The panhandle of Florida offers great variety in choosing the ideal vacation spot for summertime travel – or anytime, if you ask me! Take Destin, for example. One of my favorite destinations, this area offers gorgeous emerald waters and equally stunning white-sand beaches. There are tasty culinary treasures and tons of cool things to do in Destin, FL as you’ll see in this handy guide.
Over the years, Destin has evolved into a hub of towering condos, luxury resorts and dining delights. Recreation abounds on the Emerald Coast and if you want to get out on the water, Destin is the place to be. You can go jet skiing, parasailing, body boarding, paddle boarding and go on a fishing excursions. Golf courses snake their way throughout the area making 18-holes an easy-to-access amenity for golfers. Many of the resorts and hotels offer tennis facilities, too!
MUST SEE ATTRACTIONS
Amusement USA in HarborWalk Village is the place to let kids release some energy with Hamster Balls, Bungee Trampolines, a Mechanical Surfboard and HarborWalk Mining Company. Grab some yummy treats at Spun Fun Cotton Candy! Want a good laugh? Watch your family and friends try their luck walking on water. They don’t have a web site, but they are located at HarborWalk and you can call them if you need further info at (850) 543-4291.
Big Kahuna’s Water Park is the perfect venue for a bone-soaking good time. Come prepared for water rides and water slides, or follow my lead and float around the lazy river. There are more than 40 rides and attractions to enjoy – thrill or chill – your choice! You can purchase tickets online and they offer discounts for groups and military as well.
Destin Fishing and History Museum is where you’ll learn the fascinating history of the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” See the evolution of Destin through exhibits about its founders and families. Also, get a look at award-winning fish caught in Destin as well as a collection of antique fishing rods and reels.
Destin Helicopter Tours is a lovely way to see sweeping views of the beautiful beaches. Get a bird’s eye view of Destin and the Emerald Coast with a professional Timberview Helicopter pilot. Choose from different packages and rates available on the web site.
Destination Segway Tours is one of my family’s favorite things to do in Destin! Keep in mind, you must be 14 years old to enjoy this glide through Destin. Stops include a stunning harbor view from HarborWalk Village, the Destin History and Fishing Museum and Clement Taylor Park just to name a few. Bring your camera as the views are fabulous! Pricing and booking is available online.
Have you ever been to the Gulfarium? It is a family-friendly Marine Adventure Park about 15 minutes away in Fort Walton. They have recently upgraded exhibits, animal habitats and interactive programming. Additionally, they have dolphin shows and turtle encounters as well as concessions. They also offer a Sunset Camp for kids! They’ll be exploring and dining with marine life while parents have a night out!
Silver Sands Outlets are located in Miramar Beach (kind of like a bedroom community to Destin) and chocked full of your favorite designer stores along with some fun eateries.
The Track Family Recreation Center is a hot spot for Destin vacationers. You can do a lot of different activities all in one location at The Track including the ultimate go-kart track – Wild Woody, a three-tiered go-kart/roller coaster hybrid. They also offer bumper rides, Surfin’ Safari mini-golf course (super cute with jungle animals and waterfalls) and for the thrill-seeker in the bunch there is the 75-foot plunge from the bungee tower! Save time by purchasing tickets online.
The Village of Baytowne Wharf is a huge shopping, dining and entertainment community featuring festivals and other events. It’s a gorgeous venue where you can spend an afternoon or several days! Guests of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort are within walking distance of the Village. Bonus!
FUN AND ADVENTURE
Boogies Water Sports is located at the foot of the bridge by HarborWalk Village. Here you can find all kinds of water recreation like parasailing, wave runners, pontoons and more! Take a glass bottom boat dolphin cruise for a real treat! Thanks to the awesome location, if you are with a group and aren’t into water sports, you can shop and eat at the Village instead!
