Our latest travels took us to Navarre Beach, Florida, a beautiful and quiet spot on a barrier island along the Gulf Coast. As always, we were on the lookout for opportunities to learn a little something while visiting, and Navarre delivered by the bucketful. Although only there for a brief stay, we hit several spots brimming with possibilities.
A Barrier Island Beach
Let’s start with the obvious: the island beach itself. Because Navarre Beach is situated on a barrier island, the geography unfolds differently than other beach locations. From our condo at The Caribbean Resort, we could look out over the waters of the Gulf directly in front of us; we could also see across the inter-coastal waters behind the larger buildings to the stretch of mainland. We talked a lot about the geography of the place, how barrier islands work, and how their unique structure impacts the island itself and the mainland.
Having spent our beach time almost exclusively on the South Carolina coast, we were amazed at the white sands of Navarre Beach. Aptly called “sugar sand,” it stretches in a glittering white line as far as we could see in either direction. We learned from Jack Sanborn at Adventures Unlimited (more on that in a bit) that the quartz that makes the sand so white comes ultimately from the Appalachian mountain chain far to the north. We felt right at home after that.
And the sand doesn’t just look great, it sounds great, too. Across certain stretches, the sand squeaked as we walked, a peculiar little sound that we haven’t quite figured out yet. We’re still doing some research into that mystery.
No, I’m not talking about sunbathing and surfing. We’re more interested in all the wildlife that inhabits the area. Our first steps on the beach revealed a plethora of shells, many that we had never seen before (we’re usually on the Carolina coast, remember). Loads of little augers, ceriths, and turrets piled up on the sugar sand. Brightly mottled calico scallops. Chunk after chunk of huge sand dollars. And we found all of those without trying very hard.
I never get tired of seeing animals at the beach, and Navarre has its share. Sanderlings, gulls, ghost crabs, jellyfish, dragonflies…every time we went out we noticed something new.
Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center
Sea turtles nest on the island, and after our experience with nesting turtles this past summer, we were excited to learn even more about the species that call Navarre Beach home. Loggerheads regularly lay eggs at Navarre, and the community actively encourages turtle-friendly practices like daily beach clean-up and light-shielding.
The recently opened Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center houses a lovely loggerhead named Gigi. Blind, she cannot be returned to the wild, and so she will delight and educate many future generations of beach-goers. After all, Gigi is expected to live for another 80 years. The highly informative exhibit space is well worth a visit and will foster an appreciation of aquatic life in general, not just the magnificent sea turtles.
Bonus! The waters are so clear around Navarre Beach and along the Gulf Islands National Seashore that you’ll be able to spot the sea turtles as they swim through, snacking on the lazy jellyfish. We spied a small Kemp’s Ridley.
Panhandle Butterfly House
Open from seasonally from May through August, the Panhandle Butterfly House will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about butterflies, especially the migrating monarch. The living specimens emerging from their chrysalises and the ones flitting through the exhibit space are a wonder. The specimen collection in the exhibit space is equally captivating.
If you can, plan your autumn visit in October to coincide with Monarch Madness, a one-day celebration of the migration king of butterflies. Sites like Navarre Beach are one of the last landmasses for the monarchs before they begin their long journey across the Gulf to their wintering forests in Mexico. The Panhandle Butterfly House raises monarchs, tags them, then releases. During the festival, which also brings local artisans and kids’ activities, visitors can be a part of the release. We filled out forms that pair us with specific, tagged butterflies. If they successfully make the long journey and are found and logged, we’ll get an email letting us know!
Given its natural setting, you’re sure to encounter plenty of flora and fauna at Coldwater Gardens. Stay at one of the six glamping spots and soak up all the outdoors that you can. One particularly impressive spider species had built webs all over the property. The more squeamish can always watch for birds or catalog the abundant flowers that enjoy the lengthy Gulf coast growing season.
Aquaponics and Mushroom Farming
Both the aquaponics operations and the shiitake mushroom farming are equally impressive. A quick tour will teach you a lot about growing plants using water that has been fish-fertilized: the koi eat the duckweed, the fish waste feeds the plants, the water filters through the whole set up. Fascinating stuff.
