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, 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.
We did enjoy lounging 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 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. We passed a few grocery stores and two WalMarts, so you can find anything you need to stock up for your vacation. No problem getting gin either – we passed a liquor store about every 20 feet, and learned that even the WalMart can sell liquor here.
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.
Stay in Luxury on Navarre Beach
While you may want to look 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.”
I loved the kitchen, which 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: Navarre is famous for having the longest fishing pier in Florida – it’s 1,545 feet long, rising 30 feet above the water.
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.
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? So going to the beach 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.
Eat and Drink in Navarre Beach
Although we had that beautiful full kitchen, I confess we mainly used it for coffee in the morning and to mix our evening cocktails.
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.
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.
The best lunch item we had was at the beautifully decorated Beach House Bar and Grille, where we enjoyed a fresh Sunset Salad with shrimp. It’s also known for its blackened fish sandwich.
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 dinner item 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 pier in Navarre. 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. 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 Navarre Beach
One of the things I love to do best in Florida is explore parts that are untouched and unspoiled. Except for maybe some 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.
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.
For a more adrenaline-inducing adventure, check out Adventures Unlimited Zip Line Tours. They also have several accommodations available if you prefer to spend more time her.
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 scooters, 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.
I thought of my brother, Chris, who lives in Dallas 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.
We pulled over into small parking lots a few times to take photos of the dunes. I would have liked to linger longer, but didn’t want to be out past sunset. 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.
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.
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.
– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-Chief