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Coast of Contrasts

By JEANNE MALMGREN

© St. Petersburg Times


ALONG U.S. 98 IN NORTH FLORIDA -- They call it the "Redneck Riviera."

Driving the Panhandle coast, you think maybe you'd better keep that one to yourself. No use ruffling any feathers.

Then you work up the nerve to ask a friendly shopkeeper about it.

"Oh, you mean "L.A.?' " she says, laughing. "Yeah, that's us. Lower Alabama."

So much for offending the locals.

There's pride among the folks of the Redneck Riviera and after spending a few days here, you begin to understand why.

This is a have-it-all land of contrasts, where honky-tonk bumps up against soul-soothing natural beauty. If you don't like what you see along U.S. 98, the main Gulf coast highway, just drive a little farther.

Next door to the airbrush T-shirt shops and the roadside tattoo parlors are beaches of sugar-white dunes and Caribbean blue water.

Here you can inspect a sea turtle's nest on a wild, deserted beach, drop a fishing line from a long pier, get your navel pierced and treat the kids to a round of miniature golf -- all before lunch. The idylls of St. George

The Redneck Riviera's eastern end is oyster country, with quaint-sounding towns such as Panacea and Carrabelle. No condos and beachfront hotels here, just wholesale seafood houses perched beside docks where fishing boats unload.

Wander out back of one of these establishments and watch that row of round holes in the building's wall. Behind each hole sits an oyster shucker. Every few seconds you'll see an empty oyster shell shoot out the hole and drop onto a mountain of shells in the parking lot. The meat, of course, will end up on restaurant menus all over the Panhandle.

Farther west on 98, an old bridge barely the width of two cars leads to St. George Island, which is half residential and half state park. This is the kind of idyllic beach town you remember visiting as a kid, a place where you could ride your bike everywhere and your mom would never worry.

St. George has no stoplight and doesn't need one. There are two convenience stores, a gas station, one bank, a couple of restaurants, one beachfront motel and the Survivors Island bait and tackle shop.

At the two-story colonial St. George Inn, there's peeling paint on the porch railings and a handwritten sign taped to the front door: Restaurant Closed Tonite (No Chef).

Residents of St. George cherish their island's simplicity and solitude. This summer they're worried about a proposal to replace the old bridge with a fancy new one that may encroach on the oyster beds.

At the far eastern end of the island, past all the stilt houses, is St. George Island State Park, for five years in a row on the list of Best U.S. Beaches, compiled by Stephen Leatherman of the University of Maryland.

Leatherman, alias Dr. Beach, favors undeveloped, wild beaches, and St. George fits the bill. It's a lonely landscape of dunes, sea oats and pines stunted by what the park rangers call "wind-pruning." The wind did more than just prune two years ago this October, when Hurricane Opal flattened St. George's dunes, wrecked the wooden boardwalks and obliterated the beachside road. Like many places along the Panhandle coast, the park was closed seven months for repairs. Now it's coming back to life, with the delicate white blooms of beach morning glory popping up among the dunes. Oyster country Drive the modern bridge across Apalachicola Bay, and you're in the heart of Florida's oyster industry. In Apalachicola you'll find a rough-hewn, working waterfront and a small downtown of antique shops, Victorian inns and seafood restaurants.

(You want those oysters raw, steamed, fried, Florentine or in a poor-boy?)

Just outside of town, State Road 30 veers off, a must-drive two-lane road that runs 22 desolate miles along Cape San Blas.

Sign after sign advertises gulf-front lots for sale; stilt houses sprout like mushrooms. It looks like this pristine area is doomed for development. Then you stop in at Peter Rosasco's real estate office.

"What you see is largely what you get here," says Rosasco, a white-haired man who wears old deck shoes and Bermuda shorts and has a bed pillow on the sofa in his office.

"It's laid-back and quiet. Nothing but miles and miles of beach and private homes."

There are no restaurants, no bars, Rosasco brags. Just a little ol' golf course where you can walk on without a tee time. The only other activities are beach walks, snorkeling, crabbing and scalloping.

Rosasco, who came here to escape the urban blight of Pensacola, helped write Gulf County's comprehensive plan. It limits the height of buildings and the number of housing units per acre. A large percentage of the county is protected wetlands.

Cape San Blas attracts lots of vacationers from Atlanta, Rosasco said. They rent beach houses for $400-$900 a week in the summer. (Those are the monthly rates in fall and winter.) Some fall in love with the place and build a house.

But they'd better hurry.

"Within 10 years, everything that's buildable will be built out," Rosasco says.

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, at the tip of Cape San Blas, is the crown jewel of Gulf County. and another favorite of Dr. Beach. It's a wild place that boasts 30-feet-high dunes, flocks of migrating birds and monarch butterflies and, in its waters, horseshoe crabs and octopuses.

The park also has coyotes that raid loggerhead turtle nests on the beach.

"They ate over 3,000 eggs last year," said park manager Anne Harvey.

Rangers put soft-hold leg traps near some of the turtle nests. They caught four coyotes so far this year.

