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Welcome To The Panhandle Of Florida – Advice For The Newcomer

When I moved to North West Florida over 20 years ago, thanks to the Air Force, my vision of Florida was basically Miami Vice. Since internet usage was really only used for emails, I wasn't able to research the area, but the Air Force did give us a folder full of brochures with pretty beaches and we had Niceville Florida the weekend to watch and memorize a 30-minute VHS tape of the same pretty beaches. However, what they didn't tell us about the State of Florida, the further north you go, the more Southern it becomes. I am not pretending to be a local, but I have survived a Category 3 hurricane, I remember when AJ's would close when not in season, Miss Demeanor was the favorite local band, Fat Tuesday's sat where the Emerald Grande is now and Another Broken Egg was still a small restaurant with only a 10-minute wait. So, here is my list of things that I think everyone should know if they are moving to North West Florida - Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Niceville, Crestview...

Bless your heart, Football IS a Religion here...

  • It is still very Southern here, but with a Florida feel. Y'all is a proper word and even if you try your best to never say it, it finds a way of sneaking into your vocabulary. As will "bless your heart". Locals will also say, "We call this place L.A. for Lower Alabama". Do not take offense when you are referred to as a Yankee, it just means that you are not from here.
  • Please do not take offense if someone calls you "sir" or "mam", that is just how it is. Also, to my kids, you will be known as Mister / Miss (insert first name here). Please do not correct my kids and tell them to call you by your first name. Trust me, you will get used to it and will even begin to introduce yourself to kids by that name within a couple years. However, there are still some people that will be referred to as Mr. or Mrs. (insert last name here) because that is just the right thing to do.
  • We take high school and college football VERY serious around here. Your high school team is based on where YOU graduated from or where your child attends. As for college teams, you will need to make this choice soon and you will need to have a reason. Here are your choices - FSU Seminoles & Florida Gators dominate the Florida teams in this area. But, being so close to Alabama, we do have Alabama & Auburn and every now and then a Georgia Bulldog fan. It is important that you make this choice wisely because you will be judged on it. I once read an article that basically explained how out west, college football is a tourist attraction, up north it is a hobby, but in the south, it is a religion. That is not a joke - people plan weddings around their teams schedule and even their colors!
  • Newcomers to the area often say that the first question locals ask them is, "Who is your football team?" and the second... "What religion are you?" It's nothing to take personal, it's as if they are asking you what your favorite color is. Because trust me, we have a very wide variety of churches here!
  • Do not judge a person here based on their clothes - the man in a business suit more than likely fishes and hunts on the weekends. His wife with the perfect hair and nails also owns her own gun and will show you pictures of the 8 point she shot. That guy down at the docks who looks a bit weather beaten, he has been taking famous people and tourists on fishing trips for longer than you have been alive.

Finding your way around

  • There is a difference between the Gulf, the Bay, an Inlet and the Sound. Look at a map and have someone explain. You can say that you are going to spend the day at the beach but never say the ocean.
  • We do have unique names here that you may have trouble pronouncing at first. It is important that you know how to pronounce them (for the next newcomer) but then you can shorten them like we do. Valparaiso is ValP, Choctawhatchee becomes Choctaw, Defuniak Springs is referred to as Defuniak. Also, we shorten names when writing - Fort Walton Beach (FWB), Niceville (Nville), Crestview (Cview), etc.
  • You will see the name "Santa Rosa" quite often and will assume they are all near each other. That's not really the case. We have Santa Rosa Mall, Santa Rosa Beach, Santa Rosa Blvd and Santa Rosa County. Pay close attention to this - Santa Rosa Mall is in Mary Esther which is in Okaloosa County; Santa Rosa Beach is a town in South Walton County; Santa Rosa Blvd is on Okaloosa Island in Fort Walton Beach (Okaloosa County) and Santa Rosa County is the county to the West of us.
  • Our area of the Gulf Coast is in between Pensacola and Panama City. What does that mean for people that love big concerts? You will be driving AT LEAST an hour to see a big name so it can get a bit expensive when having to rent a room. That being said, our venues here offer some of the best live entertainment and they are almost like "local celebrities". If we hear that someone is playing at a small local place, you can bet that place is going to be packed. Also, our festivals have brought in small known performers BEFORE they become household names - Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line, Billy Ray Cyrus, just to name a few. Speaking of festivals, we have plenty of them! Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville, Destin Seafood Festival, Beer Festival, Wine Festival, Kite Festival, Pioneer Festival... When the weather is nice, something is going on for you to get out and enjoy it!
  • We love our military and we use their bases as landmarks - Eglin AFB, Hurlburt Field, Duke Field, Army Ranger Camp, Armament Museum... It is best to learn where these are. Also, we love the sound of their aircraft flying over and the testing sounds you will hear quite often. You will get used to these sounds and it will become second nature to pause your conversations whether on the phone or in real life when they fly over. Trust me, that view never gets old.
  • Yes, we will name drop on who visits the area - Jason Aldean made news for ignoring the double red flag and Luke Bryan takes pictures with people when he is in restaurants or in Lowe's. Keith Urban visits a fellow Australian friend here and John Bon Jovi was at The Boat House with friends. Emeril Lagasse lives in South Walton, the same county that Jerry Jones has a second home in! Mike Huckabee attends a local church and Jeff Cook from the band Alabama used to jump in and play with local bands. The Truman Show with Jim Carrey was filmed in Seaside and really looks like it did in the movie!

