For some travelers, a vacation destination is as much about what isn’t there as what is.
Amy and Fields Greer of Birmingham, Ala., have visited Perdido Key, Fla., the Sunshine state’s westernmost barrier island near Pensacola, for the last five years. Amy Greer says the laid-back atmosphere that first drew them to the 16-mile key in 2007 has had lasting appeal.
“It’s a hidden gem,” she said. “The beaches, in our opinion, are less crowded, which is great for families.”
Beyond the surf and crystal-white sands, coastal grasses and palms provide a serene backdrop for condos and homes covered in colorful stucco and plank-siding.
There are no hotels in Perdido, but according to Tina Morrison, director of the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 1,500 rental properties, and RV lots, are available. Whether staying in a condo or house, camping at an area park or just driving to the key for a day in the sun, visitors are struck by the unspoiled natural beauty and simple surroundings.
“We have chosen to spend our vacation in Perdido for the past four years,” said Suzan McIntire of Nashville, Tenn. “We liked the proximity to Pensacola. The accommodations in Perdido offer a wide selection, and prices are reasonable.”
“The beach itself is lovely,” McIntire said, “and we enjoy being close to Johnson Beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore, which has even more space to walk and swim.”
At Johnson Beach, the McIntire family walked to secluded areas accessible only by foot and took pictures at sunset. “So pretty,” said Suzan McIntire.
Perdido’s rich landscape remains largely undisturbed, with 60 percent of the land contained within federal and state parks. Wildlife is abundant amid wetlands and estuaries.
Visitors kayaking or canoeing at Big Lagoon State Park can catch glimpses of various bird species or spot deer on remote stretches of beach. Trails are plentiful for hiking and biking.
For less adventurous but easy outings, sidewalks run along a residential stretch of Johnson Beach Road. Early morning jogs and afternoon strolls to and from public beach access are popular here.
Further west along the key, beachgoers can make a short walk across two-lane Perdido Beach Boulevard/Fla. Hwy. 292 to local eateries and shops.
The Shops at Villagio include a souvenir shop, sushi bar and jewelry boutique. Artworks Studio & Gallery showcases local artists’ work, much of which depicts the vegetation and wildlife of Perdido Key. Creative-minded tourists taking a break from the sun can visit the studio for an art class during their stay.
“Everything we need each year, from restaurants to groceries, is a short drive and traffic is minimal,” McIntire said.
“It’s not so commercialized,” said Greer. “We love going to all the local restaurants and not having to wait hours for dinner.”
Those seeking other attractions, such as museums or water parks, can drive to Pensacola or other nearby beach towns. “We still have the opportunity for these activities if we want,” said Greer, “but we don’t have to battle traffic and crowds unless we choose to.”
Golfers and boaters do not have to leave Perdido for tee times and marina slips. Both are available on the island at Lost Key Golf Club and Lost Key Marina & Yacht Club.
The legendary Flora-Bama, a watering hole and oyster bar, overlooks the Gulf of Mexico at the Alabama/Florida state line. Parking is available, but guests can walk up from the beach or from one of several nearby water sports outlets.
National media including USA Today, The New Yorker, Playboy and bon appétit have covered the Flora-Bama, known for its diverse crowds, original music and an anything-goes attitude.
Author John Grisham writes about the bar in one of his novels, and musician and Gulf Coast native Jimmy Buffet pays tribute to the famed establishment in the 1984 song, Rag Top Day.
“We’re gonna cruise on down to the Gulf and listen to some Western music, get ourselves a cool one at the Flora-Bama,” he sings.
Families with children may prefer to visit at lunch when crowds are tamer. Kids’ menu items are served in a souvenir Flora-Bama Frisbee. On Sundays, a church hosts a non-denominational worship service here.
Flora-Bama is also home to the Interstate Mullet Toss, an annual charity fundraiser that invites contestants of all ages to see who can fling a fish the farthest across the state line. Crowds flock to the beach for this unique event that some say has helped Perdido Key earn a reputation for its quirky festivals.
Its other reputation: happy visitors.