Stay in one of the park's furnished bayside cabins, or park your RV in one of the camping areas and you might see a coyote -- but more likely a panhandling raccoon. Sun city, sin city Past the paper mills of Port St. Joe, you'll cruise into low-key Mexico Beach, another of the Panhandle towns visited by Hurricane Opal.

This a good place to spend a quiet night at a beachfront motel. One of the most gracious is the Driftwood Inn, a two-story Victorian complex of white clapboard siding, red tin roof and a stained-glass front door. The lobby is an antique shop.

Proprietors Peggy and Tom Wood divide their time between Mexico Beach and Atlanta, where he has an ad agency.

She is a gardener; evidence of her talent blooms all over the Driftwood property. She also adopts stray cats. Leave the room of your door open so you can sleep with the sound of the surf (it's that kind of place), and you may end up hosting a friendly feline.

For dinner in Mexico Beach, head to the Fish House, where sugary hush puppies accompany everything from locally caught triggerfish to crab claws.

Next morning Peggy Wood serves a beachside breakfast of fresh fruit, coffee and bagels (it's included in the price of your room).

Heading west from Mexico Beach, you'll travel through acres of pine woods that belong to Tyndall Air Force Base. Then it's into Panama City, and over the bridge to Panama City Beach. Sin City, the locals call it.

Second only to Daytona for spring break bacchanalia. Epicenter of the Redneck Riviera. Long before you hit town, billboards hint at the excitement that awaits:

Club La Vela -- Party with Thousands.

Hammerhead Fred's, Home of the Oyster Shooter.

Alvin's Island, the Tropical Department Store.

Oxygen Zone Motel. Sugar White Beaches/Sweet Low Rates.

The 15-mile stretch of U.S. 98 that passes through Panama City Beach has been dubbed the Miracle Strip. No one seems to know what the miracle is -- unless it's the number of T-shirt outlets per capita.

Here you can indulge in a number of fantasies. Watch an airbrush "artist" create wearable art. Climb a rock wall. Drive a go-cart. Bungee jump. Ride in a helicopter. Play miniature golf. Rent a waverunner. Ride bumper cars or a ferris wheel. Sample any or all of 20 flavors of daiquiris.

And that's just the "family-style" entertainment.

Club La Vela, one of many beachfront megabars, bills itself as the largest nightclub in the U.S. Fifteen dance floors! Five band stages! Fifty-one bars! Weekly male revues!

All along the strip, storefronts offer the essentials of Panama City Beach life: Herbal XTC (a legal version of the drug Ecstasy), whip-its (a device attached to a can of whipped cream so the user can inhale propellant for a quick high) and funnels (for chugging beer).

While the sun is up, the action centers on the beach. There are no lifeguards. A system of colored flags at each of the boardwalk entrances informs swimmers of the surf conditions.

Blue means calm waters, yellow means swim with caution, red means dangerous riptides.

Hurricane Opal took two piers and a lot of sand from Panama City Beach. This winter the city will embark on a $30-million beach-renourishment program to replace 8.2-million cubic yards of sand.

Judging from this summer's crowds, no one was missing the extra sand.

On summer nights the scene shifts to Front Beach Road, a slow-moving river of vehicles, mostly trucks and minivans loaded with shouting passengers.

Non-cruisers park in the public beach lots and solicit the passing parade. Two young men lean against their car. In the windshield they have painted large white letters: WANT SOME.

Reigning over it all, lounging outside a store called Shroomarama, is Reverend O'Brien.

The Rev tells those who ask that he doesn't have a first name.

O'Brien is one of 35 or so body piercers who ply their trade along the beach. O'Brien's business cards proclaim him The Dark Lord of Piercing. ("Over 8 years of experience. Salvation through piercing.")

Dressed all in black, O'Brien, 24, is an articulate, personable fellow who just happens to have a skull-and-crossbones flag on the black wall of his studio.

He says he owns a house, a car and makes a tidy living piercing navels, tongues, nipples and more private body parts.

"I have the best job in the universe," he says happily. "I poke holes in people all day and they love it."

O'Brien says he attended two years of pre-med classes at nearby Gulf Coast Community College and thus is light years ahead of other piercers, sanitation-wise.

"I run a very clean, tight ship. Not like these other guys in the back of a T-shirt shop. They mutilate people."

Rev. O'Brien is not the only cleric in town. Out on the edge of the strip, at the far western reaches of Panama City Beach, neon fades and motels begin to sport Christian fish symbols on their signs.

The parking lots are full of church vans -- almost all Baptist congregations -- from towns in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee.

"We have a lot of church retreat groups," says Marcia Bush, marketing manager for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It reaches its peak in the summer."

Dining choices in Panama City Beach range all the way from Waffle House to Wendy's. If you crave more, visit the brand-new East Side Cafe, where Corey and Madeline Donnelly are trying to appeal to what upper crust Panama City may have.

"I decided this beach needed some sophistication," Corey says.

Their small Italian eatery features brick walls, corked bottles of olive oil on the tables and a stylish menu by Madeline, who says she has a degree in culinary management. A little sophistication

When you tire of the bright lights of Panama City Beach, head west on 98, cross a bridge into Walton County and you're in another world.