Buccaneer Pirate Cruise is a fun option for terrific family fun onboard a 100-foot U.S. Coast Guard-approved vessel that can carry just under 150 folks. There are restrooms, a covered deck and snacks. Oh, and fun…there’s lots and lots of that! There are sword fights, water gun battles, and treasure hunts. Join in the singing, dancing and storytelling or relax and watch the kids have a blast! You can conveniently book online up to two weeks in advance. Don’t forget to tip!
Captain Jambo’s Destin Harbor offers parasailing, catamaran sailboat tours, dolphin cruises and more! Check for specials on the web site and you can also book your tour there.
Destin Cruise is all about catering to YOU! They’ll customize the boat tour to your liking – dolphin cruises, Crab Island day trips, sunset trips and wedding services. Also check out Dolphin Cruises for dolphin and sunset cruises leaving from Destin Harbor. They also offer parasailing!
Award-winning Destin Snorkel is the place for folks looking to, well, snorkel! Snorkel tours are exciting and fun, plus you can book online. The three-hour tours offer an incredible opportunity to learn about the ecosystems of the bay waters and the jetties. Education mixed in with fun…now that’s a plan! Snorkel with small schools of fish, kayak and see various forms of underwater habitat for crabs, small fish, seahorses and baby shrimp. And, you just might see dolphins!
Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park in nearby Crestview is the perfect opportunity to meet and learn about some 70 different animals and 30 different species from around the world. Check out the Encounter Program and meet Ring-Tailed Lemurs, Sloths and Lions.
If you are looking to do some fishing while in the area, make sure you have the appropriate license. If you charter a boat for something like deep sea fishing, typically the captain’s license for the boat will cover everyone, but always ask to be certain. And speaking of deep sea fishing excursions, Get Hooked on Destin handles fishing charters for your ultimate catch! Book online and get ready to catch the big one! Also, HarborWalk Charters is a good choice to book any type of boat for a fishing expedition.
Have you ever dreamed of learning to fly? Well, here’s your chance with Fly the Beach! Flights start at $99 so book an introductory flight and cross it off your bucket list. Good luck!
Gator Beach is located at Fudpucker’s and open to customers from 11 a.m. until the restaurant closes each evening. Feed the gators and have your picture taken holding one! Plan to take a guided tour of Gator Beach or join them for an Interactive Gator Show. Check web site for times. (Note: Don’t miss Pearl the rare Albino Alligator.)
Gilligan’s Watersports will get you an upclose and personal look at dolphins from your waverunner on a two-hour outing. Book your trip and find the waiver online.
The Gulf Breeze Zoo is 50 acres of wild adventure for the entire family. They have a walking path and a petting zoo! Feed a parakeet from the Australian Free-Flight Budgiery and view the free-range preserve filled with things like Africa’s largest antelope and other animals, too. Also, ride the Safari Line Limited Train for an upclose look at chimps, gorillas and hippos!
HarborWalk Zipline & Free Fall is an adventure-seeking tourist’s dream! The harbor views are breathtaking with emerald waters and white sandy beaches. Be the center of attention free falling 90 feet and landing on a bulls-eye platform with crowds there to cheer on your adventure! There is no web site, but they are easily found at HarborWalk Village.
Kitty Hawk Kayak and SUP Rentals is pretty self-explanatory. Rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards and take to the waters for upclose looks at Destin Harbor and Crab Island. Lessons are available as are scheduled night paddles.
Olin Marler’s Charter Cruises is a two-hour narrated dolphin-watching tour through the Harbor. Watch dolphins in their natural habitat and enjoy the views. You’ll be onboard Miss Florida or the Hannah Marie for your adventure – both have glass bottoms for easy and fun viewing.
For those who love sailing, check out these vendors to accommodate your love of the water: AJ’s The Daniel Webster Clements , Emerald Coast Sailing (located at Destin Harbor), Just Sailing, Sail Away, Sail Destin and Smile-n-Wave Sailing Adventure.
