Back in the old days before I found wrinkles and lost my desire to fry like a fish on a beach towel in the sand all day, all I needed to be happy on a beach vacation was, well, a beach. These days, I look for a few more activities, excellent food, and a balcony overlooking the ocean. We found all we needed at Navarre Beach, Florida, in Santa Rosa County.
About equal distance between Pensacola Beach and Fort Walton Beach on the Florida Panhandle, Navarre Beach is a narrow sliver of an island with 12 miles of fine white powdery sand, high rise condos and plenty of activities if you’re looking for something other than lounging on the beach and frolicking in the Gulf of Mexico.
We did enjoy time spent on the beach, hanging out on our ocean-view balcony and eating excellent fish tacos, shrimp and fried catfish for breakfast. Twice. But I can do that at a lot of beaches in Northwest Florida. What made Navarre, FL, different? For me, it was the laid-back atmosphere, lack of traffic and uncrowded beaches. I also loved that it’s free of large shopping centers and commercial districts, but you have access to anything you want by driving over the bridge.
Here’s how to have an amazing trip to one of Florida’s most beautiful beaches.
Escape to Navarre Beach: How to Get There
We opted to fly to Pensacola from Atlanta and rented a car to drive the 45 minutes to Navarre Beach. Delta, American Airlines, Southwest, Silver, United and Frontier airlines all offer flights into Pensacola International Airport. It’s easy to rent a car and head out from there.
I was wondering about availability of grocery stores and yes, a liquor store, so we could stock up for our vacation. No problem – we passed a few grocery stores and two WalMarts. No need to search frantically for those sand toys, tonic water or sunscreen – you can find anything you need to stock up for your vacation in the area. No problem getting gin either – we passed a liquor store about every 20 feet, and learned that even the WalMart can sell liquor here.
Alcohol laws vary widely in each state in the United States. When you go to a new state you are subject to new and sometimes bizarre liquor laws. Did you know in Virginia, you can only buy alcohol from a government-owned ABC (alcohol beverage control store?) In Denver we couldn’t buy beer or wine at the closest Trader Joes, because only one location of a chain is allowed to sell alcohol and this one wasn’t it. I still fail to see the logic in that one. Somehow we survived our trip with no Two-Buck Chuck.
Anyway, no such problem in Florida. After buying the necessities for our four-day stay (limes, gin, tonic water, sparkling water and coffee) we drove over a beautiful two-lane causeway and we were on Navarre Beach. See map below for more details on its location and distances from other cities.
Stay in Luxury on Navarre Beach
While you may want to search for Navarre Beach, Florida hotels, we generally prefer more space so opted to look for Navarre Beach, Florida rentals. We stayed in a three-bedroom condo in ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, a perfect choice for families as it had two bedrooms and a small bunk room with two beds. It was spacious and had everything we needed for our trip. I loved the cheerful, bright, beachy decor with signs like “Let’s Do Sunset.”
The kitchen was really nice, had a view of the ocean, and came equipped with coffee, paper towels, dishwashing soap and even a brand-new sponge. (I’ve found the most disgusting sponges, some dating back to the previous century, in vacation homes so typically travel with my own.)
The balcony was large, with several chairs and we had an amazing view of the beach and the fishing pier from our seventh floor unit. Fun fact: the Navarre Beach pier is famous for being the longest fishing pier in Florida – it’s 1,545 feet long, rising 30 feet above the water. So there’s plenty of room for dozens of fishermen, and women, to enjoy Navarre Beach fishing.
The building is one of three high-rises with the Summerwind name, each with its own pool and fitness center. Our rental included a DVD rental card, good for two free movies a night and entry to the small fitness room. While the fitness room, on the second floor of the building, did have a great view of the ocean, we couldn’t adjust the air and no one was available to do it during the weekend. It was set on a stifling 84 degrees so that cut short our treadmill time. But with a busy schedule, getting enough exercise during our stay wasn’t really a problem.
These days I have to have shade to enjoy my sunshine, and fortunately, our rental included two chairs and an umbrella, waiting for whenever we decided to show up. How cool is that? We could walk down any time we wanted and plop right down on our reserved chairs. So going to the beach to enjoy that white sand and Gulf breeze was as easy as putting on our swimsuits and grabbing our sunscreen.
I’ve spent years lugging chairs, umbrellas and towels over blistering hot sand to the beach, so our private beach oasis was especially appreciated, and my favorite amenity offered with ResortQuest. And that’s doesn’t even count the frustrating hours trying to get the umbrella to stand up straight in the sand.
There are also plenty more Navarre beach rentals and Navarre beach condos that will suit the needs of your family. If you prefer a hotel, you’ll find chains with reasonable prices that include Best Western, Hampton Inn and Days Inn.
