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Sunday, December 4, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Redneck Riviera -- In Florida, The Farther North You Go, The Further South You Get

Universal Press Syndicate

In Florida, folks say the farther north you go down here, the further South you get.

In the Sunshine State, north is South. And the "Southernmost" place in Florida is the northwest corner, the Florida Panhandle.

It is an area where Old South grace and haute kitsch mingle; where beaches of unsurpassed beauty give way to bungee-jumping joints; where the primeval beauty of bayou and forest compete with tattoo parlors.

This is not the Florida of the Everglades or Disney World or Miami Beach. It's not even the Florida of sun-broasted Yankee retirees, nor is it the multicultured polyglot Florida of Cubans, Haitians and Latin Americans.

The Panhandle is so contentedly out of step with the rest of the state it's even in another time zone. It keeps Central Standard Time while the rest of the state observes Eastern Standard Time.

Just about everybody in the Old Confederacy who liked to swim or fish knew about the Panhandle's coast. It was a "Southern thing," a secret to which the rest of the country was not privy.

This was the South's vacation hideaway, a band of sugar-white sand beaches and blue-green water - "the Emerald Coast" - along the Gulf of Mexico, washing the Panhandle, Mississippi and Alabama. An easy drive from much of the Southeast, this is still where Southerners in the know go to the beach.

The essence of the Panhandle Coast is its powdery beaches made of the finest quartz, a geologic phenomenon and a treasured resource for the resort towns strung out along the coast. (Promoters mail little plastic bags of the stuff to potential visitors.)

It took eons for rivers to grind Apalachian Mountain quartz and then carry it down to the coast and more eons for the ebb and flow of tides and waves to polish and distribute it along the Panhandle Coast. Other beaches will seem like gravel pits after you've walked on these sands, ground so fine that they squeak under the beachcomber's feet.

A highly regarded survey of 650 of the nation's beaches by the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Coastal Research annually rates beaches on 40 criteria, including width of beach, softness of sand, water temperature, water quality, wave size, currents, solitude and climate. This year five Panhandle beaches were ranked in the top dozen, with Grayton Beach No. 1, giving northwest Florida the finest collection of watering holes in the United States.

The heart of this shore stretches about 200 miles along the Panhandle from the old Spanish Colonial city of Pensacola on the west to the sleepy backwater oystering town of Apalachicola on the east.

If beaches are not enough, there is the interior of the Panhandle, vast stretches of pine forest and bayous, through which flow 12 major rivers, where visitors can canoe, backpack and hike.

Grand though all this is, it is not without flaws.

After World War II and into the 1950s and '60s, the Panhandle's Gulf Coast experienced a development boom that produced the "Miracle Strip" - the 100-mile stretch of coast from Pensacola to Panama City Beach. The application of the word "miracle" here depends largely on one's notion of what constitutes a miracle.

The strip begins in antebellum Pensacola, a city that has known pirates and conquistadores and flown the flags of five nations. The next hundred miles along U.S. Highway 98, the road dips toward and then retreats from the shore, a gantlet of roadside signs that proclaim the availability of guns, pawnshops, seashells, waffles and fundamentalist churches so frequently that it seems all of those operations could be doing business under the same roof.

Along the way you encounter "the world's largest speedboat"; wild newspaper stories about mutant alligators; the Beach Bunny Topless Club ("30 of the hottest women on the beach waiting to entertain"); a giant plastic dinosaur presiding over an 18-hole Jurassic Park-theme miniature golf course and Air Boingo, which is not a regional airline but a bungee-jumping joint.

The "other" Florida

This coast has long touted itself as "the other Florida" - an older Florida, a more Southern Florida. The stars and bars, the banner of the old Confederacy, still fly here. In the Panhandle, they ain't just whistlin' "Dixie."

Is it any wonder that the Panhandle and nearby bits of Alabama and Mississippi have long been called "the Redneck Riviera"? Even in these politically correct times, with everyone tiptoeing around the possibility of giving offense, even right-thinking bastions of sensitivity such as Newsweek magazine and The Washington Post unabashedly use the phrase.

