Take it from a Florida native: You don’t really know the Sunshine State until you’ve felt the salty Gulf breeze of the Panhandle. It’s home to an under-the-radar coastline that’s just as beautiful as the buzzier, high-traffic sands of Southern Florida (we’re looking at you South Beach) — and can be less expensive, too. Here are six quiet Northwest Florida beaches where you can stick your toes in the sand for less.
Located 20 minutes east of spring-break-central Panama City Beach, this gem of a small town on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” is so undeveloped, they don't even have traffic lights. Stake out a spot on one of its free access public beaches like Canal Park, Sunset Park, or Mexico Beach City Park (its quartz-rich sand reflects the sun, keeping it cool year-round).
Where to stay: A standard room for two at Victorian charmer Driftwood Inn, with access to the beach, will cost $110 a night in the off-season or $150 in spring and summer. Alternately, you can rent out a one-bedroom beach condo for about the same price: Paradise Shores' one-bedroom condo rooms (which are a block from the beach with an ocean view from the balcony) rent $150 per night in June.
St. George Island
No highrises or chain stores here: this barrier island is just sea oats and sand dunes for 28 miles, and an example of Old Florida’s slow pace at its finest. The road (Highway 98) is paved with boiled peanut vendors, freshly shucked oysters from Apalachicola, and mom-and-pop restaurants (if you’re driving in, try Angelo & Son’s Seafood for fresh catches). Check out the pet-friendly state park and free public beaches.
Where to stay: Though hotel options are limited on the island, you can stay in a room for two at St. George Inn for $140 a night in high-season summer months. Ask about promotions: If you arrive Sunday or Monday and stay three nights, the fourth night is free. Or if you’re staying for a week, rent a beach cottage (they usually sleep up to eight) and split the cost; a beachfront property with a pool from Collins Vacation Rentals costs an average of $1,560 (winter) and $3,2500 (summer) for 5 days, which comes out to $80 per person, per night.
Fly into Panama City and take a 40-minute drive to this town (the star of a string of beaches on State road 30 A known together as South Walton). Dappled with pastel beach homes with white-picket fences, the idyllic beach community was only established 30 years ago but has since become one of the area’s biggest family destinations. (Picture kids riding bikes with their families or eating ice cream cones.)
Where to stay: You can rent a two-bedroom cottage through local Cottage Rental Agency that sleeps four, located just across the street from the beach for around $300 to $500 per night in high-season summer months.
One look at this beach in South Walton and you’ll realize why it belongs to a stretch of sand called the Emerald Coast — its eye-popping gradient of teals and powdery white sand are prettier than most postcards. The planned community has white stucco houses, manicured lawns, and palms. Grab a coffee at Fonville Press café or take a hike on the surrounding nature trails.
Where to stay: This beach is high-end, but you can sometimes find prices lower than neighboring Rosemary Beach (we saw rates on HomeAway for a one-bedroom condo -- just a block from the beach for $175 per night in the off-season, and $250 per night the week of 4th of July).
This laid-back South Walton town has the same jewel-toned waters as nearby Alys but is perhaps better known for its funky vibes, where the unofficial slogan is “nice dogs, friendly folks.” You can’t miss them at Red Bar, the most popular watering hole in town that has live bluegrass music and serves local favorites like crab cakes and brews from Grayton Beer Co. While you’re here, head to Grayton Beach State Park ($5 per vehicle), where you can paddle board or kayak along one of Florida’s salt marshes.
Where to stay: You’ll need to stay at least three nights for most rentals, which can cost $179per person in high-season for a three-bedroom condo, just around the corner from the beach. Cabins in Grayton Beach State Park cost $130 per night from February to July. Up for camping? It’s $30 per night in the state park.
This underrated beach bordering Alabama, Perdido Key (the name translates to “lost island”) is 23 miles west of Pensacola International Airport. Check out Perdido Key State Park and Big Lagoon State Park for emerald water and white sands.
Where to stay: You can walk directly from the pool to the beach for around $200 a night in the summer months at a one bedroom rental condo.