boy of 8 or 10 years had landed a big mackerel by himself. As I got there, an angler with a portable scale determined the fish weighed 32 pounds. The boy might have weighed 60 or 70 pounds.

As I walked back down the pier, everyone I passed was talking about the little boy and his big fish. The news had traveled fast, reinvigorating the conversation -- and the efforts of the other anglers. As I stood at the rail, observing life on the pier, the boy angler walked by with his dad and little brother and an entourage besides, the boy and his dad proudly carrying – and sometimes dragging -- the prize mackerel.

Navarre kidfish.jpg