Skip to main content

Natural Awakenings Northwest Florida

Explore, Enjoy and Save with the Jewels of the Emerald Coast

Jul 02, 2012 10:21AM ● By Jude Forsyth

Many Gulf Coast residents are choosing to take a “save-cation,” holiday this year, without adding the hefty price of gas, airfare or luxury accommodations. NWF Natural Awakenings readers were asked to share their own experiences at local destinations that allow guests to explore and enjoy the Emerald Coast area without emptying their bank accounts.

Sharalee Hoelscher, owner of Biodynamic Space, in Pensacola, likes to put her feet on the ground for recreation. “One of my favorite refuges for walking is the Naval Live Oaks area. Just being in the quiet unfolding of the natural world can help one re-center and find inner peace.” Hoelscher’s idea is a popular one, and state parks are a great place for a save-cation. Ponce De Leon Springs State Park offers a splendid getaway to swim in the spring and enjoy a picnic. A new list of 50 fun things to do in Florida state parks (four are in Northwest Florida) can be found online at

Readers also recommended higher energy, mini-vacations for family fun. “An outing to watch Pensacola's Blue Wahoos baseball team play is always fun. The park is brand-new and a ticket is only $10,” recommends Dan McAuliffe, of Fort Walton Beach, who also enjoys trips to Bellingrath Gardens, in nearby Theodore, Alabama.

Kayaks, Canoes and Paddle Boats

Sheri Whitman, from Crestview, says, “One of my favorite pursuits is paddling up local rivers in a kayak. Slipping quietly across the water, you feel one with nature. I like to pull up on a sandbar and take a dip in the shallow water to cool off from the heat of the summer sun or just rest and eat a snack.”

Debbie Gray, owner of Econfina, a Panama City company that offers kayak and canoe rentals, agrees, “We have crystal-clear water and sandy-bottomed springs for folks to enjoy the day swimming, snorkeling, picnicking and canoeing along Florida’s most beautiful canoe trail.” Econfina is a family-owned business that likes to help families and others explore the area’s many rivers and creeks. They provide a shuttle service for people with their own vessels or a pick-up at the end of the trip.

Another aquatic activity gaining popularity is stand up paddle boarding, especially in the Emerald Coast area, because there are so many beautiful places to paddle. “It is a lot easier than most would think and a lot of fun, while also great exercise,” says Tiffany Clemons, with BOTE Boards. They offer newcomers a chance to try stand up paddle boarding for free at their Gulf Breeze location. BOTE Boards will host the inaugural Paddle at the Porch race, August 18, in Destin, featuring a three-mile recreational race and a six-mile elite race, awards, food and fun.

Beach Jewels

With so many local cities that have names ending in beach, there is no denying that many visitors and residents simply enjoy the blue-green water and white sands of the Gulf Coast seashore. To get away from housework and yard work, a successful staycation needs a great place to stay, but the save-cation needs that place to provide discounted services.

Portofino Island Resort is in a unique position to offer the only lodging located on the Gulf of Mexico, the Santa Rosa Sound and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. An array of complimentary and discounted amenities makes Portofino Island Resort a great vacation value. Families will enjoy the High Tide Kid’s Club, with supervised children’s programs and other family-friendly activities, while couples and other guests will revel in just-for-you, in-suite spa and dining services.

“Portofino is the perfect getaway for the save-cation guest. You can enjoy everything our full-service resort offers, along with amazing complimentary amenities like free beach chairs, umbrella setup and a daily round of golf,” says Lorraine Christen, director of marketing.

Linda Long, a Mary Esther resident, shares her experience. “Some friends think I'm crazy to go less than an hour from my house to enjoy a few days of vacation. But why drive a long way when Pensacola Beach is close and has the cool, white sand, water and fun things to do?”

