If you’re visiting Northwest Florida, you’ll come across a host of names and locations that just beg to be checked out: Santa Rosa Beach, Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Perdido Key, Navarre, Destin, Okaloosa Island, and more.
And whatever you want is here -- history, shopping, camping, fabulous dining and nightlife, fishing, golf, walking, biking, water sports and, of course, white-sand beaches and sunsets.
Here’s a list of things you should see and do in Northwest Florida:
Fort Pickens: It’s the largest of five all-brick forts built to defend coastal Florida after the War of 1812. Pickens, on the tip of Santa Rosa Island, was built with slave labor and finished in 1834.
"This place is so big and so impressive,'' said Amanda Carrigan-Grissom, Fort Pickens park ranger. “You walk through the halls where soldiers were in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Where the great Apache leader Geronimo spent seven months after he was captured in 1886. One could say Geronimo was Pensacola's first tourist attraction.''
Fort Barrancas: Built on the ruins of an old Spanish fort and finished in 1844, some believe the actual first shots of the Civil War were fired here. Barrancas is now part of Naval Air Station Pensacola.
Fort McRee: It was built too close to the water with too much wood in its construction and was blasted to bits by artillery in the first months of the Civil War. The ruins are clearly visible near the surf at Perdido Key.
Indian Temple Mound Museum: Since 1972, this unique building in downtown Fort Walton Beach has exhibited 12,000 years of Native American occupation, with stone, bone, clay and shell artifacts. Other items unearthed were from European explorers, local pirates and early settlers.
Large pepperoni and shrimp pie at Lillian's Pan Pizza in Perdido Key.
Loaded Cuban sandwich at Paradise Bar & Grill, a local favorite and steps from the water on Pensacola Beach.
Pecan cobbler at East River Smokehouse Bar-B-Que in Navarre.
Amberjack special at Magnolia Grill, a historical house in Fort Walton Beach.
Pepper-crusted seared tuna at the upscale Marlin Grill in Destin.
She-crab soup at the Firefly in Panama City Beach.
Vodka oyster shooter at Peg Leg Pete's in Pensacola Beach, with an outstanding view of the marina.
Frozen margarita at Juana's Pagodas in Navarre, with live music Wednesday through Saturday.
Highway 30A Ice Tea at Pandora's on Okaloosa Island. Limit your intake; they’re powerful.
Father Fud's Voodoo Magic at Fudpucker's in Destin. The rum packs a powerful punch.
Sixty-five craft beers on tap at Fishale Taphouse & Grill in Panama City Beach. Spring breakers love this place.
Five parks are very near or are part of the beaches. They all have excellent camping facilities.
Big Lagoon State Park: 655 acres that separate the mainland from Perdido Key and the Gulf of Mexico. The campground has 75 sites and pets are welcome.
Fort Pickens Campground: 200 campsites, and some can handle the very largest of recreational vehicles.
Henderson Beach State Park: Sixty campsites in Destin. The nearby beach dunes are still growing and shifting.
Grayton Beach State Park: No roughing it here on Santa Rosa Beach. Thirty cabins can sleep six persons each and come with gas fireplaces and screened porches.
St. Andrews State Park: Carved out of a former military reservation near Panama City Beach, it has 176 campsites with the beach and a boat launch a short distance away.
Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier: 1,471 feet long and built in 1998, replacing the wooden pier that began as a major hot spot in the 1930s. There are excellent views of the Blue Angels practicing as you fish for mackerel and pompano.
Navarre Beach Fishing Pier: Opened in 2010 as a steel-reinforced replacement for the wooden one destroyed by hurricanes. It is the longest pier in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico at 1,545 feet. Lucky visitors can view pods of dolphins frolicking.
Okaloosa Beach Gulf Pier: More than 1,200 feet long. White sharks and huge cobia are often seen and hooked here.
Gulf Breeze Zoo: 50 acres and more than 900 animals, it is situated between U.S. 98 and the Santa Rosa Sound. The gorilla and chimp islands are big draws.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park: Opened in 1955 and is still one of Fort Walton Beach's premiere attractions. See the natural habitats for alligators, sharks, penguins and otters.
Zoo World at Panama City Beach: Seven acres and 260 animals, featuring the Parrots of Paradise twice daily. The Gulf World Marine Park is close by and features shows with dolphins, sea lions and reptiles.
Destin and Panama City are the places to go for big-time shopping, close to the beaches.
Destin Commons: This hugely popular outdoor mall just turned 10 years old and is expanding another 100,000 square feet for new retail, restaurant and entertainment space.
Silver Sands Premium Outlets: More than 110 stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Polo Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic.
Pier Park: Big place in Panama City Beach with lots of places to eat, including a Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.
Tiger Point Golf Club: These 27 holes along the Santa Rosa Sound in Gulf Breeze offer recreation and an athletic challenge.
Sandestin Resort and Club: This links course provides great views of Choctawhatchee Bay.
A number of places offer instructions, and will take you to parasail, wave run, snorkel and scuba dive and deep-sea fish. Just ask around or check online.
But, we’re going to concentrate on paddle boarding, a water sport that is really taking off. Paddle boarders are often seen on the Santa Rosa Sound.
"It is a great low-impact exercise,'' said Kevin Cook, owner of the Coastal Paddle Company in Gulf Breeze. "I liken it to propelling an outrigger canoe except you are standing on a paddle board. Your core can receive a real workout. But, safety is our top priority when teaching. We don't want anyone to be overwhelmed.''
Gulf Islands National Seashore: Find a public access spot on the Gulf Islands National Seashore portion of the beach road (State Road 399) between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach. If you want to see Florida how it was before condos, this is it. (There may or may not be a portable toilet.) Big sand dunes are full of sea oats and sea grass. There will probably be no one else on the beach, just the sound of the waves and a pleasant time for reflection. Just don't forget where you parked.
John Beasley Park: The Okaloosa Island spot is where civilization returns, but it’s a pretty place to look for shells and build a sand castle. And, if you are fortunate, you might see the eagles that roost at the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Station in Destin.
The locals enjoy the 18-mile stretch on State Road 87 that starts in Navarre Beach and goes north to Interstate 10. It is a nice tree-filled route, but car and truck traffic does whiz by.
Whether you’re in a convertible or on a motorcycle, there are two great, but different, places to take a nice, scenic drive next to the beaches.
State Road 30A: The trip from Destin to Panama City Beach may have high-rise condos, but there are plenty of opportunities to see the Gulf of Mexico. Part of this journey passes through the planned community of Seaside, which became world famous after it became the main movie location for “The Truman Show.” Seaside, which bills itself as "an old-fashioned beach town,'' is like no place else in Northwest Florida.
State Road 399: The beach road on this thin strip of land between Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach is also a favorite for walk-a-thons. The Gulf of Mexico is sometimes obscured by the sand dunes, which help protect the road from flooding, but the Santa Rosa Sound is in plain view for a lot of the drive that never goes more than 40 miles per hour and is often strictly enforced.
Northwest Florida beaches face south so they don’t get the direct sunsets of Anna Maria Island and Sanibel. But the long fishing piers still are known as superb spots to watch the sun descend into the horizon. At the Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier, sunsets are a local tradition with lots of bench seating provided and many toasts given to the beauty of Mother Nature. If you want to get up early, the sunrises seen from the piers can be pretty special, too.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA