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The Emerald Coast

On U.S. 98, several towns are strung along the shoreline from Pensacola southeast to St. George Island, their waters so strikingly green against the white sand that the area is called the Emerald Coast. The side-by-side cities of Destin and Fort Walton Beach seemingly merge into one sprawling destination and continue to spread as more condominiums, resort developments, shopping centers, and restaurants crowd the skyline each year. The view changes drastically—and for the better—farther along the coast as you veer off U.S. 98 and enter Scenic Route 30A, the main coastal road that leads to a more quiet stretch known as South Walton. The 30A communities were developed later and more mindfully than the resorts along U.S. 98, and the road is much closer to the water. There aren't high-rise developments, and the majority of dwellings are privately owned homes and condominiums, many available to vacationers.

Continuing southeast on U.S. 98, you come to Panama City Beach. Front Beach Road, once crammed with carnival-like amusement parks and other attractions that earned it the not-so-complimentary nickname "Redneck Riviera," is now home to up-to-date shopping and entertainment complexes and new condos that have given the area a much-needed face-lift. Farther east are the up-and-coming sleeper cities of Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach, which are smaller and much less crowded than other beach towns along the coast. The quiet blue-collar town of Apalachicola, once Florida's main oyster fishery, now features a quaint, historic downtown filled with eateries and shops. Cross the Apalachicola Bay via the Bryant Patton Bridge to St. George Island. This unspoiled 28-mile-long barrier island offers some of America's most scenic beaches, including St. George Island State Park, which has the longest beachfront of any state park in Florida.

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