Exploring Northwest Florida's Emerald Coast
Get caught up in the magic of Florida
Take a sun-soaked trip to the Emerald Coast in Florida

The Emerald Coast of Florida’s panhandle racks up annual accolades for its sugary beaches and emerald waters off the sea towns of Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island. Aside from breathtaking beaches and ideal locale for road trip bonding, families love the relaxed vibe. The Emerald Coast is more laid back and easier on the wallet than the lovely boutique communities of Seaside, Watercolor and Rosemary Beach just up the road — it’s T-shirts and flip-flop culture rather than sarongs and designer beach totes. Here are some highlights from a recent visit, all within a few hours’ drive of Pensacola, for families who prefer to fly in.

Local Attractions

Yoga Destin (850/897-3788) offers drop-in classes several mornings a week, smack dab on Crystal Beach in Destin. Mats and bands are provided — just bring your towel and unbalanced chi. The lovely instructor Rhonda Comparin makes newbies like me feel right at home next to the hard-core regulars. And my up-dog/down-dog felt a little easier with a soft ocean breeze in my face. There are no excuses if it rains — classes are held under the covered pavilion when necessary and is a convenient excuse to get the kids out of the hotel and away from the TV during bad weather. There’s no fee for the class making it a fun (and healthy) family activity without the expensive price tag — but donations are appreciated and strongly suggested.

At the foot of the Destin Bridge, the Harborwalk Marina’s (850/337-8250) deep sea charters, party boats and schooners summon adventurers onto the Gulf of Mexico or the Chotawhatchee Bay. My three-hour sail on the 54’ schooner Nathaniel Bowditch (850/650-8787) was overcrowded but pleasant enough. When Aussie-bred captain Rex Walley and his first-mate wife aren’t telling tales of the sea, they are teaching the kids onboard how to raise the sail or pointing out pods of dolphins. The Bowditch mercifully doesn’t sell overpriced drinks and snacks but instead encourages guests to pack a cooler. The three- hour cruise is best suited for slightly older kids – younger ones might get antsy. During warm water summer months, there’s a “seashell safari” snorkeling and shelling excursion. 

Also from the Harborwalk, animal-lovers can try a Dolphin & Sunset Cruise with a 80-foot glass bottom boat, and sport enthusiasts can visit Boogie’s Watersports to rent pontoon  and glass bottom boats, ride waverunners, and go parasailing for a birds-eye view of the coast.

Just 15 minutes west of Destin on Okaloosa Island sits the Gulfarium (850/243-9046 or 800/247-8575) America’s second oldest marine park and a family favorite since 1955. The Gulfarium is well worth carving out a couple of hours of vacation time. Think of it as a smaller, old-school Sea World, with a smaller entrance fee to match. Dolphins, penguins, sharks, even Florida gators are all around, in addition to a touch tank for hands-on exploration. Three live marine shows run throughout the day on a rotating basis, so visitors can be amused by the antics of the well-trained dolphins and sea lions. There are also interactive dolphin encounters where guests 48″ inches and taller can get up close and personal with resident dolphin Kiwi.  Florida law prohibits the public from swimming with dolphins, but guests are permitted to stand in the shallow end and let the dolphins swim right to them while learning all about their history and behaviors. The park thankfully sits right on the ocean to catch the breeze, and there’s a fair amount of shade over the exhibits.

Tired of sand and water?  Have teenagers who are dying to hit the Mall?  Destin Commons (850/337-8700) is a beautiful outdoor upscale town center with some fun boutiques, several family-friendly dining options, a 14-screen stadium style theater and First Friday concerts that include facepainting and stilt-walking balloon sculptors for the kids. An outdoor “pop-up” fountain interacts with the little ones after they fool around on the nautical inspired playground – there’s even a miniature train ride that is well worth the $3when the little tykes need to take a load off.  Special events at the Mall make for added entertainment ranging from boat shows, concerts, holiday activities, fundraisers and more.

Dining & Lodging

A highlight for most Emerald Coast visitors is dining at one of the many beachfront seafood restaurants. At the casual Back Porch (850/837-2022) in Destin, the specialty is local charcoal-grilled amberjack. It’s touristy, with the inevitable gift shop, but the beach playground and volleyball net encourage a vacation frame of mind during the inevitable dinner wait (lunch is generally quieter).

A local favorite is Okaloosa Island’s Crab Trap (850/301-0959) on the Boardwalk or on Crystal Beach in Destin where you can wander in from your sand chair to the restaurant’s beach bar for a boat drink. It’s advisable to focus on the crab items despite the full array of the fried and grilled suspects on the menu. Plenty of kid-pleasing options are also available for finicky eaters.

At the historical Magnolia Grill (850/302-0266) in Fort Walton Beach, you not only get a yummy lunch at a great price (entrees around $10) but a little history lesson, too. This self-proclaimed “museum that serves food” is located in a residence that dates back to 1910 with walls crowded with local memorabilia. Owners Tom and Peggy Rice are on hand to explain some of the cool artifacts to the kids (and some of us younger adults). The menu is a cross between Italian favorites and typical Fort Walton seafood. Dinner is pricier and only served into the early evening.

Families visiting the Emerald Coast can seriously stretch their vacation dollars by staying in one of the many condos. There is a huge range in price and amenities – from basic to lavish – so do your homework. Weekly or daily rentals are available through ResortQuest (888/909-6807) and Dale Peterson Vacations (800/336-9669).  Abec Resorts (877/44-RESORT) manages a few of the more upscale, boutique-type condo properties in town, such as the Palms of Destin that is creating quite a buzz.

Next Time…

Despite a few visits to the area, I haven’t touched on all the Emerald Coast’s family attractions. Somehow the Appalachian quartz sand keeps pulling me back to the water. I have heard good things about the 25-acre Big Kahuna Waterpark, the Track Family Fun Center where go-karts and bumper boats rule and even the Armament Museum … The kids and I will see them next time.

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