Sand, Sea and Butterflies

    By Lissa Harnish Poirot

    Follow the migrating monarchs to the tranquil, white-sand coast of Navarre Beach.

    There's something alluring about the coast of Northwest Florida. The miles and miles of sugar-white sand beaches; the caressing, warm, emerald-green waters; the scores of natural trails and bicycle paths to make outdoor living even easier; and a family-friendly environment that provides a perfect vacation destination for families to return to again and again.

    I first discovered the island beach community of Navarre Beach as a relative newlywed, enjoying the quiet beaches and lazy afternoons for the romance they provided. Now I am a mother, traveling from the big city to the quiet haven of Navarre Beach to give my children a safe and fun place to play reminiscent of the bygone era of my own youth.

    Nature at Its Finest

    While Florida is filled with amusement parks and attractions to entertain visitors, Navarre Beach provides a place for families to sit back, relax and reconnect in a natural setting centered around miles of undeveloped, gorgeous white-sand beaches free of high rises and crowds.

    Follow Highway 98, which winds along the coast, to Navarre, then cross the Santa Rosa Sound to Santa Rosa Island's four-mile Navarre Beach. The biggest draw to Navarre, tucked between a county park and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is its waters begging to be explored via kayak, canoe and small boat. Landlubbers can see the island by following a paved walking and biking trail, and re-opening this spring is a scenic drive along the seashore. Moms like me can rest assured that young children can safely frolic at "Mom's Beach," a quiet inlet on the sound.

    Affordable Attractions

    When looking for more adventure than the beach and warm waters, attractions that won't break the bank are just around the bend. Santa Rosa County, also called the Beaches to Rivers of Santa Rosa, is an expansive travel destination that reaches from the emerald-blue waters of Navarre Beach, to the tranquil sand-bottom rivers of the Blackwater River State Forest. With so many outdoor activities to choose from, affordable family fun is around every corner.

    From its beaches to its rivers, Santa Rosa County is such a beautiful destination that people aren't the only ones flocking to its shores. Monarch butterflies migrate to the area every fall, but kids of all ages can witness the butterflies throughout the year at the Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre. The facility, which is free but accepts donations, provides monarchs with way stations along their migration to Mexico, and works to increase awareness of butterflies and their role in the environment.

    Navarre brings families closer to even more wildlife at The ZOO – Northwest Florida. From Colby, the 18-foot-tall giraffe, to twin baby lions to Sara the orangutan, guests will get up close and personal with animals and birds from around the world. Or visit a playground for your own little monkeys at the five-acre Navarre Park, located at the foot of the Navarre toll bridge and providing its own jungle gym playground and splash pad.

    Hungry Yet?

    Two casual restaurants exist on the island of Navarre Beach, both family-owned and both serving up fresh fare, lively entertainment and fantastic views. Cocodrie's Restaurant, originally based out of Louisiana, brings a bit of the bayou to the island with a lunch and dinner menu featuring seafood with a Cajun flare. The restaurant's open-air deck overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and provides entertainment on some nights (call ahead for schedule).

    For an entertaining atmosphere, try Juana's Pagodas, a thatched-roof restaurant that provides more than a meal. Choose breakfast, lunch or dinner that includes casually prepared fresh-baked goods, seafood, burgers and pizza; find take-home trinkets in its beach shop filled with island sundries; rent watercraft for a day on the gulf; join a competitive game of beach volleyball; and then sit back and enjoy the live entertainment as the sun sets into the waters before you.

    Of course, just over the bridge in Navarre – are a variety of restaurants and grocery stores to feed hungry bellies, as well as a plethora of boutiques, full-service spas to relax the body and golf courses to improve your game. The Blackwater River State Forest also offers endless trails, tubing and canoeing trips for active travelers.

    The family-friendly, charming and natural environment of Navarre Beach will bring your family closer and leave you feeling so relaxed and rejuvenated you may not want to leave!

    For official visitor information for the Beaches to Rivers of Santa Rosa including Navarre Beach, Blackwater River and Historic Milton, call 800-480-SAND or 850-939-2691 and visit