Sandestin, Florida: For Seekers Of Idleness Or Action
Hitting the Beach in San Destin

While planning a long weekend away with my family, I used to look for total relaxation or non-stop action, extremes that freed us from our at-home routine to step back, contemplate our personal best, and appreciate each other anew. Florida’s 2,400-acre Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort offers both: families will find leisure and recreation with sun, sand, tennis, golf, children’s nature activities, fine restaurants and shops, delivered with first class service.

It took an organized press trip to get my brood to journey all the way to west Florida’s Emerald Coast— also known smugly as the Redneck Riviera— but as soon as we arrived, we understood why the Destin area had attracted Southern families for generations.

Quiet and Action Packed

Relaxing was easy, especially on the sugar-fine quartz sand. Sandestin’s 7½- mile Gulf of Mexico beachfront and gentle warm waters invited us to swim, nap, build castles and make sand angels. As incongruous as our highrise housing seemed, the tastefully furnished, two-bedroom condo had balconies facing deep umber sunsets. We strolled from there to the Jolee Island nature park, a small pine-forested island with a pirate-ship style playground and a large lawn for croquet. We nested together aboard the Jennifer Marie, a gaf rig schooner which raced silently as dolphins frolicked in Choctawhatchee Bay.

Getting active was easy, too. At our fall visit, it was warm enough to swim mid-day, and cool enough to enjoy tennis on the clay, hard surface, and grass courts. We went out onto the Bay in a sea kayak and returned for a canoe when we began to feel lazy (one hour per day of non- motorized boat and tennis court use is complimentary for guests.)

The following morning we rented two jet-skis from the resort’s professional marine staff. After a surprisingly informative safety video, we chose a one-hour tour around the Hogtown Bayou and shoreline full of grand homes. In the usual three-hour ecotour, the marine staff leads families across the bay to the Alaqua River to have a picnic breakfast and see the region’s undeveloped sand beaches, alligators and bird life. We all enjoyed the breeze tearing through our hair; my boys were extra thrilled gunning the Yamaha XL 700 engines. Kids will also love the stand-up paddle boarding, boogie boarding, Sky Pirtates parasailing and wave runners.

Sandestin is famous for its juniors’ golf clinics and programs, a special treat for grandparents and grandkids. Besides four major courses, there is a glamorously groomed 18-hole putting course near the marina.

One morning, we rented fat-tire bikes (they have infant bike seats and helmets for children) and rode over to the Bayside Inn for a breakfast buffet. At the Inn’s bay-front bar, several parents relaxed while supervising their little ones in the adjacent wading pool (lifeguards only monitor the beaches.) We heard from these contented, repeat guests that water balloon games and ice cream socials are held around Bayside’s deck almost daily in summer.

Children-Only Activities

Club KZ offers day programs for kids 4 to 12 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. depending on availability. There is a $55 resort guest rate or $65 non-resort guest per child that also includes lunch. Need a parents night out? The resort’s Children’s Evening Out offers games, sports, crafts, night walks, pizza and a movie for kids 4 to 12-years-old from 6 to 9 p.m. Thre is a $65 guest rate or $75 non-resort fee per child and includes supper. The resort can arrange private babysitting for kids 3 and under.

If you’re traveling with a larger family, the resort offers a generous 20 percent discount for families with three or more kids. Register for three days of Club KZ and the fourth day is free. 

Combine this small-town feeling with waiters who drawl “Ma’am” or “Sir” into several syllables, tufts of Spanish Moss dangling from the palm trees, and the creamy grits accompanying every meal, and you’ve got a genteel Southern atmosphere where anyone would feel welcomed.

Family Together Fun

Together, we strolled along Baytowne Marina to guess the price of visiting yachts, avoiding the wildly squawking parrot on duty.  Sandestin, originally developed by a Malaysian real estate group as a complex of private homes, condos and villas, was sold in 1998 to Intrawest, owners of 10 mountain resorts including Mont Tremblant and Whistler/Blackcomb in Canada. If you’ve enjoyed any of their Euro-chic pedestrian “villages,” you can imagine that the Village of Baytowne Wharf is part of the heart and soul of Sandestin, full of energy and a great place simply to meander (it’s auto-free, so parents can rest easy letting older kids explore on their own.)

