With a cold drink in your hand, you watch emerald-colored water lap against pristine white sand beaches. This is truly paradise, and it’s hard to believe that this is the same Gulf of Mexico that you grew up seeing along the Texas coast.
The city of Navarre lies about 30 minutes east of Pensacola, Fla., at the beginning of the state of Florida and the beginning of Florida’s Emerald Coast, an unofficial name for a 100-mile stretch of coastline that features some of the United States’ most stunning coastline. One mile across the Santa Rosa Sound lies Navarre Beach, a developed section of Santa Rosa Island that is home to a series of condos, hotels and restaurants, and where I spent a long weekend getting to enjoy the sights.
One of the big benefits of going to Navarre Beach is that you don’t get the extreme hustle and bustle of an area like Pensacola Beach, which has tons of traffic. Navarre Beach has only a handful of resort towers and hotels, so you are free to enjoy the beautiful beaches without all of the crowds.
I stayed at The Pearl of Navarre Beach, a high-rise condo building, and I was immediately impressed by the views and the facilities. All units are condominiums, owned by individuals that decorate and furnish them however they want, and are then put up for rent. ResortQuest (resortquestgulfcoast.com) represents a significant number of the units in The Pearl as well as other condo buildings in the region. One of the benefits of renting from ResortQuest is that they have an office across the street from the condominium which handles check-in and check-out services and will handle any issues you have during your vacation.
I love staying in condos because the units are typically huge and provide more amenities than a hotel would. The two-bedroom unit I inhabited had a full kitchen, private laundry room, two bathrooms and, most-importantly, panoramic views of the emerald waters from the living room and master bedroom. If I gave you that description of a hotel room, you would have thought it was the best hotel suite in the world, but it’s the typical condo experience in The Pearl where all units have ocean views. You can search on the ResortQuest website and view how each individual unit is decorated and what specific amenities it offers.
Getting to Navarre Beach from Houston is surprisingly easy. The 8.5-hour drive (550 miles) is mostly a straight shot down I-10. If it’s more important to spend maximum time on the beach, United has as many as five daily non-stop flights from Houston to Pensacola (PNS) which take just 90 minutes. Pro-tip: Because the flight is less than 700 miles, there is a 20 percent discount for a United Saver Award ticket. As a result, flights are as low as 20,000 miles round-trip.
I would highly recommend having a car while spending time in Navarre, as it will allow you to get to the grocery store, some additional restaurants and some regional activities. Most travelers come for a week, and while the beach is wonderful, most will want some other activities to check out. Holley Hill Pottery (holleyhillpottery.com) is a few miles up the highway from Navarre and makes beautiful and functional stoneware pottery that takes inspiration from living on the Emerald Coast. The Stokes family has been operating Holley Hill Pottery since 1980 and they operate their kilns and a gift shop on their property. Beautiful beach scenes adorn bowls, plates, cups and other items. The owners told me that they really want their pottery to be used as it is, all microwave and dishwasher safe. This is the must-buy souvenir to take home from your trip to Navarre.
After you finish checking out Holley Hill Pottery, right next door is the Ye Olde Brothers Brewery (yeoldebrothersbrewery.com) It’s a brewery and restaurant started by two brothers, Jerry and Larry Rolison. They both work in the electrical engineering industry and have custom-made, micro-controlled brewery equipment and a computer-controlled smokehouse. They are producing some wonderful craft brews and some really incredible brick-oven pizza. Let’s be clear, the pizza is easily good enough to drive the extra five minutes up the highway from the national chain pizza places in Navarre. Hopefully Jerry or Larry is there when you stop by so they can show off their unique brewing system.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo (gulfbreezezoo.org) is less than 10 miles from Navarre Beach and blew me away with how wonderful of a facility they have. They have 50 acres of land and feature some animals you don’t see at many zoos, such as gorillas and Nile Hippos. All of your favorites, such as tigers, lions, giraffes and bears, are here, too. You can feed the giraffes and llamas by buying a cup of food, which is a fun experience. If you want a truly unique experience, the zoo offers behind-the-scenes animal tours of the hippo or giraffe exhibits. For $75/person you get admission to the zoo and a 30-minute private tour led by a zookeeper. I participated in the hippo experience, and nothing really prepares you from being an arm’s distance from an animal weighing several thousand pounds (protected by a fence between you, of course). I got to feed Kiboko, a male hippo who has been at the Gulf Breeze Zoo for more than a decade, his favorite treat, cantaloupe! The zoo has three hippos and I was able to get close enough to touch all of them.