Eat and Drink Local Dishes
Although we had that beautiful full kitchen, I confess we mainly used it for coffee in the morning and to mix our evening cocktails. There were just too many wonderful restaurants to check out.
With an early morning flight from Atlanta, we were too early for check-in on the day we arrived, so we went to Alphy’s Family Restaurant, a restaurant housed in a small nondescript shopping center that my husband found on TripAdvisor. The name came from a combination of the owners’ names, Al and Phyllis.
My concern about being able to order the famous catfish that early – it was 10:40 a.m. local time – was quickly assuaged by the Big Alphy’s breakfast, which came with two eggs, grits or hash browns, biscuit or toast and catfish fillet. We even scored some hush puppies, some of the best we’d ever had. The catfish was amazing and worth getting up early for.
It’s the kind of place where stuffed fish and live bait signs, fishing rods and a pirate skull flag adorn the walls. Hard-working ladies in maroon T-shirts and jeans serve heaping piles of fried southern comfort food along with sweet tea in plastic glasses so huge I can barely grip one with one hand, and caddies full of Smuckers jelly serve as centerpieces. Flip-flops are the footwear of choice, but this is Florida, and flip-flops are the state shoe of choice.
Another morning we had breakfast at TC’s Front Porch, housed in a former gas station, where menu items include Andrew’s “Hot Mess,” which includes a biscuit topped with eggs, cheese, sausage, bacon, potatoes, and sausage gravy served with a scone. That’s the kind of breakfast you enjoy if you have no concerns about fitting in a bikini later in the day. Fortunately for me, my bikini days are over.
The best lunch item we had was at the beautifully decorated Beach House Bar and Grille, located next door to SpringHill . Suites, and boasting views of the water. We enjoyed a fresh Sunset Salad with shrimp. It’s also known for its blackened fish sandwich. If time had allowed I would have liked to return for one of the hand-crafted cocktails and more of the deliciously fresh seafood. Beach House also has a children’s menu.
Two of our dinner spots were walking distance from our rental unit, a huge bonus when you’d like to enjoy a pre-dinner martini or gin and tonic or just don’t feel like getting in the car. My favorite time at the beach is the evenings, after you’ve washed off the sea and salt from the day and can enjoy a cold, refreshing adult beverage. I liked to linger at our condo and enjoy the evening before heading out for dinner.
My favorite dinner item during our visit was the grilled shrimp at Sailor’s Grill, adjacent to the happenin’ Juana Bites. We also enjoyed good seafood tacos there and at WindJammers on the Pier, which as the name indicates, is right on the fishing pier. We dined upstairs in the restaurant. For drinks with your toes in the sand, you can go downstairs to the bar.
Our last night we drove back over the bridge to The Slippery Mermaid, just a short drive from the Navarre Beach area. Housed in a darling little colorful Old Florida-style cracker cottage, this restaurant serves some of the best sushi we’d ever had. (Motto: Let’s roll a fat one.) Sushi is the star here, with rolls of just about every variety.
As I review our meals on Navarre, I realize it was pretty much a seafood fest – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’ve come a long way from when I was a child and ordered fried chicken when we went out to seafood restaurants in Florida. Every. Single. Time.
Get Out and Explore
One of the things I love to do best in Florida is explore parts that are untouched and unspoiled. Unspoiled eexcept for mosquito eradication – I’m good with that. Here are several things to do in Navarre, FL.
One day we set off on to kayak with Adventures Unlimited, about an hour away. After getting outfitted with life jackets and paddles, we boarded an open truck with a small group and rattled our way up the wooded path and road a few miles to a place to put our kayaks in.
After that we were on our own to paddle and float at our leisure down Coldwater Creek, a shallow spring-fed river with an average depth of just two to three feet that meanders through a state forest. We’ve kayaked through many a forest, but the unexpected delight here was the small beaches we encountered around some bends, many occupied by groups of people enjoying a picnic. I loved the leisurely relaxed pace of our trip, gentle enough for the youngest members of your family. We saw a couple with their toddler daughter on the trip – she was wearing a life jacket of course.
The water was calm, allowing ample time to spot turtles and birds along the way. You have the option for four- or seven-mile trips on kayaks, or you can take your own tubes and have the convenience of being dropped off and picked up.
For a more adrenaline-inducing adventure, check out Adventures Unlimited Zip Line Tours where you can zip through a longleaf pine forest and over Coldwater Creek. They also have several accommodations available if you prefer to spend more time here. Fishing is also available here and you can find large mouth bass, catfish, bream and pickerel in the waters of Coldwater Creek. Children 16 and under do not need a fishing license.
