There are two distinct areas to Florida's Gulf Coast, separated by geography and also wave size. The term 'panhandle' is used to describe a narrow strip of land that projects from one state into another; this basically describes Florida's northwest territory, which extends along the Gulf shore beneath Alabama and Georgia. Directly offshore from Pensacola, the swell-sapping continental shelf is at its narrowest, providing a welcome focus for wave oscillations in the eastern Gulf. Strangely, there is enough fetch for E wind swells to be produced, adding to the usual SE windchop, but SW to W swells have a lot of trouble getting over the shallow delta at the mouth of the Mississippi. But if a tropical storm enters the area from the S, the Panhandle will pump with double overhead and even larger waves, although swell duration can be extremely short. Winter is the time when the E-SE winds blow hardest before a cold front sweeps in from the NW bringing offshore winds and powerful, precipitous waves from Pensacola to Panama City.
Pensacola has miles of glaringly white, sandy beaches. Here the waves conform to the 'crumbly outside wall reforming into steeper inside shorebreak' category. However, this trend is bucked by a precious few waves at the barrier island extremities where inlet jetties provide foundations for solid, quality breaks. Furthest west are the lefts of The Point at Fort Pickens, which need a sizable swell to wrap around into the sheltered bay. Sand formation is crucial and, while hurricanes bring swell, they also destroy sandbars or rearrange them in all the wrong places, making this sand bottomed pointbreak very fickle indeed.
Pensacola Beach has plenty of uninterrupted beachbreaks leading east along Santa Rosa Island to Navarre. Here a new pier provides constant banks from the outside to the steeper shorebreak, without the crowds of the nearby cities.
Fort Walton Beach and Destin present welcome variations from straight, open beaches; here, inlet jetties form wedging waves, which help shape consistent spots like NCOs and Jetty East. The shoreline from Destin to Sandestin offers miles of featureless peaks to choose from, and the Henderson Beach State Park is a nice respite from shoreline development. Grayton Beach State Park is a cheap camping option in otherwise expensive surroundings with proximity to some above-average sandbars.
Heading east into the popular college town/tourist destination of Panama City, look for more crowds, especially at the two piers. The concrete one is more consistent with better banks that can connect all the way from the outside through to the steeper shorebreak; the wooden pier is a less crowded, if humbler, option. Three of the best waves on the Panhandle are clustered at the southeastern end of Panama Beach. Long jetties protect the deep inlet between St Andrews State Park and Shell Island, both of which offer hard-breaking peaks with good wind protection. But the real gem is situated inside the inlet on the western side of the eastern jetty. Amazons is a long, workable lefthander that needs a decent SE or E swell to break. Handles the big stuff, but access is tricky without a boat, as paddling across the inlet is dangerous due to tidal currents, boat traffic, sharks, and zealous, ticket-writing Coastguard officials. Military bases and difficult access compound the situation, making it difficult to surf any further east.
Surfing opportunities all but disappear along the 250-mile (400km) stretch between Cape St George to Clearwater, as impenetrable marshlands exclude access, and broad, shallow offshore shoals dampen all swell activity. There aren't many waves along the heavily-populated east coast of the Florida Peninsula from Tampa south to Naples. Swells are rare, and rideable shape even rarer.
The 'Sun Coast', from Clearwater down to the entrance to Tampa Bay, is worse off than more southern areas because of shorter fetches on N swells and more extensive offshore shoals. Sandwiched between the ultra-developed, surfer-restricted stretch of Clearwater Beach and the ultra-protective, elite-residential beachbreaks of Belleair is a single inlet jetty that has recently lifted its ban on surfing. When lifeguards deem it good enough, Sand Key produces longer than average righthanders when a NW swell wraps around the jetty. Indian Rocks to Indian Shores curves enough to give options depending on swell direction, and most of the beachbreaks peak up and pitch close to shore. From Reddington Shores to St Pete, jetties are the focus for more hollow shorebreaks.
South of Tampa Bay the offshore waters deepen and the waves grow accordingly. Anna Maria Key is a pier hotspot boasting outside and inside sandbars that will produce on any swell direction, size, or tide. Holmes Beach Pier and the misnomered Twin Piers (there are 3 structures) at Bradenton Beach are regularly crowded, but nearby open beach can hold surprisingly punchy peaks. The next key down, Siesta, needs summer S or W swells as it is protected from the N swells and winds, but nearby Turtle Beach works on winter NW'ers.
Just south of Sarasota, Venice Beach is generally considered Spot X on the Gulf Coast – subject to heavy crowds in heavy swells. The North and South Inlet Jetties are swell magnets, bending in serious waves at whichever one is opposed to the swell direction. The crowds are still apparent at nearby Venice Pier but recede at the beachbreaks that extend south past Englewood. Boca Grande is the beginning of the end for easy access (without a boat or surplus money to book in at one of the exclusive island resorts). The last-chance surf at Naples Pier provides sandbars on either side, and there are a couple of jetty breaks to the north, but geographically and metaphorically speaking, Naples is the last resort on the Gulf Coast.
Beyond Naples and Marco Island, the beaches of the Everglades don't offer much; for swells to reach this southern Gulf Coast, they have to come from the NW – usually courtesy of winter cold fronts. This means short fetches, onshore winds, and a fleeting lifespan. The rest of the year is even more dubious, as the best you can expect is below-waist windswell junk for desperate longboarding, or the rare hurricane that takes off on the right track to send generous swells back in the opposite direction of their line of travel, bringing genuine SW swells to this tropical corner of the 48 States.