Florida

Destin Travel Guide: Inexpensive Vacation on Florida's Emerald Coast

Florida's Panhandle beaches are some of the most pristine in the state, and the jewel in this region's crown is easily the beach town of Destin. Once considered a sleepy fishing village, Destin's charms -- chiefly the sugar white sands and emerald waters of the beaches, and world-class golfing -- have not gone unnoticed, and today, much of the town is a well-developed tourist mecca complete with large resorts, a bustling marina and active charter fishing fleet. Still, curious travelers can still find regions of respite amid the sprawl by visiting the town's designated state park beaches, which remain stunning, wild oases. Pack your sunblock and set out with a hearty appetite for seafood -- you'll find some of the Panhandle's freshest here -- as you gear up for a Destin vacation.

Fisherman's Wharf Seafood House
gobucks2, flickr
Where to Eat
Fisherman's Wharf Seafood House
A visit to Destin means you're in proximity to some of America's freshest -- and tastiest -- seafood. Grab the family and hightail it to the town's favorite local seafood restaurant, Fisherman's Wharf Seafood House, appropriately located at a scenic marina overlooking Destin Harbor. Folks at Fisherman's know that fishing is a favorite pastime of visitors (and locals) in Destin, and the restaurant lets diners bring their catch to the restaurant where they'll chargrill it to perfection and serve it up. If you're not the fishing type, no worries. Fresh seafood, like grouper and mahi mahi, dominates the menu, and can be prepared in all manner of ways -- blackened, grilled, broiled, jerk spiced or fried. All mains come with 2 sides; we recommend you don't miss out on the savory hush puppies.

Marina Cafe
Tired of dining at seafood shacks? Even the most stalwart of beach-loving salty dogs likes to take a break from casual fare. When in need of high-end dining, the Marina Cafe fits the bill. Destin's premier upscale restaurant, the Marina Cafe overlooks Destin Harbor, and serves up a varied menu with Creole, Pan-Asian, Mediterranean and contemporary American influences. The candlelit atmosphere is perfectly complemented with a bottle of wine from the restaurant's extensive collection of over 100 bottles. Don't miss the Gulf shrimp and Italian sausage spring roll appetizer, or the café’s signature pan-seared grouper with jumbo lump crabmeat, Creole succotash and roasted bell pepper in a beurre blanc sauce. If you're looking to save some cash, visit the restaurant for happy hour, Monday to Friday, 5 to 7 p.m., when drinks are half-priced, and a special menu of appetizers and sushi is available. We recommend making reservations if you'd like a table on the outdoor porch.

AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar
If you weren't relaxed after a day spent soaking up the sun along Destin's shores, head to AJ's Seafood and Oyster Bar, a waterfront icon since 1984, to fully unwind. You’ll be lulled by the soothing soundtrack of a steel drum band as you sip a frosty drink and slurp briny oysters under the restaurant's massive tiki hut. AJ’s bills itself as the happiest bar in Destin, and that may well be right. To prove the fact, they've created happy hour specials that run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. When you're not enjoying a cocktail, or ogling the boats along Destin Harbor, grab a menu and order the legendary Apalachicola oysters, smoked fish dip and decadent fried pickles to start. If you're craving an entree, you can't go wrong with the broiled Gulf shrimp platter or the blackened mahi mahi. Can't decide? Order the "run of the kitchen," a platter chock full of mahi, Gulf shrimp, oysters, scallops, clam strips and stuffed deviled crab. Delish.

Where to Stay
Henderson Park Inn
Destin's most romantic lodging, the Henderson Park Inn, sits alone along a swath of perfectly windswept beach, and its striking appearance looks more like a blissful New England retreat than a Panhandle hotel. The adults-only inn is one of the few bed and breakfasts in the regions, and far and away, the most charming. Henderson Park's 35 spacious rooms are spread out between 2 separate buildings, and each features a charming veranda, Victorian-style decor and top-notch amenities like 750-thread-count sheets and whirlpool baths. Fireplaces even grace some rooms, upping the romance ante for couples. Guests are treated to free wine, grapes and chocolate upon arrival, daily breakfast, boxed picnic lunches perfect for the beach and access to beach chairs and umbrellas. As evening falls, gather at the inn's tiki hut for an early cocktail, then head to the Beach Walk, the on-site restaurant, to dine while enjoying an unparalleled view of the sunset.

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
Destin's most popular family resort, the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is a vacationer’s dream hotel. Located along the Panhandle's brilliant Emerald Coast, the resort offers every imaginable amenity to travelers and families, including 4 of the region's best golf courses. Sprawling across 2,400 acres, Sandestin offers a variety of accommodations, including condominiums, houses, villas, townhomes and hotel-style guest rooms. Truly, once you arrive here you will have no reason to leave Sandestin should you choose to stay put! The resort's scope cannot be over-exaggerated; in addition to the golf courses, the property also features 7 miles of beaches and bayfront, 19 swimming pools, 15 tennis courses, and a 98-slip marina and a small village composed of shops and restaurants. After dark, consider booking a beach bonfire; the resort organizes special beachfront bonfire packages for couples, families or groups of friends that can include additions like s'mores and wine, depending on the group's preferences.