Lately, the Panhandle has wooed college students with a pull-out-the-stops campaign by Panama City Beach that boldly challenges Florida's other resort towns, such as Daytona Beach, as a spring-break destination.

But spring-breakers aren't the only visitors here. Florida's Panhandle has become a major winter destination for "snowbirds," Yankees and Canadians fleeing the comparative cold. (It's cheaper than Southern Florida). Midwinter daytime temperatures average in the low 60s, cooler than Miami, but warmer than Milwaukee.

In the past year, northwest Florida has pitched itself to Europeans, particularly Germans, Scandinavians and British. Last year, when Florida logged a record 41 million visitors, 7 million of them came to the Panhandle.

A laid-back world

But before you get to all this, stop at Sam's Oyster House in Navarre, just east of Pensacola, to see the "topless oysters and live waitresses."

Sam's, a virtual shrine to the bivalve, is a splendid introduction to the Panhandle's coast. On the deck overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and the snow-white sands of Santa Rosa Island, you first feel its pull. For despite much of the ticky-tack of the Miracle Strip, large stretches of the coast remain unspoiled, part of a 150-mile stretch of Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Sam's is also the first hint that part of the scene along the Panhandle Coast is the sort of barefoot style of the Florida Keys, a bit like the Margaritaville that Jimmy Buffett sings about.

This is a preview of coming attractions, for there's a lot more of this laid-back world thriving along the coast.

After Navarre is the boomtown resort of Fort Walton Beach, the largest city on the Emerald Coast and home to Eglin Air Force Base which, with 724 square miles stretching across three counties, calls itself "the largest air force base in the Free World."

Just beyond frenetic Fort Walton Beach, where Choctawhatchee Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, is the modern, family-oriented beach resort of Destin which began life in the early 19th century as a fishing village.

A good base

Destin (or the nearby 2,600-acre resort of Sandestin) makes a perfect base for travelers. There are condominiums, rental beach houses, apartments and motels for every budget, and the central location allows easy day trips east or west along the coast and into the interior.

East of Destin Florida Highway 30A hooks off U.S. 98 for a 17-mile detour through a slice of the Emerald Coast that has blessedly escaped man's handiwork. There are no miniature-golf emporiums, bungee-jumping joints or water slides, just a back road through beach villages bordering pine forests and bayous.

In the little town of Grayton Beach, you'll find the Grayton Corner Cafe, where huge jars of sun tea line a porch trimmed with sea oats and wild grasses. This is pretty much the center of life here, and the life is very easy. A sign in the cafe advises, "Hours may vary due to quality of surf."

In urban centers, graffiti is discouraged. In Grayton Beach, it's called wall art, and no one seems to mind it. Across the street from the cafe, under a bright mural, is the grave of one of Grayton Beach's pets: "In Memory of Tippy, A Damn Good Dog."

Grayton Beach, one of the oldest communities on the Panhandle Coast, dating from the mid-1880s, is a beachside town of turn-of-the-century homes. Beyond people working in tourism, it's a town of surfers, beach bums, aging hippies and what is probably the Panhandle's equivalent of Generation X.

The Hibiscus Coffee & Guest House is a good place to soak up some of the flavor of the Grayton Beach style. It's run as a New Orleans-style coffee house, a public library and an all-purpose hangout.

It's a wonderfully off-the-wall place with a vintage dentist's chair on its front porch and a collection of museum-quality antique coffee artifacts. Caffeine is king here; and the aroma of fresh-roasted coffee competes with the riot of flowers and other vegetation growing outside.

The chief attraction - in addition to a lifestyle that is the antithesis of the Miracle Strip - is Grayton Beach State Recreation area, 400 acres of sea oats and white quartz sand, towering barrier dunes and green Gulf waters that border inland salt marshes and pine forests.

