I did the same thing you are contemplating doing, about 6 years ago. My husband and I always vacationed at a Florida beach, varying East and West Coast locations. Although we love the southwest Gulf Coast and also the Jupiter Hobe Sound areas, we chose the central Panhandle community of Port St. Joe for our relocation. We both could not be happier. This place is still the Old Florida I remember when I was younger. It is beautiful, quiet, low crime, no traffic, no highrises. Absolutely too quiet for some!
We are located about 50 miles east of Panama City and about 100 miles west of Tallahassee. What is not available locally, can be found at either of those cities. We also had a new hospital open here in 2010.
We also have seasons here. Coming from RI, adjusting to constant warm, humid weather can be a challenge. We have generally mild winters, with an occasional freeze. But generally, when we freeze, so does the rest of the state!!
My advice would be to take some more vactions, visit the towns of Apalachicola, Port. St. Joe, Mexico Beach, and surrounding areas. St. George Island is a lovely place to vacation and launch your exploration.
Here is a link for you to follow: http://www.forgotten-florida.com
Also, try renting for a year no matter where you go, to be certain you have a fit.
Paula Kroll, Broker Associate
Beach Realty of Cape San Blas