One afternoon we got scooters to explore the island, and were surprised to find Sage Paddle Company is run by a teen entrepreneur, Sage Offutt. It’s housed in an adorable green-and-lavender hut with bikes and scooters parked outside.[Related: Sage Offutt: Navarre Beach’s Teen Entrepreneur]
Sage’s family moved to Navarre Beach several years ago, and after her company took off, both her parents started working with her. Her father, Austin, had a high-level corporate job for years that he ditched to enjoy a simpler, less stressful life. Austin and Sage’s mother, Linda Joy, seemed to be having a blast helping Sage, and Austin has become the unofficial golf cart fixer on the beach.
After getting us set up on our scooters and getting a short lesson on how to operate the them, we practiced a bit in the small parking lot, then set off down the road.
After a few miles, the cute beach houses and small shops gave way to unspoiled white sand dunes dotted with tall, green sea oats lining both sides of the narrow road as we entered the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Run by the National Park Service, the park runs 160 miles along undeveloped land on the northern coast of Florida and all the way to Mississippi.
The sun was setting in front of us, and I was just in heaven – both from the thrill of motoring around on a small scooter and the gorgeous scenery surrounding us. As many times as I’ve visited Florida, I’m not sure I’d ever seen it in such a gorgeous, natural state.
I thought of my brother, Chris, who lives in Dallas, Texas, and has a Vespa. The first time I rode it he told me I may develop “permagrin,” a condition where you can’t stop smiling. I had a bad case of it. I loved zipping along the road on my green scooter, rarely spotting a car or another person.
We pulled over into small parking lots a few times to take photos of the dunes, untouched by development. I would have liked to linger longer, but didn’t want to be out past sunset so we could navigate our way back. As we headed back, I had a mishap. My hat, or rather my husband’s favorite hat, flew off my head. He was way ahead and me and I thought I’d lose him if I stopped to pick it up so tried to get his attention. I never did, and the hat was lost to the dunes.
Considering taking the kids? Navarrre Beach is a family-friendly destination. Of course, the most popular activities are beach- and water-related. Swimming and frolicking in the ocean, building sandcastles, walking and playing games on the beach. And there’s always the hours the kids want to spend at the pool at your accommodations. If your kids are like mine were when they were younger, they can never get enough time at the beach or in the pool.
A fun activity away from the beach is the Navarre Beach Marine Park, which has three attractions. One of ten national seashores, Navarre Beach Marine Science Station has hands-on activities and offers private tours. Another attraction is the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center where you can learn more about the cute little fellas who carry their homes on their backs and how to help their survival rates.
Sadly, only about 1 in 1,000 of the hatchlings reach adulthood, and turtle conservation efforts are aimed to helping those odds. Navarre Beach has four species of sea turtles: loggerheads, greens, leatherbacks and Kemp’s Ridleys. This map shows you where you can locate sea turtles in Florida. Kids can learn more about sharks and enjoy the Shark Tooth Treasure Hunt and the Conservation Center also offers several classes, such as Shark School and Painting with Ocean Motion. And if you take your swimsuit along you can go underwater at the Navarre Beach Marine Sanctuary and Artificial Reefs, designed for snorkeling and diving. The park has two reefs in Santa Rosa Sound and one in the Gulf of Mexico. You can find informational kiosks on the beach near each reef.
Speaking of beautiful creatures from the animal kingdom, the Panhandle Butterfly House has been a popular destination for locals and visitors. However, the location in Navarre Park is closed while they look for a new location.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo is small enough to visit during a morning or afternoon when you wander away from the beach. The 50-acre is set in lush gardens with plenty of shade to shield you from the hot Florida sun. More than 800 animals make their home here, including rhinos, hippos, Western lowland gorillas and Sumatran orangutans. We were particularly taken with the friendly giraffes who seemed to be smiling at us.
Base tours are available at nearby Hurlburt Air Force Base, but for groups of 20-40 people and they must be scheduled six weeks in advance.
Saying Goodbye to Navarre Beach
Last year Navarre Beach adopted a new slogan, Florida’s Most Relaxing Place. I’d have to agree with them on that. While we choose to engage in several activities, our stay was still relaxing and we loved staying with ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals. Did I mention the complimentary beach chairs and umbrella!? We added Navarre Beach to our list of favorite beaches and vowed to return.
One final word about the weather in Navarre Beach, which is fairly nice year-round. Winds are pretty calm, except in March when it may get rather breezy. Like most Florida beaches, the summer months can be pretty hot, with highs in the 90s, dropping to the 70s at night. Spring and fall are optimal for milder temperatures.
We had one more thing to do on our way to the airport. Breakfast once again at Alphy’s, and yes, another order of Alphy’s Big Breakfast with that delicious fried catfish.
Map of Navarre Beach, Florida
As you can see Navarre Beach is close to Pensacola Beach, Santa Rosa Island and Fort Walton Beach. You can also easily get to Pensacola to the airport.
Navarre Beach: distance to Pensacola Airport: 31 miles
Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach: 22 miles
Navarre Beach to Destin: 24 miles
Navarre Beach: distance to New Orleans: 230 miles
– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-Chief