Fancy Camps can set up on one of its sites near Panama City Beach or on your campsite in the area. Either way, they do the work, you don’t. credit: Fancy Camps

Best of the Southeast: Explore beaches like a local

You don’t want to travel like a tourist. You’re looking for hidden gems. In the AJC’s annual Best of the Southeast travel special section, we give you the lowdown on where locals eat, drink, play, relax, shop and discover.

Our list of beach destinations includes an adventurous island retreat, a new way to enjoy Panama City Beach and some of Florida’s best places to dine, drink and chill.

Relax: Glamping at Panama City Beach, Fla.

Boasting nearly 30 miles of beaches, two state parks, acres of hiking and biking trails, and 100 public beach access points, Florida’s Panama City Beach provides an ideal destination for winding down. But sidestep the resorts and head about 3 miles south to St. Andrews State Park (4607 State Park Lane, Panama City Beach, Fla., 850-233-5140,, @FlStateParks) on the Emerald Coast, where you’ll find an abundance of undisturbed, rugged natural beauty.

Situated on a skinny peninsula bordered by the clear green waters of Saint Andrew Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the park provides a tranquil retreat for campers. But, really, why camp when you can glamp in style? No need to worry about the drudgery of setting up a bothersome tent and dusting off the sleeping bags. Let Fancy Camps (850-628-9696,, @fancycamps) set you up with luxurious accommodations.

Fancy Camps provides everything you need for luxury camping, including a roomy tent, a queen-size bed — or two twins — linens, carpets, furniture, lighting and even a heating and cooling unit.

If you feel the need to venture away from your private paradise, head north a couple of miles and grab some fresh ceviche or fish tacos from the stationary food truck Finns Island Style Grub (7220 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach, Fla., 850-249-3466, If you’ve worked up a serious appetite, spring for the 2-pound burrito. You can work it off surfing, hiking or fishing.

Sabine Morrow, for the AJC

Eat: High Tides at Snack Jack, Flagler Beach, Fla.

Make sure to get to this in-the-know spot in time to grab a seat by the sprawling window. Overlooking the rushing tide on Flagler Beach, Fla., High Tides at Snack Jack offers one of the best views in the area. Beer and wine flow from behind the bar with waves of wine-based daiquiris, sangria and other libations.

This beachside retreat dates back to 1947 and welcomes pups on its patio, making it popular with locals. The adjacent Flagler Beach allows dogs to sink their paws in the sands found north of North 10th Street and south of South 10th Street. (A no-dog zone exists between the two, located near the Flagler Beach Municipal Pier.) Other likeminded pit stops include Java Joint, Johnny D’s Beach Bar & Grill and the BeachHouse Beanery. Back at High Tides at Snack Jack, while pet owners bite into ahi tuna, blackened shrimp or a fish Reuben, a server will happily deliver a bowl of water for the family dog.

Although both you and your pooch can ingest plenty of calories — talking about the copious fried platters — the eatery has health-conscious options on its menu, too. A virtual garden full of salads and several organic options balance things. You had the coconut shrimp yesterday? Go for the organic sweet curry kale salad today. If you have the tots in tow, a kids menu has all the standard-issue fare, from grilled cheese with fries or carrots to chicken nuggets and more.

2805 S. Oceanshore Blvd., Flagler Beach, Fla. 386-439-3344,, @snack_jacks.

Jon Waterhouse, for the AJC

Drink: Cocktails and more in Tampa, Fla.

With stunning bay views, historic Ybor City, and a surprisingly sophisticated culinary scene, Tampa is a destination with a lot to like — and a whole lot to drink.

Visit Tampa Bay touts the city’s “craft beer renaissance” ( headlined by tours and tastings at beloved Cigar City Brewing (3924 W. Spruce St., Tampa. 813-348-6363,

One of the finest steakhouses in the U.S., Bern’s (1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-251–2421,, @bernssteakhouse) is a perennial recipient of the Wine Spectator Grand Award that boasts a wine cellar with some 6,800 different selections and more than half-a-million bottles.

But beyond beer and wine, cocktails are an exciting part of Tampa’s drink culture. And the owners of Bern’s have had a hand in that with a pair of newer endeavors.

Across the street, the Epicurean Hotel (1207 S. Howard Ave., Tampa. 813-999-8700,, @EpicureanHotel) offers an immersive culinary experience, with a chef-driven restaurant, Bern’s wine shop and main floor and rooftop cocktail bars. Each room even features a minibar and pantry set up with all the fixings for craft cocktails, wine and snacks.

Steps away, Haven (2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa. 813-258-2233,, @HavenWineBar) features an inviting bar with classic and house cocktails, draft craft beer, more than 300 varieties of bourbon and 40 different wines by the glass, plus charcuterie and more than 60 types of cheese.

