Gay Florida Panhandle Road Trip Guide

Florida’s Panhandle stretches roughly 200 miles from the state line at Alabama east to Apalachicola and north to Tallahassee. The region is home to numerous historical, natural, and cultural gems – and the bluest waters I’ve seen in Florida. If you’re interested in a Panhandle road trip, then plan at least a few days in the region.

On my Big Gay Florida Road Trip, I decided to hunker down in the center of the Panhandle in Miramar, just outside of Destin. For me, it was a perfect location. I drove through Apalachicola on the way into the panhandle, spent a day in Destin, a day in Pensacola Beach, and then ended my trip exploring Panama City before heading toward Tallahassee.

How Gay is The Panhandle?

Although progress is being made on the Panhandle to create a more welcoming environment to LGBTQ visitors and residents, I won’t lie – there’s still work to do. As a lipstick lesbian who is very out about being married to a woman, I felt very comfortable with everyone I met. I make no guarantees that you’ll have the same experience, but the even the die-hard Trumpers, who stereotypically are classified as being anti-LGBTQ, were extremely friendly and didn’t seem to be bothered one bit by my sexual orientation.

In fact, on my way through Apalachicola, a very conservative region, I saw this beauty swaying in the wind outside of the Up to No Good Tavern.

Rainbow Pride flag outside of Up to No Good Tavern in Apalachiacola. Photo by Rachel Covello

Given it’s proximity to Alabama, the Panhandle is a fairly conservative region, but that doesn’t mean it’s not gay friendly. If you’re looking for a super liberal experience without a Trump flag in sight, go to Fort Lauderdale. But if you’re looking for fun in the sun and a place where you can relax and enjoy delicious seafood, beautiful beaches, and water activities, then book your Panhandle road trip now!

Here are a few places and organizations to check out if you’re craving a gay experience in the Florida Panhandle:

Pensacola Beach

Pensacola sits at the western edge of Florida’s Panhandle, next to Alabama. This waterfront city is known for its charming Victorian architecture, hip restored downtown, and bustling fishing industry.

It’s also known for its annual “Gay Memorial Day” holiday weekend parade attended by thousands from around the south. However, everyday LGBTQ life in Pensacola is not nearly as gay. Many gay residents choose not to come out or do so very discretely.

Just northeast of the downtown historic district is the East Hill neighborhood. While not an official “gayborhood” this historic community is home to many of Pensacola’s LGBT families. This primarily residential area has a few quaint shops and eateries.

One of the most popular spots is the Bayview Dog Beach where East Hill residents, and their canine companions, can enjoy Bayou Texar.

If the beach is more your speed, you can join other gay beach goers on the Gulf’s white sand beaches. Pensacola’s unofficial gay beach can be found on highway 399 just two miles beyond the sign for Gulf Islands National Seashore.

LGBTQ Center of Bay County

1608 Baker Court, Room 6 – Panama City

As the Panhandle’s LGBTQ community’s presence grows, so do resources to enhance the health and well-being of its members. The LGBTQ Center of Bay County is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that offers programs, services, and advocacy. They also engage in community-building and outreach. In 2019 they hosted the first Panama City Annual Bay Pride celebration.

My visit with Cindy Garner, Arlene Garner and William Shurbutt at the LGBTQ Center of Bay County.

The Center is also home to the only dedicated all-inclusive LGBTQ+ youth program in the Panhandle. Learn more about this valuable resource here.

PFLAG Niceville

1295 North Bayshore Drive, Valparaiso

Nationally, PFLAG – Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, has been working since 1972 to provide support and advocacy. PFLAG Niceville was established in 2019 to provide a safe space and healthy environment to promote happiness and inclusivity throughout the Panhandle.

The organization offers multiple outlets for connecting community and creating inclusivity. Programs include a book club and virtual peer support group meetings, They also coordinate Niceville Pride each June.  Connect with PFLAG Niceville here.

Where to Stay in the Panhandle?

As mentioned, I chose to stay in Miramar Beach at the Courtyard by Marriott Sandestin during my Panhandle road trip. I loved the location. It was centrally located in the Panhandle and next to a beautiful shopping center with several restaurants and shops.

The next time I visit, I will plan a weeklong visit to the Panhandle with two nights in Pensacola Beach, two nights in Destin and two nights in Panama City, with a visit to Apalachicola’s Alligator Harbor for oysters on the way out of town.