It’s not uncommon to see a street performer juggling something beyond belief or a magician’s sleight of hand drawing a crowd. Kids love to watch the taffy pulling and chocolate dipping at The Candymakers. Then they head down the street to sample a smoothie at Sweetie’s Gelato & Dessert and stop to check out the latest in surf wear or water gear at Aloha Surf Company. The Paint n’ Place lets kids and adults paint pottery or create a piece of jewelry or a mosaic to bring home. And Gerard’s Cookery and Cajun Market offers informal cooking classes, some geared toward kids — just stop in and ask the friendly owner what’s on the schedule.

Mini Gras is the draw on Tuesdays in summer when a DJ spins kid favorites while a parade snakes its way through the Village, complete with plastic beads tossed to eager collectors. The manicured plaza and entertainment stage smack in the center of the Village is home to year-round special events, such as Wednesday evening pop, rock or blues concerts. Other evenings might mean a family movie under the stars, a fireworks display or even an art festival.

Parents of toddlers will appreciate Adventure Landing, a 17,000-square-foot playground designed with input from local elementary school children. It features a castle maze, sunken ship, water tower, lighthouse, rock-climbing wall and obstacle course, sure to wow any kid.

In a coastal region filling up with stylish beach communities, Sandestin remains a star jewel, capped recently by its perfect little village by the bay, wrapped up in a clean, tasteful package. We can’t wait to bring back the whole family.

Details, Details

The Village is rich with worthwhile dining options, whether or not you have a condo kitchen. The Magnolia & Ivy Tearoom is an ornate “English” tea salon and gift shop owned by two lovely sisters from Georgia who present Madhatter tea parties and tea etiquette lessons for ages 5 and up. Teens will enjoy the bubble teas so popular on the West Coast. A true tea salon, I took the elaborate high tea with divine scones, quiche, soup, fruit, finger sandwiches and desserts. My companions and I had a ball trying on the scads of vintage hats, gloves, stoles and costume jewelry that greatly enhance the entire tea experience. (I changed wardrobes so often, I sort of felt like Beyoncé).

We adored starting the day at Another Broken Egg Cafe, a cozy French country breakfast spot with a great cup of coffee and more than 128 breakfast choices. Try the blackberry grits — sure, grits are not French, but they are country. For lunch and dinner, options range from a kid-pleasing pizzeria or deli to award-winning barbecue at Jim ‘n Nick’s and an outpost of New Orleans’ famed Acme Oyster House.

For a special night out sans kids (private babysitting can be arranged through the resort), start with a martini at the bustling, smart Marlin Grill followed by a romantic dinner at Bistro Bijoux which specializes in “nouvelle” New Orleans cuisine. Then if you still have the stamina, go dancing at John Wehner’s Village Door or watch the dueling pianos at Rum Runners.

For those looking to stay right in the thick of things, several accommodations border the Village. My tasteful one-bedroom, two-bath condo in the plantation-style Lasata had a nice balcony overlooking the bay and marina. The unit had stylish coastal decor (no dated Golden Girls pastels here) and granite counters in the full kitchen and baths. Despite its proximity to the Village, nighttime noise thankfully was not an issue. For those not requiring as much space, the 168-room Grand Sandestin hotel near Lasata will fit the bill nicely.

We didn’t have time for everything, and never saw the small Lagoons water park with slides and pools, the convention center or rooms at the luxury hotel adjoining Baytowne. But my parents, already skilled sailors and avid grandtravelers, have said they’ll come back to Sandestin with us when we are all ready to take up golf!

What we won’t repeat is the housing, but at Sandestin, the choices are as varied as any family could want. We who live in a Manhattan high-rise found ourselves very comfortable in a full service condo with washer/dryer and full kitchen. But as beach lovers, it was very disconcerting to be 20 stories above the sand with the waves lapping so far below. Next time we will select a low-rise unit from the hundreds of villas, townhouses and hotel rooms available at Sandestin.

Prices are reasonable here, and bargains including an economical family fun package in summer that varies according to season. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort (850/267-8000) is located at 9300 Emerald Coast Parkway West, Destin, FL 32550-7268. For more information or bookings, contact the resort or your travel agent.

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