Nearby, Ciro’s Speakeasy (2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa. 813-251-0022) epitomizes the young and fun side of the cocktail scene. Call ahead for the password, then find the secret Prohibition-style entrance. It’s dark and romantic, the drinks are strong, and happy hour runs both early and late.

Other hot spots include Fodder & Shine (5910 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-234-3710,, @FodderAndShine) in the heart of hipster Seminole Heights featuring Florida craft beers, small vineyard wines and a serious spirits collection.

The Refinery (5137 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. 813-237-2000,, @TampaRefinery) from James Beard-nominated chef/owner Greg Bake has a bar that echoes the restaurant with affordable quality offerings of beer, wine and cocktails.

Ulele (1810 N. Highland Ave., Tampa. 813-999-4952,, @Uleletampa) is a newish brewery and chef-driven restaurant in a historic space on the banks of the Hillsborough River with a lively outdoor bar scene.

Bob Townsend, for the AJC

Play: Island retreat at Atlantic Beach, Fla.

Looking for an unspoiled retreat away from the crowds? Dutton Island Preserve (Dutton Island Road W, Atlantic Beach, Fla. 904-247-5828, is waiting at the end of Dutton Island Drive in the city of Atlantic Beach.

Technically a city park, this island is a passive recreational area of more than 30 acres that boasts 9,000 feet of nature trails, a nature exhibit, camp sites, a fishing pier, picnic areas, covered pavilions, wildlife observation platforms and a launch for canoes and kayaks.

One of the coolest features, according to city Recreation Director Timmy Johnson, is that the island sits between the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Intracoastal Waterway on the west. “It’s a great place where you can get away from everything,” he said. “It’s quiet. There’s great fishing. And the views are spectacular.”

Visitors can drive onto the island with their own canoes, kayaks, paddleboards or camping gear. Those who want to rent equipment will find two nearby shops, Aqua East Surf Shop (696 Atlantic Blvd., Neptune Beach, Fla. 904-246-2550, and Jacksonville Surf and Paddle (222 First St., Neptune Beach, Fla. 904-435-7873,, ready to supply the gear. The companies also will arrange paddleboard tours; the recreation office offers a free wheelchair. Reservations are required for campers.

H.M. Cauley, for the AJC

Discover: Full speed ahead on Mobile Bay

Most everyone knows the famous battle cry, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” What’s less known is the who, where and when. Union Admiral David Farragut bellowed the command (or a variation thereof) on Aug. 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the waters off Fort Morgan (110 State Highway 180, Gulf Shores, Ala. 251-540-5257,

These days, instead of protecting the bay, Fort Morgan welcomes visitors to tour the site. Most visitors to this area come primarily for the white sand beaches on the Fort Morgan Peninsula and in nearby Gulf Shores, but the fort is well worth a visit. A ferry service connects Fort Morgan to Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island on the other side of the bay, carrying pedestrians and vehicles. On the ferry, you’re actually crossing the waters where Farragut said his immortal words.

Point Clear, on the Eastern Shore, is home to another historic treasure where you can spend an entire vacation, the Grand Hotel. This resort, now operated as a Marriott property (rates start at $209; 1 Grand Blvd., Point Clear, Ala. 251-928-9201,, has been in operation since 1847, except for when it served as a hospital during the Civil War and an Air Force training facility in World War II. This strong military heritage is honored every afternoon with a ceremonial procession and canon firing over the bay, one of many longstanding traditions at the Grand.

Blake Guthrie, for the AJC

Shop: Home decor in Wilmington, N.C.

From the historic district to the Cape Fear River to three island beaches, Wilmington (, @WilmingtoNCoast) is North Carolina’s most accessible coastal destination. As expected, surf gear and coastal treasures are available, but the state is known for its furniture shopping and, perhaps surprisingly, Wilmington is no exception.

The Cotton Exchange (, @cottonexchange), located in the historic downtown district at the corner of Front and Grace streets, is comprised of eight 19th-century buildings that now house over 30 specialty shops and restaurants. The Golden Gallery (311 N. Front St., Wilmington. 910-762-4651, features the paintings, photography and music of its artist owners. Fidler’s Gallery, Wrigley’s Clocks (304 Nutt St., Wilmington. 910-762-2001, has a large inventory of home furnishings including frames, clocks, figurines, lamps and sculptures.

Downtown beyond the historic district, the Ivy Cottage (3020, 3030 and 3100 Market St., Wilmington. 910-815-0907, is the largest furniture consignment store in the Southeast. It fills three cottages, a courtyard and a warehouse with its gigantic inventory of high-quality antique, vintage, modern furniture and home decor items; from midcentury modern to shabby chic, an array of styles is represented. The Cape Fear Antique Center (1606 Market St., Wilmington. 910-763-1837, is shared by three dealers specializing in a mix of American, English, French and Belgian furniture, from armoires to dining tables plus porcelain and china, estate jewelry and oil paintings.

Hope S. Philbrick, for the AJC

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