Treasures of the Fla. Panhandle

Posted June 06, 2010, at 8:34 p.m.

My son argues that most New Englanders think Disney World encompasses the entire state of Florida. He’s too young to understand the lure of places such as Miami and Key West. Still, he has a point. For five of the 10 years that we lived in Florida, we were in the part called the Panhan-dle. It’s named so because on a map, the eastern part of the state looks like a deep-fry basket, and the western part looks like the handle. (Interestingly, more deep-fry baskets actually are put to use in the Panhandle than in the “basket”).

Many people, not just New Englanders, forget this part of Florida exists, but not without good reason. The Panhandle shares more characteristics with Alabama and Mississippi than it does with Orlando. It’s even in the Central time zone. You’d be hard pressed to find Mickey and Minnie here, but if you’re looking for a mullet toss, those are as plentiful as the fried okra and Spanish moss.

What is a mullet toss?

Well, the biggest, most celebrated one of these took place near our home on the Alabama-Florida state line. Each year, on the last full weekend of April, beach-goers hurl mullets (a plentiful fish in the Gulf of Mexico that, as far as I could ever tell, does not sport a mullet hairdo) from Ala-bama to Florida. This is not unlike how many Alabamans also end up in Florida after a night spent at the rowdy and infamous Flora-Bama Bar. Legend claims that mullets possess mythical powers (outside of inspiring hair fashion), but mostly, in the Panhandle, they are favored for their supreme ability to flop and hurl effortlessly through the air and land in a different state. I’m not positive, but I don’t think PETA has ever held a “Save the Mullets” rally in the Panhandle.

Of course, the western part of Florida isn’t totally unlike Orlando. Even Panhandlers celebrate the state’s biggest claim to fame: alligators. No matter where you enter Florida — from the east, west or the gulf — you can’t go far before spotting an alligator petting farm. The state as a whole exploits this one attraction more than it does oranges, white beaches and, yes, even Disney World. Unlike Maine, which lures tourists with the ever-elusive moose (“Didn’t get to see one this trip? Well, you’ll just have to come back next spring and look again”), Floridians want you to see not one alligator, but 20, and then exit through the gift shop where you can buy stuffed flamingoes and keychains with a sun and your name on it. As my “Star Wars”-loving boys would say, “It’s a trap!”

Maybe Florida is eager to flaunt its alligators because it would rather you didn’t notice the insect problem, which seems to get worse the farther west you go into the Panhandle, where heat and humidity make themselves at home in the boggy landscape of L.A. (Lower Alabama). Florida might as well give up now and return its land to the rightful owners: cockroaches, ants, lovebugs and snakes. These things don’t invade Floridians’ homes; Floridians’ invade theirs. On every one of the five occasions that I found a venomous snake on our front porch, I was sure it was there to serve me an eviction notice.

In fact, snakes and bugs have become so comfortable in the Panhandle of Florida, some of them (lovebugs, I’m looking at you) mate publicly, in midair. During lovebug season (usually twice a year), these tiny insects with big libidos cause significant damage to the front end of cars, where their splattered guts eat away at the paint and require nothing short of an SOS pad to remove. It is all part of the insect world’s plan to drive us out of Florida. And that’s why the public relations folks at the tourism office want you to leave instead with memories of alligators (and a couple of stuffed flamingoes and keychains, too).

Perhaps the biggest hidden treasure of the Panhandle — if you can get past the flying mullets, alligator petting farms and lovebugs — is its sand. I’ve been going to the beaches of western Florida every summer since I was in second grade. The white sand truly feels like sugar between your toes, and the water is as calm and clear as the Caribbean. We spent all day there when I was a kid, fishing for catfish, our toes slowly buried by the satiny sand with each gentle lap of the water. If I picture the beaches in my mind, I think of my grandmother Doris and finding sand dollars for her. I remember family Christmases spent at Seaside (where “The Truman Show” was filmed) and watching the orange sun set behind the dunes.

No, the Panhandle isn’t Disney World, but its beaches are a national treasure in their own right. For anyone who has not experienced this untouched, naturally beautiful side of Florida, I pray that BP’s oil spill stays at bay, and that the gulf’s beaches remain forever white.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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