Scout out the panhandle

When I first considered retiring to Florida, I was intrigued by descriptions of the Panhandle, the strip of land that forms the northwest section of the state. First, there were its four distinct seasons, its rolling hills and forests of pine and oak, all of which promised a certain comfort zone for an ex-pat Canadian. Second, it offered dazzling white beaches and a proliferation of crab shacks and oyster bars – the whole overlaid with a Deep South ambience. Visions of plantations, low-country boils and Scarlett O’Hara danced in my head. With daughter Emma nipping at my heels and volunteering to do the driving, I could hardly wait to check it out.

Getting there can be an adventure
Driving to the Panhandle is not as straightforward as going to other parts of Florida, especially if you’re heading to Tallahassee, the dignified, elegant and historic state capital. Too bad we missed it. The plan was to follow Interstate 75, then veer off and make our way through rural Georgia, which we did – but we got waylaid by the picturesque town of Blakely, Ga., where we ate the best hamburgers we’ve ever had at the World Famous Market and Café. Th were served up with travel advice from the regulars: “If you want to go to the beach, forget Tallahassee; forget Pensacola. It’s too far. Go straight through to Panama City. Where’s your map? Let’s mark your route.” We beetled straight through to Panama City Beach, found a great little hotel called the Sunset Inn and blissfully vegged out for three days. Hey, it was a long trip.

Going back home turned out to be just as fun: we inched our way along the coast, zigged north, zagged east, and finally picked up I-95 to head home. (Along the way, we visited historic St. Augustine, strictly speaking not part of the Panhandle but sharing the same latitude, as it were. Emma loved it, especially the night we went to the Hilltop, voted the best pub in 2000 by Florida magazine and ebulliently living up to the accolade.) Panama City Beach is party city, the most touristy of the towns that cling to the Gulf coastline, with funky guesthouses, raucous nightclubs, gorgeous beaches and streets right out of “American Graffiti.”

Apalachicola, further east along the coast, maintains its persona as the old-fashioned fishing village it once was but with the added patina of a smart little downtown and quaint residential neighbourhoods. “Apalach,” as the locals affectionately call it, bills itself as “the new Key West – the way Key West used to be.” Its residents are disarmingly chummy, eager to have you join their sacred circle. I knew if I settled there, in no time flat I’d be sailing over the bounding main wearing a sou’wester, singing sea shanties and jiggin’ something. Avast!

To resist temptation, we scuttled off to the nearest crab shack.

The Panhandle may be the best place in the world to stuff your gob with oysters, shrimp, crabs and every kind of fish imaginable. Apalachicola’s famous fat, juicy oysters are shipped all over the area, and at the unpretentious Laguna Grill in Panama City Beach, I slurped ’em down to the tune of $1.99 US a dozen.

‘Tis the season
The Panhandle’s touted “four seasons” turned out to be a tad suspect. For one thing, what they call the season, when tourists flock to the beaches and roast themselves, is identical to ours – June, July and August. During the season, the price of accommodation is stratospheric, but in off-season, which is the rest of the time, they’re refreshingly reasonable.

We were there in mid-April, the weather was sublime – and our spacious double room at the Sunset Inn, complete with kitchen and balcony overlooking the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen in my life, was $80 US a night, $459 US for the month. In some parts of the Panhandle, you can rent a whole house for as little as $90 US a month in off-season.

This prompted a dilemma: attractively cheap as the Panhandle is in off-season, would it be warm enough for me? To get the skinny, I quizzed everybody from our concierge to the hairdresser at Wal-Mart. They all said the same: in January, everybody covers their plants, and nobody goes to the beach. But they still wear shorts. Bottom line: temperatures in the Panhandle are cooler than the rest of Florida but not by much.

If you’re a hot-weather freak, you may not want to live there, but it sure is a nice place to visit.