by Leo Jakobson | December 19, 2016

From the Spanish moss-draped oak trees of Amelia Island on the east coast to the sugar-white sand beaches and emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico found along the Panhandle, Northern Florida is a part of the state too often overlooked by planners considering the Sunshine State, despite record tourism numbers in the last few years. From the laid-back attitude of the Panhandle to the Spanish moss-drapped oak trees of Amelia Island, their are lodging choices ranging from five-star resorts to condo hotels suitable for groups with families. Northern Florida boasts great golf and seafood, and the water sports attendees expect, but without the crowds. Whatever you're looking for, it can be found on the top of Florida.

South Walton
The South Walton area's Grayton Beach State Park was honored this year by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, who put it at No. 6 on his 2016 list of the top 10 beaches in America.

Leatherman said Grayton Beach State Park's development "has been restrained so big sand dunes still dominate the landscape." The park also features tidal ponds and freshwater lakes.

A new venue for groups in South Walton is The Hub, an indoor/outdoor dining, nightlife, and entertainment venue with seven event spaces and a 25-foot LED Jumbotron screen. Construction is under way at the new Seascape Towne Centre, a 55,000-square-foot outdoor entertainment venue at the 330-acre Seascape Golf, Beach and Tennis Resort in Miramar Beach. Scheduled to open next spring, it will bring a variety of potential meeting venues, as well as group entertainment and dining options. The large, outdoor events plaza will include a ropes course and climbing walls, as well as laser tag, boutiques, a golf chipping range, a live-music venue, and open space.

The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa has renovated its 602 guest rooms and public space, and has increased the size of its meeting and event facilities to 40,000 square feet with the addition of the 7,500-square-foot Costal Ballroom.

The Emerald Coast
The Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island area has 24 miles of spectacular white-sand beaches and brilliant waters. The area offers more than 1,000 holes of golf, including the Audubon-registered Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club and the 36-hole Eglin Air Force Base Golf Course, the third-ranked U.S. military golf course. The seaside version of farm-to-table dining is a growing trend in the area, and the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a Gulf-to-table dining guide.

Destin Harbor

The biggest news is the opening this month of the 170-room Henderson Beach Resort [pictured at top of page], a Salamander Beach & Spa Resort, the first new luxury resort to open on the Emerald Coast in a decade. A member of Associated Luxury Hotels International, the Destin property will have 20,000 square feet of outdoor event space and 10,000 square feet of indoor facilities, including a 5,221-square-foot Grand Ballroom, 1,000-square-foot hospitality suite, and rooftop terrace. There is a 10,000-square-foot spa with 11 treatment rooms, as well as an adult pool, family pool, and a lazy river. The resort is located next to the 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park.

Panama City Beach
The 320-room Sheraton Bay Point reopens this month after a $30 million renovation. With a private, St. Andrews Bay beach shuttle and daily shuttles to the Panama City's Gulf Coast beaches, the resort has five HydroGrid clay tennis courts and 36 holes of golf, including the only Nicklaus Design golf course in northwest Florida, and the 12,000-square-foot Serenity Spa. The property has four dining venues, including the over-water Pelican's.

The renovated and expanded meeting and event facilities include 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including two grand ballrooms (12,000 and 7,900 square feet), waterfront lawns, and the popular St. Andrews Pavilion on the bay.

In July, the 109-room Fairfield Inn & Suites, Panama City Beach, opened its doors with 554 square feet of event space.