“I’m catching crabs!” Four-year-old Jonathan Bullington shouts when I ask what he’s looking for on the beach. It’s just after sunset on the Florida Panhandle, and the beach is full of squeals of joy. Jonathan’s father says the family drove 12 hours from northern Arkansas to come to this beach, the same place his wife’s family has come each summer for years.
A few paces away, little Miguel Pinho is bent over in the sand, his fingers trying to pry out plump sand fleas before they burrow away from him, while his little brother Dante is just trying not to get knocked over by the waves. Their father, Antonio Pinho, says it’s the family’s second year making the 10-hour drive to the Panhandle from Houston. “It’s drive-able. And it’s a new tradition,” he says, before turning back to admiring the boys’ finds.
Over the years the Panhandle, this strip of Florida that seems to be reaching for Alabama, has become a summer vacation mecca for southerners looking for relief from the heat that suffocates the region in July and August. One stretch of the coast, from Destin to Panama City, is particularly attractive — and affordable — for families who can skip the airport and just pack up the minivan. From New Orleans the drive is four hours, from Atlanta five, from Nashville seven. In fact, the local tourism board estimates that 84 percent of visitors to the region drive there. And so every year, right about now, families pack up the beach chairs and blenders and head out.