Want to book a trip on the Emerald Coast Highway but don’t know where to start? Let me show you the best stops on an Emerald Coast Road Trip to inspire your journey.
USA road trips are a big thing right? There’s usually at least one route on most people’s travel bucket list – the usual suspects are Route 66 or the Pacific Coast Highway. Well, let me tell you about a cheeky little US road trip that not that many people have heard of, well, not many Brits anyway, the Americans are all over it.
The Great Emerald Coast Road Trip along the Emerald Coast Highway. With this road trip you’ll drive from Pensacola to Panama City Beach, with some great stops along the way.
Visiting the Emerald Coast
The Emerald Coast Highway beach road going along the Emerald Coast flanks one of the most glorious stretches of beach I have ever seen. White sands, crystal blue waters twinkling under the hot December sun and lovely, wide roads that make driving a breeze.
I drove from Pensacola Airport to Northwest Florida Beaches Airport – around 100 miles away – over one week, with a good few detours in between. You could extend the trip by starting in New Orleans, just 200 miles and 3-hours drive to the west, and going onto Orlando, 3.5 hours and 360 miles to the east, if you’d like to travel further.
Between my start and finish airports I passed over bridges, through little villages, down the famous 30A stretch, sand dunes and most importantly, for almost all of it, I had the beach by my side. I had a great time.
How to plan this Emerald Coast road trip
Choosing your route on the Emerald Coast Highway
The Emerald Coast stretches from Pensacola to Panama City Beach. Along the way you can pop into destinations like Destin and Miramar Beach easily.
I landed at Pensacola Airport, hired a Nissan Accent from Hertz, and drove to Panama City Beach for a few days. I dropped the car off at the airport, 7 days later.
The Emerald Coast road trip route options are pretty limited, as in, there’s a clear beach road that you should follow. You can’t really go wrong. I wanted to include as many bridges as possible and stay hugging the beach as much as possible – the scenic route.
I can’t stress enough how easy this road trip was, it was brilliant.
Best stops on an Emerald Coast Highway road trip
Make Pensacola your first stop on your Emerald Coast road trip, mainly because it’s where the Pensacola International Airport is. Spend some time in Pensacola and you can tour the National Naval Aviation Museum, eat grits a Ya Ya at The Fish House, spend a day at Fort Pickens and hang out in the super cool Seville Quarter too.
There are a lot of fun things to discover in Pensacola, but I’ll let you choose your own highlights.
2. Fort Walton Beach
Fort Walton Beach has miles of beautiful sands, plenty of fishing opportunities and breweries too.
“Located between Pensacola and Panama City along North Florida’s glittering Gulf Coast, Fort Walton Beach offers visitors its powdery white beaches, emerald waters, enjoyable golf courses, and more. Fort Walton Beach boasts all the fun of the major vacation spots, minus the fuss.
Home to family-friendly resorts and attractions such as parks, museums and aquariums, Fort Walton Beach’s calm, green waters and cool, white sand make this northwest Florida destination a family favourite.”– VISIT FLORIDA
3. Okaloosa Island
Okaloosa Island is a narrow three-mile island between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, Florida. Here you’ll find picture-perfect white sands, a gulfarium with penguins, and a great boardwalk filled with restaurants, activities and shops. It’s definitely worth spending the day on Okaloosa Island, if not two.
I loved stopping in Destin on my Emerald Coast road trip. I spent a few days here in Destin City enjoying the restaurants and the absolute world class beaches.
“Stunning white beaches, challenging golf and world-famous fishing define the Emerald Coast city of Destin. Snuggled against the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida, Destin is rightfully famed for its sugar-white sands and emerald-hued waters. And due to its plentiful and always hungry underwater population, Destin is widely known as the “world’s luckiest fishing village.”– VISIT FLORIDA
5. Villages on 30A
From Destin to Panama City Beach there are plenty of great stops to make. If you’re not beached out yet, then Miramar Beach is a good shout. Otherwise there are lots of villages along the way.
Be prepared to stop at a moment’s notice, as you see something on the side of the road that you just want to see that little bit closer.
6. Panama City Beach
Panama City Beach is awesome. There’s so much to do there, there’s no wonder it’s so popular with the Spring Break crowd!
There’s a lot more to PCB than drinking and beach parties though. As well as all the water sports you can also explore the coast in a helicopter, go to the malls, relax in the state parks and go diving too. There are loads of things to do in Panama City Beach, check out my list!
Panama City Beach is located on the Gulf of Mexico coast, It’s home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. In Panama City Beach there are over 27 miles of coastline, with over 100 inlets, access points, and beaches to choose from.
Tropical vibes all round!
Emerald Coast Highway
Along the Emerald Coast Highway you’ll find shopping malls, harbour walks, water sports, cute shopping villages, interesting looking shops and many chances to pull over to admire the beach views.
