There is no shortage of ways to get out and play in Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island, collectively known as the Heart of Florida’s Emerald Coast. The area’s 24 miles of shoreline include powder-white beaches, emerald green water, and a portion of the pristine Gulf Islands National Seashore, plus protected bays and bayous, five beachfront parks, and 12 beach access ways.
Beyond the sand and surf, this section of the Emerald Coast is home to eight championship golf courses and country clubs, as well as outdoor retail and entertainment centers like Destin’s HarborWalk Village. Family-friendly attractions include Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park, Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, and Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park, a nonprofit sanctuary housing native wildlife and abandoned and abused exotic animals.
GETTING THERE: Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island, and Destin are situated near the center of the northwest Florida coast, an area stretching from Pensacola east about 140 miles (225 kilometers) to Port St. Joe. The closest airport is Destin-Fort Walton Beach, located 16 miles northwest of Destin. From the airport, rent a car or take a taxi or private shuttle (call for reservations) to Destin, Fort Walton Beach, or Okaloosa Island.
STAY: With more than 13,000 lodging options—including Gulf-view condos, high-rise hotels, private vacation homes, bed-and-breakfasts, and campgrounds—there are accommodations available to fit any budget. Family-friendly resorts such as Seascape typically include beach access, multiple pools, kids’ programs, and full kitchens. For a quieter, adults-only property, choose the Henderson Park Inn in Destin. The luxurious 35-suite bed-and-breakfast is styled after a classic Victorian New England seaside inn with a spacious porch overlooking the Gulf. In addition to daily gourmet breakfasts and boxed picnic lunches, guest amenities include free use of bikes, beach chairs, and beach umbrellas. Beginning in September 2016, families can enjoy a similar level of pampering at The Henderson, a hotel with 170 rooms and suites opening across the street from the inn. Both properties are near 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park, home to one of the Emerald Coast’s top campgrounds. Reserve a site several months in advance of your visit. Insider tip: It’s easier to find a campsite on short notice at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park campground, located on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay in Niceville.
EAT: Try grilled yellowfin tuna, steamed shrimp, fried oysters, hot crabmeat dip, and other Gulf-to-table dishes at either Dewey Destin’s location—the Harborside Restaurant on Destin Harbor or the Seafood & Restaurant overlooking Crab Island. Owner Dewey Destin’s family has been selling fresh seafood since the early 1800s (great-great-grandfather Leonard founded Destin, then called East Pass, in 1835). If you fish, bring your fresh flounder, grouper, red snapper, wahoo, or other daily catch to Dewey Destin’s and they’ll cook it for you. (Price varies depending on the fish, preparation, and side dishes.)
HIT THE BEACH: Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island regularly rank among the best on national and regional media lists of family vacation and beach destinations. Okaloosa Day Use Area east of Fort Walton Beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, named “Best East Coast Beach” in the USA Today 10Best 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards. The Okaloosa location offers an unspoiled beach, calm waters (ideal for family swimming), picnic tables, restrooms, and a boat launch. Other public-access beaches are located at Henderson Beach State Park, James Lee Park, John Beasley Park, and Newman C. Brackin Wayside Park. Many vacation properties also have private beaches or beach access.
PLAY: Get out on the water to sail, paddle, go on a Buccaneer pirate cruise, or zip around an airboat. Kayak and canoe rentals are available at Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, home to an aquatic preserve where you might spot dolphins, otters, and waterfowl. Several outfitters such as Cattywampus catamaran ecotours and Destin Snorkel offer dolphin-viewing cruises and snorkeling excursions. Destin also has the nation’s largest for-hire fishing fleet, according to the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. Charter a boat with Gulf Angler or another local captain to try deep-sea or bay fishing. Before your trip, purchase a Florida fishing license online.
DISCOVER: See military aircraft from the World War II era to the present at the Eglin Air Force Base’s free Air Force Armament Museum (closed Sunday). Learn about local culture and history at the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida (closed Sunday and Monday) and at the free Baker Block Museum (closed Saturday to Monday, except the third Saturday of each month). See a 1925 fishing boat, a collection of antique rods and reels, and vintage photographs of boat captains and their boats at the Destin History & Fishing Museum (closed Sunday and Monday). Visit the Indian Temple Mound Museum, Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, Garnier Post Office Museum, Fort Walton Temple Mound, and the Civil War Exhibit Building at the Heritage Park & Cultural Center (closed Sunday) in Fort Walton Beach.
FUN FACT: A 3.8-acre mural of a United States flag is painted on the roof of the Legendary Marine boat storage facility in Destin. The rooftop original (thought to be the world’s largest flag mural) is the work of marine life artist Wyland, whose Wyland Wall #88 (“Marine Life of the Gulf”) mural can be seen on the facility’s exterior walls. Seeing the flag requires taking a scenic flight.
LEARN MORE: Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau