Walking the Historic Towns of Northwest Florida

By: Lynn Waddell

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Exploring these historic towns by foot gives you a different perspective on northwest Florida.

As a wandering reporter, I've passed through many small North Florida towns, often wondering about the stories behind the grand historic houses, art deco theaters and well-worn mid-century diners. Where did the money come from to build? What was life like back then? Why is it like it is now?

Walking the towns, I've gained answers more vivid than the azalea and magnolia blooms that grace the yards. Along the way, I've found unique gifts, tasty local eats and warm acquaintances. Here are a few favorites in Northwest Florida:

Milton: On my to kayak the Blackwater River, I wasn't expecting to find the most highly industrialized city in Florida before the Civil War. Timber, riverboats, brick-making and later the railroad, gave rise to a what is now a small cluster of brick storefronts. Pick up a walking tour map at the downtown Chamber to explore the history of this small town.

Marianna: Wrong turns sometimes have their rewards. One of mine off Interstate 10 transported me to the mid 1800's when antebellum mansions were novel and doctors saw patients at home. Several Marianna manors, including the Ely-Criglar (c. 1840) amazingly survived a Civil War battle. A sidewalk walking tour map was a great help. Get one at the eye-catching 1895 Russ House on Lafayette Street, which now houses the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

Fort Walton Beach: Not every north Florida downtown is rooted in the horse-and-carriage-era or was master planned in the last decades. Downtown Fort Walton is mid-Century Americana with a Native American holy ground. The historic downtown stretches along Miracle Strip Parkway Southeast on the mainland. On this walk, see the Temple Mound and museum as well as an eclectic mix of funky shops, antique stores, pool halls and mom and pop diners. A downtown resurgence has added condos, new shops and restaurants.

Grayton Beach: Grayton Beach, one of my favorite beach towns, is a blend of "Endless Summer", the Grateful Dead and Southern Accents. Unlike the new master-planned communities of South Walton, it has an organic authenticity that stems from its slower evolution from 14 old Florida beach cottages on dirt lanes into an eclectic mixture of bungalows; many now are artist residences. It's still laid back enough for a safe flip-flop stroll. Be sure to drop into the funky Red Bar for a cold drink; the rustic two-story was once the only place for miles to hear live music.

Panama City: Think of downtown Panama City as the yen to Panama City Beach's yang - sand to brick, raucous college Spring Break concerts to sophisticated theater. In recent years the mainland city has grown and rejuvenated many of its older storefronts and buildings, including the art deco landmark Martin Theatre, crowned with a multicolored neon marquee. The other anchors are the Marina Civic Center and the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida. From all you can easily walk, shop and dine.

DeFuniak Springs: At first DeFuniak Springs was to be a pit stop - a place to fill up on gas and coffee. But an old Victorian house coaxed me to make a detour, and then what I saw made me get out and walk. Ornately detailed turn-of-the-century Victorian houses and one of Florida's oldest libraries string around a small, almost perfectly round lake. The sidewalk circling the spring-fed lake is about a mile long, perfect for a casual walk, and the nearby chamber of commerce has walking tour maps that tell the homes' history.

Port St. Joe: Port St. Joe was once a town that I hurried past with my windows rolled up. But since the smelly paper mill closed in 1999, I've discovered a charming downtown on the banks of a bay with a beautiful marina, early 20th Century storefronts, Southern diners and a renovated historic hotel. Port St. Joe was once a prominent port city, birthplace of Florida's state constitution (there's a memorial museum), and later associated with Alfred DuPont of St. Joe Paper. Spend some time walking along the waterfront, and you will see why people are coming back.

Apalachicola: Downtown Apalachicola is a walker's playground. The casual pace and short distances make it physically easy, and the juxtaposition of historic buildings with trendy shops gives it strong pulse. You can find everything from antique glass fishing floats to modern art glass. The majority of the businesses are housed within old brick storefronts or a renovated sponge warehouse. A historic neighborhood of turreted Victorian houses and stained glass wooden churches is a stone's throw from the main street.

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