By Gabriele Walkow
Recently named one of the “Best in the U.S.” for 2017 by Lonely Planet, Florida’s dazzling Emerald Coast is paradise perfected. Home to 24 miles of sugar-white sand beaches, cloudless skies, shimmering emerald-green waters, and a plethora of activities and amenities, the Emerald Coast is a vacation mecca for Allegiant travelers.
Perfectly situated in the center of Florida’s Northwest Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico, the charming towns of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island are the heart of Florida’s Emerald Coast. All three are home to unique boutique shops and open-air markets, a collection of delightful eateries and an endless list of water activities.
Destin is an authentic bustling beach town and the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast. Watch the sun set from its legendary beaches and play in the emerald-green waters. Head to Harborwalk Village on Destin Harbor for unsurpassed family fun. Whether you’re looking to go fishing, experience a dolphin cruise, rent a boat, go parasailing or jet ski out to where the dolphins frolic, a magical adventure is waiting. Have fun in the sun, eat out, go shopping and then dance the night away at Harborwalk Village.
Intimate and laid back, Fort Walton Beach is a family favorite and home to a quaint walkable downtown, a scenic park and several interesting museums. Tee off at one of two public golf courses in Fort Walton Beach, The Oaks and The Pines. (There are eight championship golf courses in the area.) Anglers have the opportunity for both shore and boat fishing so catching that big one shouldn’t be too difficult! The Emerald Coast Science Center, with interactive exhibits encouraging children to explore, can also be found in Fort Walton Beach.
Connecting Destin and Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island is surrounded by Santa Rosa Sound, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, making for endless water fun. This breathtaking barrier island is famous for its pristine beaches, water sports and awesome family attractions. Play beach volleyball on sun-warmed sand or land a big one from the 1,261-foot-long fishing pier. Enjoy world-class snorkeling, swim with the dolphins and build memories in the sand. Also on Okaloosa Island, meet the sea lions at the world’s oldest, continuously operating live marine show at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.
Nearby Cinco Bayou and Mary Esther, both part of Fort Walton Beach, await to be discovered. Cinco Bayou has four beautiful parks within its half-mile square borders. Pack a picnic and enjoy a leisurely afternoon in the great outdoors. Beautiful Mary Esther is home to 25-acre Oak Tree Nature Park. A one-mile trail rambles through this natural area in the heart of Mary Esther, with trail markers to identify native plants along the route.
With such an abundance of parks and trails, reconnecting with nature is easy on the Emerald Coast. Nature lovers flock here to go hiking, bird watching and walking in the pristine landscape.
Destin’s Henderson Beach State Park is a 200-acre beach gem complete with boardwalk, pet-friendly nature trail, a playground and a campground. The park is home to four endangered or protected plant species and a haven for shore birds, including six listed and protected species. Enjoy a leisurely bike ride on the park’s mile long paved road or try your luck fishing in the surf to catch popular species such as pompano, red fish, flounder, catfish, whiting and cobia. Depending on the season, visitors may see dolphins, sea turtles, migratory birds and butterflies. The gorgeous sunsets can be admired year-round!
Not surprisingly, the Emerald Coast lifestyle revolves around the water. Fishing is part of the history here and a popular pastime for locals and visitors. Water sports include boating, jet skiing, scuba diving, kite surfing and paddleboarding. Indulge in a scenic dolphin watching tour, a pirate cruise or a romantic sunset sailing. Don’t forget your camera so that you can capture the varieties of marine life.
Enjoy water a variety of ways at Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park. Cool off on the tall slides, waterfalls and pools of this oversized water park. Offering more than 40 exciting water attractions, three tropical mini-golf courses, two go-kart tracks and two adrenaline-pumping rides, Big Kahuna’s has something for everyone in the family.
Families will also be kept busy at several entertainment centers on the Emerald Coast. Located at HarborWalk Village, Amusement USA has bungee trampolines, a mechanical surfboard, hamster balls, Spun Fun Cotton Candy and so much more. For a bouncing good time head to Bounce Party Playzone, complete with bouncers, sliders, playhouses, a gated Toddler Town and a free arcade, all in Fort Walton Beach. Also in Fort Walton Beach, Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone features a 16,000-square-foot indoor arcade, two putt putt golf courses, 60-foot ropes course, 4D movie theater, laser maze, Ptero Jump trampolines and an inflatable zone.
This stretch of paradise has a vibrant arts & entertainment scene, too. See ballet, symphonies, Broadway productions and touring musicians year-round. Visitors can gallery hop, attend an arts festival or take an art class. There are plenty of opportunities for inspiration here!
After a busy day of exploring or a lazy day on the beach, a delicious meal will reenergize everyone for tomorrow’s adventures. With fabulous fishing, Emerald Coast eateries offer a cornucopia of freshly caught seafood. Some will cook the fresh fish you caught on the charter boat that morning! Delectable and creative Gulf-to-table cuisine, from rustic oyster bars to open-air casual cafes, will make for memorable vacation meals. Steak, sushi, wood-oven-fired pizza, authentic Asian cuisine, the perfect hamburger, you can find it all here. Bon appétit!
The heart of the Emerald Coast features a range of accommodations, including luxurious beach-front homes and condos, beautiful hotels and resorts, and charming bed and breakfasts. New to the area is The Henderson Beach Resort and Spa. Opened in November 2016, it is the first 5-star property on the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast. Embracing the nostalgia of a manor by the sea from bygone days, The Henderson features 170 spacious guest rooms and suites. Guest rooms offer a variety of stunning views including the Gulf of Mexico, the pristine nature preserve and the beautiful piazza filled with lushly landscaped gardens. Relax by the sea, in the pools or at the spa. A culinary journey awaits at several tantalizing restaurants, including an elegant full-service dining room, a spectacular bar, a convenient poolside grill, a tasty sushi bar, a relaxing outdoor terrace and an old-fashioned ice cream shop. Enjoy a rich and carefree stay at The Henderson.
Many of the condominiums are beach-front, and most are rated as 4-star or higher. Ranging in size from one to four and five bedrooms, they offer all of the comforts and conveniences of home and are perfect for couples and families. Hotels and resorts, many waterfront and pet-friendly, range from luxurious to quaint. Or, choose a bed and breakfast for a one-of-a-kind intimate experience.
Sunny skies, coastal breezes and lush landscapes lend themselves to a wealth of ways to go Emerald Coasting year-round. Visit emeraldcoastfl.com to find out how you can get a little sand in your soul.