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Florida Panhandle’s Emerald Coasts and Blue Angels

Courtesy Panama City Beach CVB

Miles of sugar-white beaches stretching along the Gulf of Mexico are enough to draw youth groups to Florida’s panhandle region. But this destination is more than beach, and the communities along the panhandle — Pensacola, Destin and Panama City Beach — have attractions, festivals, “voluntourism” and other travel opportunities that will appeal to a broad range of ages.

Panama City Beach
Bookended on either side by stunning parks, Panama City Beach’s abundant natural resources make it easy for youth groups to connect with nature.

At St. Andrews State Park on the city’s eastern border, a boardwalk runs from the parking area to the beach, where bottlenose dolphins frolic offshore. Swimming and snorkeling are available, and camping is allowed on the one and a half miles of gulf front. Two bike trails also loop through the park, and groups can rent snorkeling equipment, bicycles, kayaks and canoes onsite.

“Certain times of the year, when the conditions are just right, the water is as clear as the Bahamas,” said spokesman David Demarest. “Consistently, the best snorkeling in our area is around jetties between St. Andrews State Park and Shell Island. It’s a good little ecosystem with fish ranging from bright yellow and blue to black-and-white striped.”

Shuttle rides to seven-mile-long Shell Island run year-round, every half hour in summer. The pristine barrier island has sand dunes, deer and good shelling. What it doesn’t have, however, is restrooms, so groups should plan their visits accordingly.

Camp Helen State Park, on the city’s west side, contains an interesting mix of ecosystems: scrub oak forest, pines coastal dunes and even a coastal dune lake. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ocean regularly breaks through to a freshwater lake. Visitors can swim in Lake Powell before they hike 40 yards across the sand and play in the Gulf. A restored log cabin can be rented out for the day; there’s also a shaded pavilion.

“I consider it a hidden gem,” said Demarest. “Trails are shaded by big oak trees, and people usually have the beach to themselves.”

Another spot that offers a break from the sun, Panama City Beach Conservation Area, offers pine-shaded trails, boardwalks that stretch across marshy areas and miles of off-road biking. Several bike companies will deliver bikes to the park.

For a quintessential Florida experience, an airboat ride along the intercoastal waterways in North Bay showcases the flora and fauna of the area. Tours also stop and allow for some off-water exploration. Further inland, the Econfina Creek Canoe Livery takes groups canoeing, kayaking or tubing along a shaded, winding waterway.

“The water from the springs is 72 degrees year-round and is very refreshing on a hot day,” said Demarest. “It will give a good shiver, even in the middle of summer.”

Chances of seeing a bottlenose dolphin are good on a catamaran tour. The gulf supports the world’s largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins. Sunset cruises offer peaceful and relaxing trips. And the crew members of educational ecotours drag a net behind the boat and bring up the catch for closer viewing.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.