Below, you’ll find an overview of the Courtyard by Marriott Sandestin and additional accommodation options for your future Panhandle road trip.

Courtyard by Marriott Sandestin

100 Grand Boulevard Destin, Miramar Beach

After a busy day exploring the beaches and scenic byways of the Panhandle relax in the comfort of this Courtyard property.  The hotel is conveniently located near US Highway 98 just 90 minutes from Pensacola and under 90 minutes from Panama City.

Unwind with a dip in the pool or some time in the fitness center. Order a coffee or cocktail from the lobby Bistro to enjoy by the pool or in your room (The Bistro is currently operating with restrictions due to COVID). Relax in the comfort of your soundproofed room or suite with complimentary wifi.

Talk a walk to the Grand Boulevard shopping center and order tacos from Cantina Loredo or pizza from Grimaldi’a Pizzeria. Visit the Fusion Art Glass and the Foster Gallery. Then stop at the Sunglass Hut to pick up a new pair of shades for your beach adventures.

Reserve your road trip retreat here.

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For more info on where to stay in the Panhandle, click here.

Where to Eat & Drink in the Panhandle

Seafood seafood seafood! The Panhandle is packed to the brim with delicious seafood options. From Alligator Harbor oysters to Gulf Coast shrimp to Florida grouper, there’s no shortage of seafood in the Panhandle. And if seafood isn’t your thing, you’ll survive.

Stinky’s Fish Camp and Bait Shack

5960 West County Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach

Nestled along scenic Highway 30A you’ll find this fun hot spot. This casual eatery and bar offers fresh local seafood, tacos, and New Orleans-inspired dishes. Brunch is available on Sundays and oysters are available “all days/all ways.” Stinky’s is also known for its live music and waterfront location.

Families are welcome, however, reservations are not, so plan to wait for a table at the next door bar during peak times.

Next door, at Stinky’s Bait Shack, you can pick up fresh seafood to cook at home, or belly up to the bar for a drink or two.

Stinky’s is one of several area properties owned by partner chefs who also operate nearby Red Fish Taco, and other restaurants nationwide. Get all the info you need to plan your Stinky experience here.

AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar

AJ’s has been shucking and dishing-out fresh Gulf seafood for over 35 years. What started as a humble operation has expanded to four Emerald Coast locations. Each spot offers generous portions of fresh seafood and ample drinks in a unique atmosphere.

AJ’s Destin Harbor

116 Harbor Boulevard

The original AJ’s waterfront venue offers great views. It’s also a popular watering hole with a friendly atmosphere and live music daily.

AJ’s Oyster Shanty

108 Santa Rosa Boulevard, Fort Walton Beach

This casual spot makes for a great stop after a day of driving or fun in the sun. It’s the place to be for cold oysters and hot live music.

AJ’s on the Bayou

200 NE Elgin Parkway, Fort Walton Beach

Enjoy beautiful views of the Cinco Bayou Bridge and surrounding waterways from your dockside perch at this AJs outpost. Indoor seating is also available.

AJ’s Grayton Beach

63 Defuniak Street, Santa Rosa Beach

When you’re ready for a break from Scenic Highway 30A check out the newest member of the AJs family. There is plenty to see and enjoy at this dining and entertainment complex. Inside features a dining area, three bars, and two stages. For a relaxing outdoor experience head out to the patio and firepit.

Smoked Tuna Dip at AJ’s Grayton Beach. Photo by Rachel Covello

My Tip: Order the smoked tuna fish spread. It’s FINtastic!

Explore all AJ’s has to offer here.

Dewey Destin’s

The descendants of Destin’s founder, Leonard Destin, have been serving-up fresh local seafood for generations. Today the family operates three different outposts with something for every appetite.  

Dewey Destin’s Seafood Restaurant & New Orleans Snowballs

9 Calhoun Avenue, Destin

This casual waterside spot at the end of a gravel drive has been in the Destin family for generations. Stroll up to the window at this historic fish shack to place your order from a wide variety of daily offerings. Grab a seat and enjoy the harbor views and some of the region’s freshest seafood.

After your meal head next door to Snowballs to indulge in a shaved ice confection. Dewey’s crafts their own syrups from Louisiana cane sugar. Enjoy your sweet treat and the views of the Harbor from Dewey’s “Snowball Beach.”