Jetty East Condominium Resort
Families hoping to save on meal costs should consider a stay at the exclusive, gated Jetty East Condominium Resort, which offers independent travelers the option of staying in a full-service rental condo. The resort lies along the Gulf Coast's shores, giving families easy access to Destin's beach where they can enjoy activities like swimming, parasailing and kayaking. Condo sizes vary from 1 bedroom, 1 bath to 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, and include views of the beach or the jetty, along with amenities such as full kitchens with cooking utensils and dinnerware. Returning from the beach a sandy, saltwater-logged mess? Each unit also features a washer and dryer -- a bonus that families with children will love having. Should you tire of cooking in the condo, head to the property's 3,500-square-foot beach pavilion, which is stocked with grills and picnic tables -- the perfect gathering spot for meeting other guests. Guests are also privy to the property's heated pool and hot tub, tennis courts, shuffleboard courts, fishing access on the jetty and free Wi-Fi in all units.

What to Do
Beach
Some of the Panhandle's most picturesque beaches line Destin's coast. With this in mind, Destin has morphed from a sleepy village to a prime vacation destination drawing millions of annual visitors. Vacationers can opt to relax on the sand or try their hand at watersports -- outfitters along the beach offer waverunner and jet-ski rentals, as well as parasailing rides. That said, many of the public beaches can be overwhelmingly crowded during peak season -- though still stunning, of course. Travelers seeking a bit of peace and quiet should head to the sugar-white sands and emerald-green waters of the area's protected beaches. Top picks include the idyllic Grayton Beach State Park, a respite of sand and surf, which also encompasses 356 acres of pine forests and a 4.5-mile hiking and biking trail for wildlife lovers to enjoy. Another family favorite is Henderson Beach State Park, where 1 1/2 miles of shoreline and tranquil waters provide a perfect playground for children -- and adults. The park's amenities include bathrooms and showers. Should the day not be enough time to enjoy the wonders of the Panhandle's coastline, rest easy; both state park beaches have campgrounds.

Golf
Destin's beaches are usually thought of as the town's main draw. But a close second are its golf courses, which rank as some of the finest greens in the Panhandle. Courses will satisfy all levels of golfers, from beginners to advanced players. The Emerald Coast setting means many of these courses offer breathtaking views and challenging terrain, such as sand dunes and water hazards. Easily the most popular option for golfers, the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort features 4 championship 18-hole courses, including 2 with scenic views of Choctawhatchee Bay. Less expensive options for public courses include Indian Bayou Golf and Country Club, which features 3 9-hole courses, as well as the Emerald Bay Golf Club, an 18-hole course also located along Choctawhatchee Bay.

Boating in Destin
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See more tourist attractions in Destin and the Emerald Coast
Boating
The sparkling turquoise-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico prove too alluring to merely sit and stare at. While some visitors are content to take a swim in the Gulf, others want to experience the sea up close -- on a boat. A number of outfitters offer boat rentals and charter tours. Popular with families and large groups, pontoon boat rentals allow parties to head into Destin's back bay areas. Check out one of the region's trusted outfitters, such as Brooks Bridge Bait and Tackle. Dolphin lovers should book a tour with Olin Marler's dolphin cruises, which provides daily dolphin watch cruises that also detail Destin's fishing history.

Fishing
Coined "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village," Destin proudly claims to have Florida's largest fleet of charter fishing boats -- a real bonus for experienced and wannabe anglers. The town's location means boats have quick access to deep-water fishing in the Gulf, and more than 20 species of edible game fish fill the waters. To charter a fishing trip, it's best to take a stroll along the Destin Harbor waterfront, where you'll encounter dozens of companies proffering trips. Chat with the folks running the show to get a sense of the type of charter and boat that is used on the trip. HarborWalk Charters is one of the best-regarded companies, and offers a variety of boats and options, from 4-hour tours to overnight fishing trips.

About the Author

Valerie Conners is a freelance writer, editor and producer who has worked with the Travel Channel for more than 14 years, specializing in travel topics including the world's best beaches, outdoor travel and romantic getaways. Her work also appears in many online and print publications including, Aol Travel, Discovery Channel, World Hum, Frommer's Travel Guides, the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun and Philadelphia Inquirer. She's happiest when eating spicy Thai food, snorkeling with sea turtles in Indonesia and bargaining for bangles in Indian markets. She blogs about her travels at PassengerConners.com.

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