The Sea Blaster, a 73’ speedboat, is a good venue for fabulous evening dolphin cruises. You can ensure a good time will be had by all onboard the Sea Blaster, searching for dolphins while enjoying a gorgeous Destin sunset. The Sea Blaster serves complimentary beer, wine and soda onboard and has restroom facilities.
Southern Star Dolphin Cruises is also an option for dolphin cruises onboard an 80-foot U.S. Coast Guard-approved motorized vessel. Set sail from the beautiful Destin Harbor for a two-hour cruise that is fitting for the entire family. Also, SpiderCrab Charters offers dolphin cruises, sunset cruises and Crab Island parties!
SunVenture I is a Guy Harvey-inspired, 45-foot catamaran cruising daily from the harbor with Coast Guard-licensed captains. Enjoy dolphin cruises, Crab Island and private charters for up to 49 people.
Take a Walk on the Wild Side: Nighttime Educational Beach Walks are available during sea turtle nesting season through the Emerald Coast CVB/Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. This educational activity helps bring awareness to an effort to protect the sea turtle populations as well as increasing ecotourism.
Emerald Bay Golf Club is one of the area’s premier championship 18-hole golf courses located on the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay. The course designed by Bob Cupp features water features and garden views.
Indian Bayou Golf Club is a little different offering three 9-hole courses that have had a recent update. Fairways are forgiving and lush, perfect for any level of golfer.
Kelly Plantation Golf Club is a semi-private club with 18 fascinating holes on the former site of a turpentine plantation. Fred Couples and Gene Bates fashioned this impressive course with more than 7,000 yards of contoured greens, wide-manicured fairways and strategically-placed hazards.
Golf Digest rated this course 4 ½ stars. Nice!
Regatta Bay Golf and Yacht Club on the Emerald Coast is a championship 18-hole course rated in the “Top 200 courses in North America” and “Top 15 Florida Places to Play” by Golf Digest. This community is on almost 120 acres of protected nature preserve and Certified by Audubon International as a member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System.
RAINY DAY FUN
Movies are always a good idea for rainy days! Destin has AMC Destin Commons 14 in the Destin Commons strip mall. You can even buy your tickets online.
Hurricane Lanes is a great physical activity for days when the weather isn’t quite cooperating. With bowling lanes, an arcade, pool tables, a café and a sports bar, you’re sure to have tons of family fun. Check out the SPECIALS tab online to save some money!
Ultimate 7D Interactive Movie Theatre is an innovative idea in entertainment that creates a new dimension in virtual reality. Enjoy special effects and stunning footage while buckled up in the Enhanced 7D Simulator. Located at HarborWalk Village, the theatre is open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Henderson Beach State Park is 200 acres on the Emerald Coast of Florida. Home to a nature trail where you can see some of the last remaining endangered coastal scrub communities in the panhandle, it’s a lovely stroll. The park serves as a haven for shore birds and is also home to endangered or protected plant species. The park is perfect for fishing and you can ride bikes on the mile-long paved road.
Mattie Kelly Park and Nature Walk offers a pier and a beach as well as picnic facilities in a 10+ acre bayou access park. The park is a natural area with mainly wetlands. It is a great place for a family picnic and leisurely walk.
The Shores at Crystal Beach Park is on the Gulf of Mexico and features a pavilion, restrooms/showers, and picnic facilities. This is a great place to pack a lunch and enjoy the day on the white sandy beaches of Crystal Beach Park. (Note: Parking is limited.)
FESTIVALS WORTH THE DRIVE
Baytowne Wharf Beer Fest is an October event held at Baytowne Wharf Village in Sandestin. Come taste American specialty beers from around the country. (Note: The main event is on Saturday when there will be more than 200 international and craft beers.)
The Destin Fishing Rodeo is another fall event (October) dubbed as the ultimate saltwater fishing tournament open to all ages.