Right in the heart of Navarre Beach, is the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center (navarrebeachseaturtles.org), which might look small from the outside, but has a wonderful exhibit on sea turtles and is home to a rescued Loggerhead sea turtle named Gigi. She was originally found on the shores of Florida and rescuers discovered that she was blind. She was rehabilitated by Sea World Orlando and made the move to Navarre Beach when the conservation center received their permit to house her. Now she has her own indoor pool and caretakers in a permanent place.
There is more to Northwest Florida than beautiful beachfront condos, though. I toured the Coldwater Gardens facility (coldwatergardens.com), located roughly 40 miles north of Navarre Beach, which offers a range of facilities from campsites to luxurious cabins to “glamping.” The property is in a beautiful forest along Coldwater Creek and provides a much more rustic approach to visiting the region.
In the same area as Coldwater Gardens is Adventures Unlimited Outdoors (adventuresunlimited.com) which provides kayaking, canoeing and zip-lining adventures. They have zip lines that run up to 900-feet long and even criss-cross over the creek below. I decided to do some kayaking down Coldwater Creek where they drive you up stream and let you glide leisurely down until you get back to the main visitors center. Kayaking trips of 4, 7 and 11 miles are all available for the cost of $40. That provides everything you need to do one of the trips. The river flows at different speeds depending on how much rain has fallen, so my 4-mile trip took about three hours.
There are two restaurants in the specific Navarre Beach corridor, Lagerheads On The Gulf (lagerheadsonthegulf.com) and Juana’s Pagodas (juanaspagodas.com) and I had very positive experiences at both of them. Lagerheads is a few hundred feet down the sandy beach from The Pearl and serves up standard beach grill fare like fried shrimp ($14.99), fish tacos ($4.99) and wings ($9.95). I ordered the El Pollo Loco Sandwich ($10.50), which was a fried chicken sandwich topped with spicy sauce, cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion. It was absolutely killer and comes highly recommended. Our waiter also recommended the Boom-Boom Shrimp ($9.99), which are fried shrimp tossed in a sauce similar to the one that came on my chicken sandwich. It was also quite scrumptious.
Juana’s Pagoda is approximately a quarter mile from The Pearl and faces the Santa Rosa Sound. The Pagoda Beach Bar is on half of the property, while the Sailors’ Grill Restaurant is on the other half. While I went there for dinner, the breakfast menu had my mouth watering with the offering of homemade biscuits, blueberry pancakes, sticky buns, and cinnamon rolls. The lunch/dinner menu still provides many choices. At the waiter’s recommendation, I chose the fish tacos ($10.99) which had a delicious topping of slaw, pico, lime and jalapeño ranch dressing. Yum! Our appetizer, the smoked tuna dip ($12.99), is a must-order item. A large dish of tuna dip was a perfect combo with carrot sticks that were provided for dipping. It was a gluten-free item that I would order again and again.
Across the Santa Rosa Sound and back in Navarre, all of your normal fast-food choices (including Texan-favorite Whataburger!) are all right there if you need a quick bite. There is a Winn-Dixie grocery store, so if you are staying in a condo, you can load up on groceries and cook in your full kitchen. There was a local restaurant in Navarre called TC’S Front Porch (tcsfrontporch.com) that I also found provides an excellent meal. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and you can get more great beach grill food such as lobster quesadillas ($11.99), Mahi Mahi tacos ($9.99), Buffalo chicken club ($9.99) or, of course, peel-and-eat shrimp ($10.99). They regularly have live music, so be sure to stop by.
I clearly enjoyed eating and sight-seeing my way across Navarre Beach and I can certainly recommend taking the less-than-a-day drive to visit. There is plenty to do and eat for a week-long stay in the Santa Rosa County area, and the county has a visitor information center in town and online (floridasplayground.com), where you can plan your own trip to Florida’s Emerald Coast.