Telltale signs of a more affluent lifestyle pop up: sushi bars, massage therapists, art galleries.

Scenic Highway 30-A, branching off to the south, is a 26-mile pleasure drive: nary a T-shirt shop nor a condo tower, just pine forests on your right and a pristine gulf on the left.

A few upscale developments have bloomed discreetly in South Walton: Seaside, Seagrove and the still-under-construction Rosemary Beach. Do crane your neck to take in the wealthy folks dining in roadside cafes, but keep going. Pretty soon you'll get to Grayton Beach, which has more personality and a 100-year history.

It's a retro-chic community of funky cottages, artists' studios and pricey gift shops. Along the rutted sand lanes bump Range Rovers and Lexi. It's rumored that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman bought a house here last year.

The town consists of a cafe that serves braised rabbit and fried squash blossoms, a bar and a market that sells imported cigars and the New York Times.

Lodgings range from cottage rentals and beachfront condos (only a handful) to B&Bs; such as Hibiscus House, where the decor is 50s-funk and the coffee is fresh-roasted.

Criolla's is probably your best bet among the excellent eateries. Consistently rated among Florida's top 20 restaurants, it offers a four-course dinner for $39 that features the cuisine of a different Caribbean island each month (August is Guadeloupe).

Next door to the town is Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, a memorable place crowned No. 1 beach in America three years ago by Dr. Beach.

If you want seaside solitude, here it is: nothing but waves and dunes and clouds and you. A long wooden ramp slopes gently into the sand, for disabled accessibility. After South Walton's quiet communities, without warning Highway 30-A dumps you back on U.S. 98, now a six-lane highway. You are on the outskirts of Destin, which looks like a junior Panama City Beach: water-slide parks and mini-golf meccas with fake blue waterfalls.

But Destin has more to offer. There's the 2,400-acre resort of Sandestin and a galaxy of fishing charters. Destin bills itself as the World's Luckiest Fishing Village. Every October there's a monthlong fishing rodeo.

Just beyond Fort Walton Beach, take the 50-cent toll bridge to Navarre Beach. Here you'll see tangible evidence of Opal's 18-foot storm surge. The eye of the storm came ashore in Navarre.

Reconstruction is fast and furious. New stilt townhouses rise next to piles of concrete rubble that seem to be sinking into the sand. Those wondering about the force of a hurricane can still find wrecked buildings to ogle.

Where the stilt houses of Navarre Beach end, the Gulf Islands National Seashore begins.

This is a fitting end for a trans-Panhandle journey: It is everything that's right -- with a hint of what's wrong -- about the Redneck Riviera.

Pensacola residents consider this untouched, 7-mile stretch of sand their beach because it lies just east of the city limits. A few years ago, gay activists declared Gulf Islands National Seashore to be the new Key West and staged a Memorial Day beach-in. Pensacolans were outraged, but the event was peaceful and has now become an institution.

Drive along this beautiful ribbon of road today, Gulf waves crashing at your elbow, and you see not a whiff of controversy. Just soft, rounded dunes and the waving flags of sea oats.

Opal left its mark here, too, demolishing a restroom pavilion, flattening dunes and rerouting the coastal road. Motorists are no longer allowed to park along the shoulder; they must use one of several paved pull-outs.

So stop the car, get out and fill your lungs with sharp, salty air. Listen to the only sounds -- crashing waves and scolding gulls.

Hey, Dr. Beach: Check this one out. If you go Getting there: The Redneck Riviera is a day's drive from the Tampa Bay area, or you can fly into Tallahassee and rent a car. Head south on U.S. 319, and in less than an hour you'll hit the coast at Panacea. Staying there: St. George Island +

At the St. George Inn, (850) 927-2903, a single room is $60, a double $75. +

Beachfront rooms are at the Buccaneer Inn, (800) 847-2091. +

A number of houses and town houses are available through Collins Vacation Rentals, (850) 927-2900. Cape San Blas +

For vacation rentals, call or write Rosasco Realty, 6335 Highway C-30, Port St. Joe, FL 32456. (850) 227-1774 (http://www.homtown.com/rosasco). Mexico Beach +

For vacation rentals: Mexico Beach Harmon Realty, HC 3, Box 157-A, Port St. Joe, FL 32456. (800) 239-4959. +

Driftwood Inn, 2105 Highway 98, P.O. Box 13447, Mexico Beach, FL 32410. (850) 648-5126. Rooms, all with kitchens, range from $85 to $130. Pets allowed. Grayton Beach +

Hibiscus Coffee & Guest House, (850) 231-2733. March through September, rooms are $100 a night. October through February: $80. +

House/condo rentals available through Rivard Realty, (850) 231-4446. For more information, contact:

Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 9473, Panama City Beach, FL 23417; (850) 234-6575.

The Beaches of South Walton Tourist Authority: (800) 822-6877.

Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, 357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32549. (850) 231-4210.

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, 8899 Capee San Blas Road, Port St. Joe, FL 32456. (850) 227-1327. -- JEANNE MALMGREN

Originally published August 3, 1997



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