The annual Destin Seafood Festival is a crowd-pleaser with people driving in for this event from all over the south. With free admission, there is art, live music and family fun…and seafood of course! The event is held in October at the Destin Harbor Boardwalk.
A prestigious Northwest Florida tournament, the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic is in June and offers cash prizes!
The Sandestin Wine Festival is held in April each year at the Village of Baytowne Wharf and features more than 800 domestic and international wines.
Dining on the Water
AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar is quite the success story. From humble beginnings as a hole-in-the-wall oyster shack to a prominent restaurant on the Destin Harbor, AJ’s aims to please! I love their menu choices and even the little ones have several things to choose from – popcorn shrimp, burger, Mac n’ Chz (yes, that’s how it looks on the menu!), chicken fingers and other favorites.
My lunch favorites include the Kahuna Burger, AJ’s House Sandwich (a dressed up mahi-mahi on a brioche bun) and dinnertime is the right time for the Run of the Kitchen (a huge basket of the Gulf’s finest seafood). Of course, oysters are always great! Check out AJ’s Mercantile Shop that has t-shirts, hats, koozies and other unique souvenirs.
Dewey Destin’s Harborside Restaurant is where you’ll find the locals so you know it’s good! The waterside eatery is owned by some of the town’s originators and has views beaten only by the amazing food. It is absolutely delicious! Appetizers such as succulent crab claws and Jack’s scallops are must-trys and if you are searching for the best fish on the menu, get the scamp…anyway you like it from blackened to grilled to fried…it is so good. And, don’t skip the hushpuppies – they are a real treat! (Note: They also have a location on Crab Island.)
Pompano Joe’s Seafood House is one of my all-time favorites in Destin (actually the Miramar Beach area). It’s casual, family-friendly and right on the beach with an outside bar and plenty of sand to keep the kids busy if you’re waiting. The menu has LOTS of options, but my favorites are the Coconut Shrimp and the Grilled Grouper. They also have great steaks and chicken, a good kids menu and lots of frosty drinks. Save room for the key lime pie! Want to save a little money? Go for lunch!
The Back Porch is a restaurant where parents can be totally comfortable bringing the kids along. It’s beachfront dining in a casual atmosphere with loads of seafood choices including the famous Amberjack Sandwich and Appalachicola oysters. Don’t forget a souvenir t-shirt in a bright color. It will remind you of beautiful days in Destin long after you return home.
The Crab Trap Seafood & Oyster Bar is a fun, family restaurant with delicious food! I love the crab cakes and their pastas. A good tip here is to check out their lunch specials online and plan to visit mid-day instead of with the evening crowd. You’ll save some money, too!
Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar & Grill is a casual dining experience that families love! It’s huge so waits are typically a little less in this restaurant that can seat some 400 people in eight different dining rooms. They serve lunch, dinner, snacks (the fried pickles are yummy) and libations. There is a great kids menu with favorite foods that the littles will appreciate and the big people can choose from great seafood, hamburgers, nachos and other menu options. They, of course, have a fun gift shop!
Harbor Docks is a family-friendly dining venue serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and sushi! Dinner menu options are plentiful with choices from both land and sea, and they are beautifully plated tempting your tastebuds before you even take a bite. The White Chocolate Bread Pudding is a sweet way to cap off the meal.
Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s restaurant is more than an eatery. It’s also an entertainment mecca! Enjoy outdoor activities for the whole family like rope climbing on The Mountain of Youth. Kids will enjoy the water fun at The Fountain of Youth and families can spar in friendly volleyball games. There’s a fantastic gift shop, live music and great food at LuLu’s!