Don’t rush yourself.
Leave plenty of time to have a few hours on a part of the beach if you’re taken by it.
Driving the bridges
The Emerald Coast has a lot of peninsulas – you’re going to experience some cool bridges connecting them all together!
Make sure to hook up your Go Pro or camera so you can get the best of them. You can pick up a car mount from Walmart or Target pretty cheap – they’re dotted along the route.
If you type ‘Emerald Coast’ into Google you’ll see amazing images of bridges and emerald waters. The best way to get this view is by going out on a helicopter or microlight trip, or buy a drone. Unfortunately I didn’t do either of these things when I was there, another reason to go back right?!
Cost of an Emerald Coast Road Trip
– Doesn’t help if you can’t resist the malls!
My Emerald Coast Road Trip worked out cheaper than I thought. I booked the car just three days in advance, on the Hertz app, and it cost £195 with extra all-in insurance and fees included. I was travelling solo, but say if you had friends or family – that’s great value!
I did exactly 700 miles according to my trip report from Hertz, and d’ya know how much that cost me in ‘gas’? *$22.87 – just £18.45!*.
Emerald Coast weather
The Emerald Coast proudly boasts over 225 days of sunshine, and it’s a popular place for north Northern Americans to escape the cold winters. But trust me to arrive on the day it rains.
‘Rains’ is putting it lightly.
After picking up the car at Pensacola Airport I just popped to the Mall a 5-minute drive away to pick up some lunch, and a few bits from Best Buy to record what I thought was going to be an amazing journey over the Pensacola Bay Bridge to start my Emerald Coast road trip. By the time I emerged from the Cordova Mall (loads of great shops in there) the storms had set in.
Honestly, it was torrential. And at this point in my driving in the USA life, I wasn’t very experienced. I ended up doing my first hour of driving on the Emerald Coast hunched up to the wheel staring through the windscreen as rain bounced off the roads and I was scared to blink in case I missed a hazard.
What an initiation!
You won’t have to worry about that though, doesn’t happen often.
Choosing your car for the Emerald Coast road trip
If you can, always go for the convertible when driving in the USA.
The route, as I’ve said, is incredible and mostly following the beach. Seeing as you’re there you might as well go all out and feel the wind in your hair. Expect to pay about a grand a week for a fancy soft-top car.
If a convertible is just a pipe dream for your crying bank account, don’t let that put you off. I had a great time with the windows open on my little Accord…
For all you nervous drivers
If you’re nervous about hiring a car in the USA for a road trip around the Emerald Coast, I can say this for sure, don’t be.
The route is easy. Finding your way is easy. Other drivers are easy. Driving automatic is easy. Driving on the right is easy. It’s all just so easy.
If you’ve never been to America you won’t believe the size of roads, or of the car parks. All you need to do is practice a few moves in there and you’ll be ready to rumble. The speed limits around the Emerald Coast were super conservative, giving you more time to admire the views and relax in your wheels.
You can book good value, reliable car hire with Rental Cars – use this link for the best deals.
Eating on the Emerald Coast
There are some excellent restaurants on the Emerald Coast. Here are all the best restaurants on the Emerald Coast that I ate at, plotted along the Okaloosa Island and Destin route. Make sure to schedule in enough time to eat at them, and recover from the portion sizes afterwards.
Don’t forget to load the car up with some all-American road trip snacks from the gas stations, and make sure to sample all the drive-thru opportunities too!
Where to stay on the Emerald Coast
I stayed at the Henderson Park Inn, which I awarded ‘VickyFlipFlop’s favourite hotel for 2016’ (I stayed in 114 to test!). So, obviously, I can’t recommend it enough.
Book a few nights here, the beach is amazing, trust me.
Check out my review video on YouTube here.
It’s not really that far from the Henderson Park Inn, but I stayed at the Azure Condos for the next few nights. I had a huge condo all to myself.
Check it out in video 4 of the YouTube series I made about my road trip on the Emerald Coast.
Road tripping the Emerald Coast
If you want the best deals, and the best cars, book your Pensacola car hire ASAP. You can get the best prices with this link to Rental Cars.
I loved the freedom of having a car to road trip the Emerald Coast, and was surprised at how cheap it worked out. If you’re a group or family of four, it’s an absolute bargain!
This is a great route whether it’s your first or 51st time driving in the States. Stunning views, plenty of interesting places to pull over, and a relaxing journey wherever you decide to end up. The road trip was great, but if you want even more reasons to visit the Emerald Coast, check out the list linked. Oh, and if you want to explore the Emerald Coast as part of a longer Florida road trip, all the details on how to do that are here.
As always, just let me know if you have any questions. The Emerald Coast features some of the best beaches I’ve ever seen!
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