Dewey Destin’s Harborside

202 Harbor Boulevard, Destin

This traditional seafood and steak house offers indoor table service. Enjoy top-notch service and daily blackboard specials featuring the freshest of catches. Head next door to the 1835 Porch Bar for an after dinner cocktail or local draft beer.

Dewey Destin’s Navarre

8673 Navarre Parkway, Navarre

Like the original Dewey’s, this new location on Navarre Sound offers casual walk-up window service. Wait for your meal with a cocktail from the full bar. Take in the views of the Navarre Beach Bridge and the Santa Rosa Sound waterfront.

For more of the Destin family story and their delicious offerings visit here.

East Pass Seafood & Oyster House

56 Harbor Boulevard, Destin

After a day on the road, head to Destin’s Harborwalk Village. Here amidst the bustling shops you’ll find a new star of the restaurant scene. East Pass Seafood & Oyster House is an open air waterfront spot for the whole family. Enjoy the freshest of catches, including oysters, and great harbor views.  Daily happy hour at the bar from 3:00 to 6:30 features drink, appetizer, and oyster specials. Learn more about East Pass here.

For more delicious seafood options, East Pass’s partner restaurants include Jackacuda’s Seafood and Sushi in Destin and Brotula’s Seafood House & Steamer, also on the Harbor.  

My Tip: Order a Bloody Mary with bacon and the Grilled Coastal Cobia. Both are Fishmonger Approved!

Harbor Dock in Destin

538 Harbor Boulevard, Destin

Harbor Docks has been feeding generations of Destin’s local seafood lovers since 1979. The Gulf seafood and sushi they offer comes directly from their own next door fish market! All is processed in-house and prepared simply for maximum flavor and freshness. They also use local produce whenever possible.

Head over to Harbor Docks for lunch or dinner seven days a week. They also have spaces for private events for up to 150 guests, including social events for the LGBTQ Caucus. Start planning your Harbor Docks meal or event here.

The Hangout

765 East Miracle Strip Parkway, Mary Esther

The Hangout is a laid back, welcoming LGBTQ local bar. This recently re-branded dive bar features a juke box, pool tables, and friendly vibe.

If you’re in the mood to burn-off some road trip calories you can hit the dance floor and enjoy their new sound system. For relaxation and conversation sip a craft cocktail in the lounge area. Future plans for this emerging spot include drag artists and shows. Get ready to hangout here.

Note: The bar may currently be closed, so check their website for COVID-19 updates.

Splash Bar

6520 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach

Fun is the name of the game at Splash Bar. This vibrant night spot is the place to be for dancing, drinking, and drag. Everyone is welcome at this happening club. Entertainment is nonstop at this high energy venue. Popular drag performers include stars from Ru Paul’s Drag Race. The team of in-house male dancers help get the party started and DJs keep the beat going so you can dance the night away.

The entertainment schedule, including Drag Queen Bingo, and club hours vary. Find out all the details to make your Splash here.

Note: The bar may currently be closed, so check their website for COVID-19 updates.

What to Do

Florida’s Panhandle offers a one-of-a-kind road trip experience. Along the way there are plenty of things to see and do that will make your journey a unique and memorable one.

Apalachicola

US Highway 98 at the Apalachicola River

Apalachicola is a quaint, historic port town. The laid-back vibe of this small community makes it an ideal road trip break. Take some time to stretch your legs and stroll the shops and museums of the historic district.

And visit the Oyster Boss while in town to pick up a bag of fresh, salty, Alligator Harbor oysters.

Jeff Tilley (AKA The Oyster Boss) shucks an Alligator Harbor oyster. Photo by Rachel Covello

It’s also a great place for lunch. Apalachicola has long been known for its seafood. The town’s fish houses have long played a part of the region’s oyster industry. Learn more about Apalach, as the locals call it, here.

Crab Island, Destin

Destin’s Crab Island is a floating oasis of fun in a unique environment accessible only by boat. Hop on the Crab Island water taxi or rent a pontoon boat from one of several Destin concessions.

Crab Island packed with pontoon boats. Photo by Rachel Covello

Families with children are welcome on the southeast side closest to the Destin Bridge. Here the kiddos can enjoy splashing in the shallows and playing on inflatable obstacle courses and slides. Food and drink are available from Island concessions.

