It’s hard to find places especially in this country that feel like they did 50 years ago, where the guy who shucks the oysters chats with the lady who owns the donut shop because they used to go fishing as kids on the local river. But the Florida Panhandle, a.k.a. the Forgotten Coast, is a magnificent stretch of white-sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages along the Gulf of Mexico. In four days of exploring, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a chain store or designer coffee, and the shrimp boats and cypress swamps will remind you that you really are in the Deep South. Best of all, this trip is a throwback to the way families used to vacation, and as you drive from retro aquarium to sandy state park—stopping along the way at an all-you-can-eat crab-legs stand—you’ll understand why.
Day 1: Tallahassee to Apalachicola
From Tallahassee, drive south toward Wakulla Springs State Park, and if you’re hungry for lunch along the way, stop at Hamaknockers BBQ (3123 Crawfordville Hwy.) to pick up delicious pulled-pork sandwiches. At Wakulla Springs, take the 30 minute glass-bottomed boat ride through the old-growth, alligator-filled swamp where several of the early Tarzan movies were filmed. Before leaving, check out the oversize fireplace and painted ceiling at the 1930s-era Wakulla Springs Lodge.
Head southwest toward Carrabelle Public Beach, a pristine spot that was the site of the amphibious training for D-day. Continue west to Carrabelle, home to the world’s smallest police station—housed in a phone booth—and a great snack spot, Carrabelle Junction (88 Tallahassee St.). Locals recommend the turkey BLT and chocolate-banana shakes.
Continue west to Apalachicola and check in to the Water Street Hotel. It may not have the character of some of the older spots, but the rooms are huge, have kitchens, and there’s a pool.
Day 2: Apalachicola and Port St. Joe
Apalachicola—or Apalach, as the locals call it—is an oyster town: 90 percent of Florida’s and 10 percent of the country’s oysters are harvested in the area. Originally a port for the bustling cotton trade, the town dates back to the early 1800s. Take in the well-preserved antebellum architecture, or head to the pier to watch the shrimp boats bring in the day’s catch. Then visit the Apalachicola Nature Center and walk to the lookout point at the end of the Nature Trail Boardwalk, keeping an eye out for ospreys.
Head inland on Route 71 North to Wewahitchka, where you can visit one of the last few apiaries that make pure tupelo honey. At L.L. Lanier & Son’s (318 Lake Grove Rd.), third-generation honey farmer Ben Lanier makes it just the way his father and grandfather did. The bees that pollinate the white tupelo gum trees here—which flower later than almost everything else—give the honey its distinctive flavor. Stock up on it and head 1.5 miles north to the Dead Lakes State Recreation Area, a surreal spot where the Chipola River flooded a cypress wood, creating a Dali-esque tableau of dead stumps.
Head to Port St. Joe to explore the trails at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park before settling in for dinner at the Indian Pass Raw Bar (8391 Indian Pass Rd.). Bikers, families, and old-timers gather here for the oysters, which you can order raw or baked. There aren’t really any rules at this local institution—just grab a drink from the fridge, let the waitress know what you want, and be sure to get a slice of key-lime pie before heading back to the hotel.
Day 3: Rosemary Beach to Seaside
Where County Road 30A loops off of U.S. 98, the coastal atmosphere shifts from a down-home vibe to the picket-fence perfection of planned communities. Rent a cottage or rooms by the night at Rosemary Beach ; the more patinated Seaside, where The Truman Show was filmed; or WaterColor Inn. Spend the day bicycling between villages or sunbathing on the public beaches. If you’re water-inclined, rent a canoe or kayak at Grayton Beach State Park, and paddle around the salt marsh, which is dotted with wind-twisted magnolias.
You can find plenty to eat and do on Seaside’s main green: Sundog Books & Central Square Records, a great indie shop, offers kids’ reads and strong coffee; Pickles Beachside Grill has delicious hot dogs; and Frost Bites sells old-fashioned cones and shaved ice out of an Airstream trailer.
At sunset, drive 10 minutes north on County Road 395 to Eden Gardens State Park. Its sloping lawns, which surround a southern mansion, are perfect for tag. For dinner, head to WaterColor’s Fish Out of Water for sushi.
Day 4: Destin to Historic Pensacola Village
Head west to Destin, and stop at the Donut Hole (635 Hwy. 98 E.) for a quintessential diner breakfast. Afterwards, check out the 1,262-foot Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier (1030 Miracle Strip Pkwy. E.), known as one of the luckiest places to fish in the world. Next door, Florida’s Gulfarium (1010 Miracle Strip Pkwy. S.E., hosts the world’s oldest marine show. Kids can watch the dolphin and sea-lion performances and explore the touch pools and shark moat.
Drive over the Mid-Bay Bridge to Fort Walton Beach and grab lunch at Rick’s Crab Trap (203 Brooks St.), where kids can feed fish snacks from a gumball-style dispenser. Afterward, head to the Pensacola Naval Air Station (190 Radford Blvd.), about 90 minutes west on U.S. 98. The National Museum of Naval Aviation (1750 Radford Blvd.) displays 100 kinds of aircraft and offers flight simulators and weekly flying demonstrations.
Continue west to Historic Pensacola Village (205 E. Zaragoza St., where guides dressed in period garb describe the city’s founding in the 1870s. Stop at Old Christ Church, a white stucco chapel that anchors Seville Square, then walk to the T. T. Wentworth, Jr., Florida State Museum. Kids can play in the Discovery Gallery, which features life-size dioramas of historic Florida scenes. For dinner, tuck into the fish tacos at Dharma Blue.