The South is more than Fried Food...

  • Grits are offered at a lot of restaurants, some automatically come with the meals. You don't have to eat them, but some places do look at you kind of odd if you say no. However, if there is one type that you need to try, it would be Gouda grits. Yes, gouda cheese. As a non-southerner, they are one of the best things in the world! They are good plain or with shrimp. If you are given a recipe from a Southerner, guard it with your life!
  • If you are ever offered HOMEMADE cream of corn, do not turn it down. After almost 21 years here, I learned that cream of corn is not always made with cream (yes, that really shocked me) and tastes NOTHING like the canned variety.
  • Iced Tea comes in two different flavors here - sweet or unsweet, so make sure you specify which one you want when ordering in a restaurant. Although I do prefer unsweet tea, I had a sweet southern boy make me a glass of sweet tea with lemon one day... Now I understand the appeal!
  • Publix really does make the best sub sandwiches. Not to mention the customer service throughout the whole store is worth every penny you spend there.
    Speaking of customer service, we excel at it here in "the south". Most places greet you as soon as you walk in and love to help! Yes, it will take a bit to get used to when you move here.
  • Boiled peanuts are a real thing! I suggest trying them just so you can say you did. If you're not into the plain ones, I suggest the spicy or Cajun flavor.
    It's the Gulf, not the Ocean!
  • If you are planning on a beach day or heading out on the boat on Sunday, make sure you purchase your alcohol on Saturday since most places do not sell on Sundays until after 1pm. Yes, the locals kind of giggle a bit when we see a tourist wondering why the lights are off in the beer cooler.
  • You have never known true heat and humidity until you have been in the south during August. Your sunglasses will fog up when you walk outside and you might even find out that you have naturally curly hair. Speaking of sunglasses, go for polarized since it enhances your view of the water. Hats! Remember when you didn't think you were old enough to wear sun hats or fishing hats? Well, you are. You will try everything to make sure you have some kind of shade.
  • We do have seasons here - Snowbird, Spring Break and Summer Tourists. Also, it does get cold in January / February.
    You will miss your home...
  • Speaking of home, you will see vehicles with license plates from your home state and you will get so excited wondering where they are from. If you are out and about and meet someone from the same state, you two will instantly bond and you will enjoy reminiscing and comparing there to here.
  • Also, you will see places serving food that will remind you of home and you'll get excited and then immediately realize that it's not the same. New York style pizza, Chicago Hot Dog, Mexican Food... But, we do make really good Gouda Grits so try those.

While you are still new here, you will probably try all of the restaurants and stores that are the tourist traps because you have heard of these places for quite a while. Once you start to feel at home here, you will find the small restaurants and stores that really are the best. My suggestion to newcomers - get out there and enjoy this place! It really is truly beautiful and even after all these years, I take pictures of the water and sunsets like a tourist. Sometimes I still step back and realize that I live where people save up all year to vacation. Not to mention, you will also realize why people retire here...