Adults congregate on the southwest side of the Island for partying including loud music, flowing beer, and sometimes wild local flavor.   

HarborWalk Village

10 Harbor Village, Destin

Destin’s massive HarborWalk offers seemingly endless entertainment and activity options. This entertainment and dining complex offers something for everyone.

There are plenty of shops and family friendly dining options to choose from. Active explorers can hop on a jet ski, paddle out into the waves, or join a fishing charter from the Marina. Evening entertainment includes firework displays and Mardi Gras-style parades.

Allow extra time to experience all the Harbor has to offer by staying at the complex’s Emerald Grand Vacation Rentals. The property includes a spa, private beach and pool areas, and exclusive activities.

Start planning your HarborWalk experiences here.

Santa Rosa Beach /Scenic Highway 30A

Rosemary Beach north to Grayton Beach

This designated Florida Scenic Highway transcends the typical road trip. A drive down Scenic Highway 30A is a journey through a unique version of Florida. This two-lane road runs from Rosemary Beach north 24 miles to Grayton Beach.

Santa Rosa Beach. Photo by Rachel Covello

Along the way stop at one of several public beach access points along Santa Rosa Beach. Kick your shoes off and dig-in to the pristine sugar-like sand. Take a dip in the emerald green water that is unique to this coast.

Taking a dip on Santa Rosa Beach.

Enjoy lunch or an afternoon iced cream at one of the many local eateries and shops along this scenic route. This popular roadway even has its own fan club, the Friends of Scenic 30A.   

 Historic Pensacola

Seville Square – 301 Alcainz Street and surrounding blocks

History buffs will appreciate that Pensacola was home to the first European settlement in the United States. As the town only lasted a short while before being wiped-out by a hurricane, today St. Augustine, gets all the credit.

Still, there is plenty to explore and learn here. The restored downtown district is home to numerous historic buildings that have been lovingly restored. Many of these are now home to restaurants, shops, and museums.

The historic 1907 City Hall building houses The Wentworth Florida State Museum (330 South Jefferson Street). Exhibits include archaeological artifacts and engaging interactive displays that tell the story of this unique city and life in early Florida.

Visitors of all ages will enjoy going back in time at the Museum of Commerce (201 East Zaragoza Street). This unique collection is housed in an historic warehouse. Tour the recreated 1890s streetscape, including merchants, horse drawn buggies, and a vintage trolley car.  

Stretch your legs with a stroll along downtown’s Colonial Archaeological Trail. This interpretive experience features outdoor exhibits telling the story of Pensacola’s colonial Spanish, British, and American colonial roots.

Start planning your historic Pensacola visit here.  

Panhandle COVID Mandates and Policies

Out of all of my stops along my Big Gay Florida Road Trip, the Panhandle, by far, was the most laid back on COVID-19 restrictions. At the time of my trip, mask mandates were not in place and I found many store owners and visitors sans masks. That has since changed.

Visit these sites to stay up to date on COVID Mandates:

Destin/Fort Walton Beach Florida

Pensacola

Panama City Beach

South Walton (Includes Sandestin, Miramar, Santa Rosa Beach)

Plan Your Panhandle Road Trip

From the breathaking emerald green Gulf, to the streets of America’s first city, Florida’s panhandle has something for everyone. Enjoy the easy ride, and occasional Drag Show!

No matter where in the Florida panhandle your road trip takes you, you’re sure to gather great memories along the way.

Interested in purchasing a vacation home in the Panhandle? Then contact our newest sponsor and top LGBTQ Realtor, Brandon Jordan with ERA American Real Estate.


Disclaimer: There is a good chance that this post contains affiliate links or sponsored content. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you (for which we are extremely grateful).

Written by Rachel Covello

Rachel Covello is an award-winning speaker, writer, diversity consultant, and LGBT advocate. She is the Founder of LGBT Equality Alliance, a Chester County, PA nonprofit organization, and CEO of OUTCOAST, an online marketing and concierge platform marketing the Gulf Coast as an LGBTQ-inclusive place to VISIT, CELEBRATE, and LIVE.

Rachel is also an avid event photographer and has captured photos for LGBT organizations around the world, including the IGLTA, NGLCC, NLGJA, and Out & Equal.


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