There’s the Cheeseburger in Paradise which is SO popular, but I love LuLu’s famous Seafood Gumbo! Allergies? No worries. Just ask for an allergy menu. Enjoy a meal that is made fresh to order with thoughtfully-sourced ingredients. Enjoy bar concoctions as well, and if you’re feeling adventurous, order a Jetski Killer. LuLu’s also has a location in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl & Grill is a dynamic that works with a restaurant and a bowling alley! With 16 bowling lanes in the experience of an underwater ocean, and balls that resemble the likes of octopus, mermaids and more, this uniquely-designed facility is fun for everyone! There is an island-themed bar and menu items at the grill include gourmet flatbreads, sandwiches and other appetizers. Owned by Bass Pro Shops, that explains the Build Your Own Bass Pro Burger on the menu. This is a don’t-miss attraction and restaurant all in one!
Another Broken Egg Café promises the perfect jumpstart to any beach day. Homemade biscuit beignets, omelets and more, all made fresh!
Donut Hole Bakery and Café is a Destin staple that we have enjoyed for many years. They are known for donuts, pancakes and delicious pies, but they also have hearty breakfast options as well. It’s perfect for a family as everyone will find something they love!
Harry T’s has great views and even greater food. Their brunch menu (Saturday and Sunday until 2 p.m.) is fantastic with offerings such as a Western Omelet, Sunrise Breakfast (eggs, bacon, fruit, biscuits, hashbrowns and grits), Buttermilk Pancakes, Breakfast Tacos and so much more! Also, keep in mind Harry T’s is an excellent spot for a romantic dinner watching the sun set.
Special Occasion Dining
Award-winning Beach Walk Café at Henderson Park Inn serves amazing food thoughtfully prepared. Choose from succulent entrees such as my personal favorite – Pan Seared Local Snapper. They also have a tasty Ribeye Cap as well as a French Split Chicken Breast or a Bone-In Pork Chop. Save room for dessert like yummy Crème Brulee or Bread Pudding. (Note: Reservations are a good idea at Beach Walk Café.)
Capt. Dave’s on the Gulf is one of Emerald Coast’s most beloved seafood restaurants. The elegant atmosphere is perfect for celebrating special occasions or just a night out. There is a full-service bar and lounge area with top shelf drinks available. Enjoy my favorite basket – the fried baby shrimp or a full blown entrée like the Grouper and Grits. You can’t make a bad choice – they’re menu items are all fabulous!
Louisiana Lagniappe is a special restaurant that serves outstanding seafood with a Creole flair. You’ll enjoy the waterfront location and the upscale experience. This award-winning restaurant is only open for dinner beginning at 5 p.m. each evening. A great place to start is with the appetizers – Mardi Gras Shrimp or Louisiana Crab Cakes are two popular ones. The jambalaya is a Lagniappe favorite item, but they have many entrees that you’ll want to try. (Note: They serve a lovely Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.)
Destin is hopping with great restaurants as you can see and more options are available on the Emerald Coast web site.
WHERE TO STAY
Henderson Beach State Parks offers RV facilities or you can camp at one of 60 campsites.
Hampton Inn & Suites in Destin is always a good choice for a good, clean room with a fresh Hampton bed® plus popular amenities like a fitness center, pool, free wifi and easy beach access. Don’t forget about the free hot breakfast – that’s such an added value for my family!
Henderson Park Inn Beachside Bed & Breakfast is hands down my favorite place to stay in Destin for an adults-only trip. It’s the perfect place for a proposal, an anniversary or time away with your significant other. Beachfront and award-winning (including Most Romantic Hotel in the United States 2016 & 15th Most Romantic Hotel in the World 2016), all the little extras they provide are pampering touches that keep guests coming back.
It’s a luxury accommodation and all-inclusive with a gourmet breakfast, a picnic-style boxed lunch, cocktails at the Tiki Hut and (one of my favorite perks) wine, grapes and chocolates upon check-in. It truly is a world-class experience right on Florida’s panhandle.
Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa is perfect for couples, families and gal pal trips! In 2015, the hotel saw a massive $30 million renovation and it’s better than ever! They offer charming Gulf view rooms, six on-site dining options and an award-winning spa. It’s a full-service resort designed with families in mind. Check the web site for SPECIALS.
Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village is another awesome choice for families right above HarborWalk Village, so you know the views will be amazing! You’re in close proximity to restaurants, shopping, water recreation and boats. The buildings architecture is Mediterranean-style blending beautifully with the harbor area. Rooms have balconies that offer panoramic views that you’ll miss when you leave. Other amenities include a beach shuttle to a secluded beach area, a spa and fitness center, indoor and outdoor heated pool and more.
The Inn at Crystal Beach is a luxury, beachside property with a full-size pool and hot tub that are Gulf side. The grounds are well-kept and it offers an upscale lodging option with two to five bedroom condos. Units are beautifully decorated, fully-appointed and spacious with gorgeous views. Other amenities include a fully-equipped fitness room, a conference room, business center and 790 on the Gulf (a full-service restaurant).
Mediterranea Resort is a gated resort with privacy and safety codes for gates (including pool access and rooms). Managed by award-winning Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, Mediterranea is situated in the heart of Miramar Beach (between Destin and Sandestin) in a horseshoe-shaped pattern. You’ll find two and three bedroom condos in a low-rise five-story property with lots of room to spread out.
Units are fully-equipped including modern kitchens, a full bath with each bedroom, washer/dryers, extra-large balconies overlooking the pool and the Gulf of Mexico, hot tub and, yes that fabulous pool! The unique shape creates a great space for the deck where you’ll find plenty of lounge chairs. Only steps away from the pool, you cross the street to a charming gazebo and the beautiful beaches, Destin is known for are just beyond that.
No bridges with a hundred steps to climb or long walkways, just a two-minute walk. Booking from Newman-Dailey gives lots of bonuses like gift cards for area attractions (discounts and freebies to places such as Big Kahuna’s, The Track and the Sea Blaster), movie rentals, and complimentary beach service (seasonally) including two beach chairs and an umbrella! This is a great value that most resorts charge extra for. Newman-Dailey represents lots of properties offering a myriad of lodging options throughout the Destin and South Walton area.
Sandpiper Cove is located right in the heart of Destin and close to the harbor. You’ll find an array of condominiums from studios to three-bedroom units with full amenities and some units are even beachfront. Enjoy private beach property spanning about 1,100 feet with soft, white sand. Relax on the beach and listen to the waves roll in or play a friendly game of beach volleyball.
Sandpiper condos are fully-equipped with modern kitchens you can actually cook in, washer/dryer in each unit and Internet. Other amenities include: five swimming pools, six tennis courts and a 9-hole par 3 golf course. Go for evening strolls on the pathways of the resort and enjoy lovely green spaces that meander through the property. Managed by Holiday Isle Properties, Sandpiper Cove is only one of many places they can offer. They have something for every budget.
Seascape Golf Beach & Tennis Resort is a favorite for us when the whole family tags along. Choose from a villa on the golf course or one close to tennis courts, or our favorite high rises Ariel Dunes I and II and Majestic Sun. High rises have spacious accommodations, modern amenities including washer/dryer and full kitchens and fun, clean pools and hot tubs. This beachside community always has the most competitive rates in the area being slightly off-the-beaten-path in Miramar Beach. Always check for specials on their web site.
Beach houses really remind me of old Florida charm. I love the bright, tropical colors and it’s a bonus if there’s a private pool. One of my favorites (and soon to be yours) is Blue Starfish in the Crystal Beach community of Destin. Another property of Newman-Dailey, Blue Starfish is three levels of well-decorated, beautifully-appointed rooms and amenities begging for you to never leave.
The turquoise façade is adorable and the backyard is a dream with a patio, putting green and pool. A four-bedroom house that sleeps 12 comfortably, you are a short walk to the Destin beaches (they even have beach chairs you can take over with you) and you can rent a bike right around the corner (literally) at Rent Gear Here.
There are many other hotels, condos and beach houses – too numerous to name. A good resource for finding other options is the Emerald Coast web site.
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