Story & Photos: Gary McKechnie
South Florida makes you assume every mile of oceanfront is cloaked behind a wall of condos, but the Emerald Coast changes the story.
Nature seduces motorcyclists, and few Florida journeys are as seductive as a brief, but engaging, ride along the Gulf of Mexico between Pensacola and Apalachicola. From the Florida/Alabama border, the road east alternates between white sands and open turquoise waters, azure blue skies and tunnels of trees that immerse you in the world known as Old Florida.
Day One: Pensacola to Grayton Beach
In 1559, six years before Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a permanent settlement in St. Augustine, Don Tristan de Luna came ashore at Pensacola Bay. A hurricane blew away his plans, but left Pensacola with a Spanish imprint still visible in the Seville Square Historic District that encompasses a complex of museums and historic homes known as Historic Pensacola Village. After exploring this district, ride to the Naval Air Station where, between late March and November, visitors watch the elite Blue Angels rehearse their breathtaking aerobatics free. While on the base, don’t miss the National Museum of Naval Aviation, where more than 4,000 artifacts ranging from biplanes to space capsules reveal the evolution of Navy pilots and their aircraft.
To head east, you’ll ride south across the three-mile Pensacola Bay Bridge that connects the mainland to Pensacola Beach. Slip onto County Road 399, a fantastic two-lane road where nothing lies between you and the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico except a strip of glistening white sand. Beyond your handlebars, you’ll see the ink-black ribbon of highway, shift to Escambia Bay on your left, and drift out to sea to soak in views of endless Gulf waters. The 15 miles to Navarre Beach offer pure riding pleasure along the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You may want to pull over for a swim.
A bridge at Navarre connects to the mainland and Highway 98, your main road from here on out. Low and level, you ride into the heart of Fort Walton Beach and into a type of time machine. The small hill opposite a row of eclectic shops is an Indian mound that was the center of religious, political, and social activity thousands of years ago. A small museum showcases Native American artifacts, weaponry, and information about the tribes.
A high bridge leaps over sparkling waters, and from the road you’ll see the Gulfarium, an aquatic attraction, next to shops and restaurants. Assuming it’s near lunchtime, there are multiple choices for dining with a waterfront view. Even more impressive is the view from the pier that reaches a quarter-mile into the Gulf and frames the coastline’s wide, arcing sweep. Buy a pass to walk the pier or stop by the small bait and tackle stand for everything you need to grab the catch of the day.
The coast is clear
FWB’s twin town, Destin (“Florida’s Luckiest Fishing Village”), is a charming place with marinas, resorts, restaurants, attractions, and soft sugar sands. While you may want to stay over, ride a few more miles, navigating unwelcome congestion through the planned community of Sandestin. Ahead, drop south from 98 to hook up with Highway 30 and then 30A to Grayton Beach, a secluded community frozen in time. Cottages and seaside shacks are largely hidden beneath a canopy of oaks. There’s a downtown, but not by much, and people live here because they can’t imagine living anywhere else. The Old Florida feel is everywhere, and is emphasized when you enter Grayton Beach State Park. The pristine 2,200-acre park’s sand dunes and sea oats open to brilliant views of the Gulf, and here is where you’ll find one of your best lodging options—fully equipped cabins just a short walk from the protected shore. Sleeping six and affordably priced, they’re a perfect place to rest before another day of riding.
Day Two: Grayton Beach to Apalachicola
Back on 30A, you cruise past planned communities with recurring frequency. Though each lacks Old Florida authenticity, you’ll probably stop in Seaside, the stand-in for Jim Carrey’s surreal hometown in the movie, “The Truman Show.”
Back on the road, 30A returns to Highway 98 just west of Panama City Beach. Traffic here can be stubborn, especially along Front Beach Road, yet the powdery sands and clear, crystalline waters are energizing. You’ll need all the inner strength you can muster to handle the traffic in Panama City. However, once you clear it and reach the grounds of Tyndall Air Force Base, you return to tranquil riding. Like Eglin Air Force Base, Tyndall protects a huge swath of coastline and forests that makes this stretch of road a great place to throttle through a straightaway of pines.
When you reach Mexico Beach, a sleepy beachfront town hitched to the border of the Central Time Zone, the community kick-starts a nearly unbroken chain of fine riding and interesting places. After crossing into Gulf County, Port St. Joe is well worth a stop: first, for the Florida Constitution Convention State Park, where delegates framed and signed the first constitution in 1838; second, for a retro-cool shopping district refreshingly absent of chain stores; and third, for a ride out to sea.
Cape San Blas wraps its arm around St. Joseph Bay, and from the mainland to the cape, you ride along the waterfront before threading the needle between the bayside and Gulf on a narrow strip of land. Coming in from the north, the road curves in before sweeping up from the south to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph State Park. If you love the outdoors, three miles of paved parked roads are notched with pullouts, beach/bay access points, and nature trails leading to quiet coves and inlets. The road ends with several miles of hiking trails going to remote campsites on the northern tip of the cape. Far from civilization, this is the rare place to experience Florida circa 1880. Traveling in a group?
As in Grayton Beach, eight waterfront cabins are outfitted with kitchens, fireplaces, bathrooms, heat, and A/C for around $100 per night. As the ride nears its end, two more highlights await. From Cape San Blas, 30A leads south to Indian Pass, a place you may not know but will never forget. In a former Depression-era filling station/general store, the Indian Pass Raw Bar is a motorcycle-friendly destination serving fresh-from-the-Gulf oysters. A few miles farther south, Indian Pass Campground is yet another throwback to Old Florida, with a general store, campsites, and a ferry that goes to the undisturbed world of St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. You can camp here, on Cape San Blas, or find a room in Port St. Joe. Or you can press on to Apalachicola, the cotton/
timber/oyster town that is now a resort destination of bed-and-breakfasts, art galleries, and fine restaurants.
Few places in Florida capture a feeling of nostalgia like Apalachicola, especially at night when you park your bike, walk the quiet streets, and tune into silence broken only by the cooling pings of your engine. You’ll pass historic buildings that are now microbreweries and boutiques and sense such quiet and tranquility that you feel even further from the rush of the modern world.
Your motorcycle brought you here. The Emerald Coast takes you back in time.