And if you’ve ever enjoyed a meaty mushroom, you’ll be interested to learn how the shiitake starts life in an oak log, then eventually fruits to a delicious cap. Nature at its finest…with a little help along the way.
The property at Coldwater Gardens is covered in longleaf pine trees, once the dominant species in the area. Generations of harvesting the desirable wood (Florida was an important source of lumber for Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries), plus fire suppression methods have seriously damaged the species’ population and have upset a delicate ecosystem. Efforts are underway to effect a comeback for the longleaf pine. At Coldwater Gardens you can learn a little bit of history about this special tree and about the tricky work of balancing an ecosystem that has gotten out of whack. You’ll be able to talk a little history, a little geography, a little botany, and a little environmental responsibility, all while enjoying the nicely appointed glamping tents or one of the cozy cabanas (at least one backs up to a cotton field…that’s a whole different conversation).
Just down the road from Coldwater Gardens, Adventures Unlimited offers zipline canopy tours (more of those long leaf pines), as well as multiple ways to enjoy Coldwater Creek: canoes, kayaks, tubes, and paddleboards. History abounds here. Look for the oldest known canoe found in Santa Rosa County, circa 1100 AD. As you make your way down the river, watch for the “dead heads,” old logs too dense to float during the logging era and for remnants of the weirs that were used to raise the water level to make the water deep enough to float the giant logs.
Several building on site are also historical: a church and a cabin that both date from 1901, a schoolhouse from 1927, and a restored caboose. The cemetery on the grounds is the final resting place of some Confederate soldiers.
As you’re floating the river, however you choose to do it, consider the source of all the material that lines the riverbed. If you traveled south to get to the Gulf coast, you followed the same route as all the sand that is still slowly working its way toward the ocean. A quiet trip on the water will give you a chance to discuss erosion and time, among other potentially heavy topics.
Gulf Breeze Zoo
We visit zoos everywhere we go because there’s always a new experience, even with animals we’ve seen a dozen times before. The Gulf Breeze Zoo is well worth the visit while exploring the Navarre Beach area. Of particular interest here is the feeding: we got up close and personal with some hungry budgies and got face-to-face at the giraffe feeding station. Watch out for the llamas…at least one has figured out how to grab the feeding cups!
Some areas of the zoo are accessible only via the Safari Express Train Ride. As the guide delivers a fun and informative tour, we enjoyed seeing the animals in a slightly more natural setting. The massive gorillas across the water are particularly impressive. Did you know that gorilla muscle is so dense that they can’t effectively swim? It’s little nuggets like that one that keep us going back to zoos.
Holley Hill Pottery
Of all the fascinating places we visited during our stay at Navarre Beach, Holley Hill Pottery is hands down my favorite. I’m a sucker for hand-thrown pottery anyway, but this location is one of the best I’ve visited. Where else can you learn some history, some art, and some chemistry all while looking at beautifully designed pottery? Perhaps I like Holley Hill Pottery the best because I learned something brand new and mind-blowing: pieces fired in the massive wood kiln are not glazed before being put. The wood burns to ash, which then covers the pieces over the course of many hours. All of the minerals and chemicals present in the ash then melt when the temperature in the kiln climbs to a ridiculously high level. That’s right: the ash melts. The resulting liquid then coats the clay pieces, resulting in unpredictable and often surprisingly gorgeous colors and forms. Chemistry and art melded in the super-hot flames of a wood kiln.
More to Explore
We’re already looking forward to our next chance to visit the Navarre Beach area. During the next visit, we’ll be able to dedicate even more time to our beach explorations. The Marine Science Center, which didn’t fit our itinerary this go around, offers loads of camps, classes, and other programs. We know that there are many more historical locations that we haven’t visited. More wildlife awaits discovery. With a week or more of adventure, who knows what we might learn?
To read Audrey’s tween take on our Navarre Beach adventures, click here.
Finnian gives a run-down of these activities and several more along the way there and back in this post.