Miles and years

A few miles away, on the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay, is an even older remnant of Florida's past at placid Point Washington. It's a short drive, only 15 minutes - or a hundred years. If Grayton Beach is a nice break from the honky-tonk along some of the Panhandle Coast, Point Washington is virtually time travel.

County Road 395 winds north to Point Washington off U.S. 98. Here at the end of the road is Eden State Gardens and Mansion, a 19th-century Florida lumber baron's estate on the edge of a remote bayou that looks like a scene from "Gone With the Wind."

Eden, a 12-acre preserve of moss-draped live oaks and camellias and azaleas, represents a vanished way of life, a poignant reminder of the old Florida.

A reminder of the new Florida is just down the road back on the state Route 30A detour. It's the village of Seaside outside Grayton Beach.

Seaside, an upscale yuppie beach resort/planned community that the nouveau riche fancy, is strictly a faux village of well-manicured second homes and chic boutiques and restaurants.

Beyond Seaside is Panama City Beach, which boldly claims the dubious honor of being the new spring break capital of the Free World. This is pretty much the halfway point in the 200-mile coast drive from Pensacola to Apalachicola.

Cross to the "other side"

After the frenetic offerings of Panama City Beach, U.S. 98 runs straight down a stretch of the Panhandle's coast that has escaped major tourist development to the old oyster town of Apalachicola. The last stretch from the west runs 35 miles along unsullied beach land and a dense, uninhabited pine forest. It is the perfect way to cross to "the other side."

Folks in Apalachicola like to tell visitors that the name means "people on the other side" or "land of the friendly people" in the lost language of the Indians who built their great burial mounds and left huge piles of oyster shells on the coast.

When people use the expression "Southern hospitality," they're thinking of places like Apalachicola.

There are no traffic lights in "the land of the friendly people" nor in all of Franklin County. And they like it that way. (There's a yellow caution light on U.S. 98, but they don't count that.) It's a long way from the nearest interstate, too.

In the mid-19th century, the sponge was king here. Now all that remains of that part of its past is a ruined sponge exchange. When that industry moved down the coast, it was replaced by oystering, and now, in the afternoon, all the oyster boats are tied up along the palm tree-studded waterfront of a town just made for walking.

The turn-of-the-century Gibson Inn sits like an old riverboat moored in the center of town, a magnificently restored three-story piece of Southern Victoriana. Enter the inn off the sweeping front porch through the cool, dark wood-paneled bar, the air stirred by old-fashioned ceiling fans.

A chapter of history

The Chestnut Street Cemetery, the old city graveyard, looks like something out of Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. This ancient Gothic burial ground is a bit spooky, the old graves trimmed with weathered iron fences, the live oak trees dripping Spanish moss.

Here rests a brief chapter in the history of the old South, the graves of the young men who died fighting for the Confederacy's Florida Brigade, the long dead veterans of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg and the yellow fever and shipwreck victims from a time when this bit of Gulf Coast was a remote corner of the country.

About a block away, under a canopy of live oaks, is the 158-year-old Trinity Episcopal Church, its green lawn punctuated with palm trees. Across the square, past the public library, is a tiny monument to Apalachicola's most famous son, John Gorie, a bit of Americana.

If life were fair, John Gorie would be a household name - especially in the summer and most especially in warmer climes. Gorie was a country doctor in the 1830s and '40s who was trying to make his yellow fever patients more comfortable. His tinkering produced a machine that made ice artificially, laying the groundwork for what would become refrigeration and air conditioning.

Walk a few blocks down to the John Gorie State Museum (he's buried right across the street), and chances are you'll find Fred Ingley, the ranger in charge. Ingley keeps Apalachicola time at the museum. If you happen to stop while the museum is "closed" for lunch, it's no problem.

"If someone stops here when we're having lunch, well, we just stay open," he says, then adds by way of explanation, "This is Apalachicola": the absolute end of the line, beyond the Redneck Riviera.

(Copyright, 1994, Christopher Corbett)

Christopher Corbett, author of the novel "Vacationland," is a former reporter and news editor with the Associated Press and now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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