IF YOU BELIEVE IN the significance of titles and awards, Florida’s Emerald Coast — the area specifically designated as Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island in the Panhandle — has an impressive list of them. Do any of these get your attention?
- Top U.S. beach — USA Today
- Top winter getaway — TripAdvisor
- One of Top 3 family vacation getaways in the South — Southern Living Magazine
- No. 1 beach in the South — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The list goes on, but it wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that MSN.com named Fort Walton Beach the happiest city in Florida. That’s a lot to brag about, so we set out to explore what makes other beaches in a state full of them green with envy when compared to those on the Emerald Coast.
First, let’s talk about that green-tinted water. Those translucent waters are not quite the natural shade of emerald gemstones, but their signature sparkle is created when light reflects off micro-algae and produces all variations of green.
“Emerald,” however, isn’t the area’s only claim to fame.
Destin, home to one of Florida’s largest fishing fleets with more than 200 charter boats, has been called “the world’s luckiest fishing village.” It has nine saltwater world records and attracts anglers from all over the world.
This abundance of fresh catch assures that in any given season there are more than 20 species of tasty fish food available, more than four times as many as other ports. Many restaurants here use an exclusive app called FISHTRAX that tells you exactly where your seafood came from, how it was caught and by whom.
One more tip: If you visit after Labor Day, crowds thin out and rates go down, but the weather is still perfect.
Here are some facts you might not know about this slice of Florida’s northwest coast and some activities you should consider for your must-do list:
PIRATES PLAYGROUND. The area once hosted such infamous buccaneers as Captain William Augustus Bowles, aka Bowlegs Billy. You can take an interactive pirate cruise on your visit, complete with sword fights, water-gun battles, storytelling, singing and dancing and treasure hunts as well as plunderin’ and swabbin’ the decks. Each June, Fort Walton Beach holds an official Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival. Arggh!
THE WILD BLUE YONDER. The coast is home to Eglin Air Force Base, the largest such base in the free world, covering more than 550,000 acres in three counties. More than 17,000 military personnel and defense contractors call it home. Eglin has the only armament museum in the United States, with more than 15,000 artifacts including many from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It’s free, with convenient parking.
SEE THE SEA TURTLES. Ask for a free guided sea turtle walk if you visit between June and November. Request a licensed sea turtle coordinator, who can share facts about these endangered creatures, who live their entire lives at sea except when females come ashore to lay their eggs. Seeing the hatched babies’ frantic trek to find the salt water is a spectacular sight.
MARDI GRAS ON THE ISLAND. The February festival continues to grow in size and popularity. For summer visitors, HarborWalk Village in Destin holds a Fat Tuesday Parade with floats, beads, swag and entertainment. HarborWalk is an activity mecca with shops, dining, art galleries and general amusement.
DOLPHIN CRUISES. These trips in glass-bottom boats are available day and night, but they’re best at sunset.
PADDLE SPORTS. GUSU (Get Up Stand Up) paddle sports is a hip fitness trend that’s even better when surrounded by dolphins and views of the Gulf of Mexico.
OKALOOSA COUNTY GEOCACHE TRAIL. An outdoor treasure hunt using GPS-enabled devices.
UNDERWATER BOWLING. We’ve saved the best, perhaps, for last. Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl & Grill in Destin Commons offers an “underwater” bowling experience you shouldn’t miss. Just do it. You know you want to.
Canoes, paddle boards or banana boats? Pontoons, boogie boards or parasailing? Powerboats, kayaks or fishing boats? Sailboats, WaveRunners or Jet Skis? Snorkeling and scuba diving? Bird-watching, dog beaches or serious sandcastle building? Wakeboarding, aqua jets, biking or hiking?
Have we missed anything? Yes, maybe beach bumming.
If you go Emerald Coasting, you’ll find it all.
Terry Matthews-Lombardo is channeling a life spent exploring the world (more than 35 countries to date) from her perch on a bar stool, one hotel lobby at a time. She’s a published writer, an International Trip Director, a Certified Meeting Professional and more. This all lends itself to writing interesting stories. Find more at www.tmlwrites.com.