Not everyone prefers a popular beach with all the people and buzz. Navarre residents Maggie Roberts and Candace Fowler like quieter beaches. Roberts prefers Opal Beach, part of the Santa Rosa Gulf Island National Seashore, a haven for numerous endangered shorebird species and a reclusive getaway. “Most of the time, we find that we are the only ones on the beach, especially during the week. On clear days, the expansive view is breathtaking; we can see the buildings of Navarre Beach at one end and Portofino, on Pensacola Beach, at the other,” says Roberts.

Fowler likes the Navarre Best Western Hotel for a getaway. “It’s a good price, the pool overlooks the sound and their new pavilion is a great place for me to practice my Tai chi,” she explains. “Then, when I want the Gulf experience, I enjoy the beaches across the bridge; there isn’t as much commercialism.” Close to the Best Western is Navarre Watersports. Visitors can rent pontoons, wave runners and even enjoy a helicopter ride. A water slide and children’s play area make the site a place for fun in the sun. Owner Kirk Bergerson comments, “Navarre Beach’s time has arrived as a fun destination for locals and visitors who don’t want the traditional beach hype. It is so much less crowded here, and I think the people are friendlier.” In that same block is the new Stinky’s Fish Camp. Kris Wambach keeps a close eye on his kitchen. “We offer fresh local seafood and vegetables and made-from-scratch items,” Wambach says proudly.

Spa Days and Shopping Ways

Another popular destination for residents and in-the-know visitors might be off tourist’s radar. “The best thing about staying closer to home for my vacation is that I am not wasting my time traveling. Also, I love to shop,” says Allison Velez, owner of Navarre Family Counseling. “When I do go on a vacation far away, I can never shop too much, because I can’t take it all back on the plane. I enjoy a mini-vacation because I know I can take my time shopping and take it all home.”

Fort Walton Beach offers a flea market and antique district on Eglin Parkway, close to the Miracle Strip, where visitors may choose from among the many shops along that corridor. Roger Knight owns the FWB Flea Market, one of the largest, and recently opened a 4,000-square-foot annex that offers many more items, including furniture. While the market boasts 14,000 square feet of treasure, visitors often comment that it is much larger inside than it appears from the street. The store is much more than a flea market, it has a distinct flavor of time bygone with eclectic items and nostalgic music. He explains, “I feel it is the best place for treasure hunting. I handpick the music, because I feel that people should relax and feel happy as they stroll through the booths to shop.”

Readers have different ideas about relaxing, and some prefer a day at a favorite spa as a substitute for an expensive vacation. Mary O’Conner, owner of Making Waves Salon and Spa, in Harvest Village, Navarre, sees a variety of clients. “Many people feel good about rewarding themselves if they are not taking a regular vacation. Every summer, we help Emerald Coast visitors and residents relax with a massage or facial,” says O’Conner. “But our salon gals like the new summer haircuts and gel nails, too.”

At little further out of town, the town of Atmore is host to the WindCreek Escape Spa. This spot is popular not only for the many services the spa has to offer, including group fitness and culinary classes, but also for the lavish private floor in the adjacent casino and its beautiful pool and grounds.

The Love of Learning

Both visitors and residents that enjoy visiting educational and historical sites have many choices. “I suggest a history visit to Fort Pickens, on the western end of Pensacola Beach,” says Long. For those interested in aviation or military exhibits, McAuliffe recommends the Naval Aviation Museum, located at NAS Pensacola, or the Armament Museum and Air Park, just outside Eglin AFB.

For the science-minded, there is something new for the public in Walton County—the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, in Freeport. Natural Awakenings reader and Mary Esther resident Shirley Newburn notes, “The center at one time was for research only and would open the center for local schools, but not for the general public. Recently, the center was opened to the public and now has guest speakers and educators.”

Resources for Gulf Coast Save-cations

Econfina Canoe Livery


E.O.Wilson Biophilia Center, Freeport

Making Waves Salon and Spa


Navarre Best Western Hotel


Paddle at the Porch Race/BOTE Boards

[email protected]

Ponce De Leon Springs State Park

Portofino Island Resort


WindCreek Escape Spa

Global Brief
Health Brief