Okaloosa Island Beach. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
With snow-white beaches, fresh seafood, spectacular sunsets, and plenty to do for both families and couples, Florida's Emerald Coast is a laid-back getaway along the Panhandle's Gulf Coast. White sand, sunlight and crystal-clear water combine to give the Gulf it's emerald color here.
Destin is the largest city (large is a relative term here), and its proximity to deep water contributes to its nickname as the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village." From angling for huge marlin to strolling the beach at sunset, the laid-back, sophisticated vibe of the Emerald Coast makes for a fantastic family getaway or a romantic respite.
Henderson Beach State Park
Henderson Beach State Park ($6 per vehicle) has covered picnic pavilions, restrooms and more than a mile of near-perfect, undeveloped beach. Other public beach access points in Destin such as Calhoun, June White Decker and Norriego Point get you on the sand for free, with fewer amenities. While resort beaches are private, by Florida law all beaches are public to 20-feet above the water line, so an epic 24-mile beach stroll is possible.Sunset in Destin at Henderson Beach State Park — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Destin is called the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village, which you can learn all about at the Destin History & Fishing Museum, then see in action at the Destin Harbor Marina. Destin enjoys a combination of factors that equal great fishing, namely that it’s close to deep Gulf waters that hold huge game fish. Destin has the largest commercial fishing fleet in Florida, and sport fishing charters take visitors out into waters teeming with blackfin and yellowfin tuna, amberjack, wahoo, marlin, billfish and sailfish. An 8-hour fishing trip averages $85 per person; shop around at the marina kiosks. Destin Commercial Fishing Fleet — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Go on a dolphin watching tour aboard the Southern Star ($29 adults, 4 to 14 $15.50). The two-hour cruise takes you around Destin Harbor, Choctawhatchee bay and out into open water to search for Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Dolphin cruises — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
At the marina, grab some Apalachicola oysters on the half shell and a Sunset Lager at AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar or Destin’s “Best Grouper Sandwich and Coldest Beer” at Alatapatatas, then explore activities available here, including fishing, parasailing, kayaking and jet skiing. A.J.'s Seafood & Oyster Bar — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Great Places to Hang Out
Harbor Walk Village is just west of the marina, and has fun galleries and shops such as Kitty Hawk Kites and Judy Shillingburg’s Special Touch Gallery. Harry T’s Lighthouse, Crab Island Cantina and other restaurants offer fresh seafood, cold beer and dreamy views of the harbor. For kids of all ages, along U.S. 98 there’s the Big Kahuna’s Water Park and the Track Family Recreation Center with go-car racing.Judy Shillingburg–s Special Touch Gallery — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Shopping is prolific in Destin, with standouts Destin Commons and Silver Sands Premium Outlets housing big names such as Polo, Saks Fifth Avenue of 5th, Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger, and local restaurants throughout town serve up food that was swimming hours ago. Hard Rock Cafe at the Destin Commons. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Drop by the Emerald Coast Visitor’s Center for the skinny on tips and attractions throughout Okaloosa County, then visit the nearby Gulfarium, where you can watch dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, otters and even penguins play while you learn about the ecology of the Emerald Coast. The adjacent Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier is a local favorite for anglers, surfers, photographers and beach lovers. Visitors can rent fishing poles, and no fishing license is needed. Dolphin at the Gulfarium. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Fort Walton Beach's Big Surprise
Continue west off the Island over the Brooks Bridge to history-seeped City of Fort Walton Beach. Stop for a cup at Maas Coffee Roasters, then pop across the street to the City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center. The museum sits at the base of the Temple Mound, a 12-foot high, 200-foot-square man-made earthen mound that probably served as a ceremonial center for the distinct Fort Walton Culture that lived here approximately 900 years ago. Confederate soldiers stationed here were the first to excavate the site, and they found hundreds of pots and human skeletons buried in and around the mound. The pottery displayed here is one of the largest collections of southeast Native American pots and figurines in the nation. Also in Fort Walton, don't miss the hands-on Emerald Coast Science Center. Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
If you’ve ever seen 1998’s The Truman Show with Jim Carrey, you’ve seen Seaside. And when you see Seaside, you’ll understand why this planned community was chosen for the movie. Seaside beach. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
Seaside neighborhood where The Truman Show was filmed. — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese
But unlike the film in which it’s discovered that this perfect town is in fact fake, Seaside is even more charming in real life as it is on the screen. Picture Mayberry with cocktails, where the official motto is “A Simple, Beautiful Life.” Unofficially it’s “Where Bare Feet and Sandy Floors Rule.” Enjoy its pristine beach and explore its eclectic downtown shops.
Seaside is know for its gourmet Airstream food trucks — Photo courtesy of Steve Larese