Given the number of high-rise hotels that now line Destin’s shore along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s hard to imagine that this city was once a sleepy fishing village. The earliest visitors came here to reel in trout from chartered fishing boats. Electricity was turned on in 1938, phones arrived in 1953, and soon after that, Destin and the surrounding towns exploded. Retirees, spring breakers and, above all, families on the hunt for breezy beaches and friendly entertainment started flocking here. Today Destin attracts visitors year-round, thanks to its beachfront accommodations, activity-filled parks and especially its sugar-white sands. Below, an insider’s guide.
GET YOUR GAME ON
Destin has long been a waterfront playground because of the amusement parks and other recreational options along its main thoroughfare, Highway 98. Even the most energetic kids will wear themselves out at Big Kahuna’s Water Park, which has more than 40 attractions: wave pools, lazy rivers, looping pipeline rides, volleyball courts and more. For old-school mini golf, check out Goofy Golf, a 55-year-old course where dinosaurs and sharks loom over 18 challenging holes. Across town is a recreation center called the Track; activities range from go-karts to bumper boats bobbing in a heated pool. To add something educational to the itinerary, head to the Destin History & Fishing Museum. Exhibits include Native American artifacts and vintage trophies honoring award-winning catches—testimony to Destin’s nickname, the World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.
Wannabe pilots will be wowed by the Air Force Armament Museum, whose more than 25 aircraft include the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built. Animal lovers prefer the waterfront Gulfarium, where they can encounter dolphins, otters, penguins and sea turtles, and watch sea lions perform tricks.
View birds and dolphins in the wild at Henderson Beach State Park. Bring binoculars to spot wood ducks, great blue herons and snowy egrets—all residents that nest along the 220-acre park’s rare natural dunes.
To see and learn about the area’s native alligators, stop for lunch at Fudpucker’s, a 400-table restaurant that allows diners to scribble on the colorful walls and tables. Kids can keep busy at Gator Beach, the eatery’s own marsh moat, where baby alligators sun themselves on wooden planks. The upstairs dance floor fills with teens as the live band jams out oldies.
Lively HarborWalk Village is Destin’s nerve center. Here boats crowd central slips in the marina, visitors amble in and out of shops, and the occasional zipliner soars overhead. Though the boardwalk caters to tourists, it’s also a working waterfront for fishermen, who can be seen cleaning their nets and boxing up fish to distribute to area restaurants.
Catch your own grouper or mackerel aboard the 65-foot Swoop I with Swoop Deep Sea Fishing. Treasure seekers should head out on a Buccaneer Pirate Cruise. Pack bathing suits for water-gun fights, face painting and treasure hunts aboard the 100-foot ship.
More-relaxing sightseeing is available on a Southern Star Dolphin Cruise. The marine mammals often swim right up to the boat’s hull.
If your own little swimmers are eager to take a dip, stop by the sporting-goods store Liquid Surf & Sail en route to the beach. There’s a week’s worth of splash-worthy equipment available for rent, from snorkels and fins to kayaks and paddleboards.
In the evening, walk down the 962-foot Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, built in 1972, to join laid-back sportfishermen dropping lines into the soft waves. Should you manage to land a fish, bring it to Fisherman’s Wharf, where the chef will cook your catch and serve it with hushpuppies and coleslaw.
TAKE A ROAD TRIP
Just south of Destin, Highway 30A links a series of manicured Gulf-front towns. Postcard-perfect Seaside, known for immaculate pastel-colored houses flanking redbrick roads, was the set for the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show. Before hitting the town’s pristine shores, buy picnic supplies at Modica Market. Or stop for lunch at Pickle’s Beachside Grill, where the famous pickles are paired with cheeseburgers and hot dogs. For boiled shrimp, oysters on the half shell and a lobster roll worth the splurge, nab a waterfront table at sister restaurant Shrimp Shack. On the way out of town, pick up souvenirs at Seaside Kids. Best-sellers include knitted stuffed animals and soft T-shirts in a rainbow of colors.
Farther down Highway 30A is Rosemary Beach, known for its Tudor-style houses and charming shops. Grab a children’s book and snuggle in the reading nook at the Hidden Lantern Bookstore. Next door, Fitz and Emme sells beachy goods such as swimsuits, sand pails and shovels.
With these tools in hand, the whole family will be ready for the Emerald Coast’s most popular attraction—its deep green waters and soft sands.
Big Kahuna’s Water Park: 1007 U.S. Hwy. 98 E.; 850-837-8319; bigkahunas.com
Goofy Golf: 401 Eglin Pkwy. N.E., Fort Walton Beach; 850-862-4922; goofygolffwb.com
Track: 1125 U.S. Hwy. 98, Destin; 850-654-4668; destintrack.com
Destin History & Fishing Museum: 108 Stahlman Ave., Destin; 850-837-6611
Air Force Armament Museum: 100 Museum Dr., Eglin Air Force Base; 850-651-1808; afarmamentmuseum.com
Gulfarium: 1010 Miracle Strip Pkwy. S.E., Fort Walton Beach; 850-243-9046; gulfarium.com
Henderson Beach State Park: 17000 Emerald Coast Pkwy., Destin; 850-837-7550; floridastateparks.org
Fudpucker’s: 20001 Emerald Coast Pkwy, Destin, FL 32541; 850-654-1544
Swoop Deep Sea Fishing: 66 Harbor Blvd.; 850-337-8250; swooppartyboat.com
Buccaneer Pirate Cruise: 100 Harbor Blvd.; 850-269-0896; destinpirateship.com
Southern Star Dolphin Cruise: 100 Harbor Blvd.; 850-837-7741; southernstardolphincruise.com
Liquid Surf & Sail: 158 Miracle Strip Pkwy. S.E.; 850-664-5731; liquidsurfandsail.com
Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier: 1030 Miracle Street Pkwy., E. Fort Walton Beach; 850-244-1023; okaloosaislandpier.com
Modica Market: 109 Center Ave., Seaside; 850-231-1214
Seaside Kids: 63 Central Sq.; 850-231-1733; theseasidestyle.com
Hidden Lantern Bookstore: 84 N. Barrett Sq.; 850-231-0091; thehiddenlantern.com
Fitz and Emme: 104 N. Barrett Sq., Unit 1B; 850-231-3200; fitzandemme.com