Growing up, Destin always felt like my home away from home.
Every August, my family would load up our Volvo station wagon and hit the road for the 12-hour trip from Austin to Destin, our Discman batteries holding out just long enough for us to get within 30 minutes of our destination. When we saw the towering white sand dunes that line the highway, we knew Destin was approaching.
I've been lucky to return to Destin numerous times over the years, but perhaps no visit has been as special as our August one, when, in addition to our four children, my parents and sister came, too.
As always, we hit up old favorites and discovered some new places, too. Here are some highlights from our recent trip.
Drop a line
You can’t come to the “world’s luckiest fishing village” without testing out that luck in the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Because I was traveling with four kids of mixed fishing enthusiasm, we opted for a half-day fishing charter with Swoop Deep Sea Fishing Boats, leaving out of HarborWalk Marina at 7 a.m. Not an hour later, we were plucking vermilion snapper after vermilion snapper from the sea. In addition to getting to yell “fish on!” throughout the morning, we also spotted dolphins, helped land a shark and even posed for photos from the upstairs captain’s chair thanks to an incredibly accommodating staff that knew how to make even the most reticent kids excited about a day on the water. Want someone to cook your fresh catch? Head to the Grande Vista Bar & Grill inside the Emerald Grande (850-424-0621, emeraldgrande.com/grande-vista-bar-grill-destin-restaurants-2), which will serve up your catch blackened, fried or grilled with veggies, fries and a soup or salad.
Info: 66 HarborWalk Marina. 850-337-8259, swooppartyboat.com
Gaga for gators
We pet a gator. We held a gator. We fed a gator. We ate some gator. And yes, we learned a gator joke. (What’s the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? One you see later and the other you see after a while.) Safe to say we got our fill of gators during our evening at Fudpucker’s, a local institution since 1982 dedicated to the “owners’ favorite ‘F’ words: food, fun and family.” Despite our many previous visits to Destin, this was our first time inside Fudpucker’s, which we quickly found to be warm, welcoming and surprisingly educational — we saw everything from alligator hatchlings to the delightful Miss Pearl, one of only 40 albino alligators in the United States. The food was delicious and the souvenir photo of the grandkids holding a gator with their grandparents? Priceless.
Info: 20001 Emerald Coast Pkwy. 850-654-4200, fudpucker.com.
Hit the beach
Destin is famous for its glistening white sand, which squeaks as you make your way across it toward the emerald water. We spent the majority of our beach days on the stretch of sand adjacent to our condo at the Jade East Towers, but Destin is also home to many public beaches that are ideal for visitors. Our favorite is Henderson Beach State Park, which features picturesque 30-foot dunes. You can go for a hike, grab a fishing pole or even stay the night at one of the park's 60 campsites.
Info: 17000 Emerald Coast Pkwy. 850-837-7550, floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/henderson-beach-state-park.
Grab a bite
Sure, there's delicious Gulf Coast seafood, but Destin also features a plethora of restaurants with influences that span the globe. We loved our breakfast at First Watch, where pancakes, avocado toast and a BLT Benedict were among the orders of the day. You also can't visit Destin without stopping in at the Donut Hole, a beloved local institution known for its diner fare and delectable doughnuts. Be warned that there's usually a wait, so go early. If you want to get a seafood fix, try Harbor Docks, home to seafood, steaks, sushi and more. For a laid-back biker vibe with the best margaritas in town, don't miss Hog's Breath Saloon, where "hog's breath is better than no breath at all." Finally, if you're craving Italian with a side of music, head to Graffiti and the Funky Blues Shack, a Destin staple for 20 years that recently moved to a larger space.
Destin is a fishing town through and through, and there's no better place to learn why that is than at the Destin History and Fishing Museum. From the collection of antique rods and reels to an exhibit on award-winning fish that were caught in Destin, you're sure to get, well, hooked.
Info: 108 Stahlman Ave. 850-837-6611, destinhistoryandfishingmuseum.org.
In the bag
No vacation is complete without some good shopping, and one of our longtime favorite places for trinkets and souvenirs is Banana Bart's. Housed in a bright yellow building, this gift shop is the perfect place for everything from starfish anklets to cheeky magnets and eclectic home decor. For all of your airbrushing, beach toy and T-shirt needs, I recommend Alvin's Island, which has numerous locations across the Florida Panhandle. For name brands, don't miss Destin Commons, an outdoor mall with more than 90 shops and restaurants. When you get hungry, stop in at Gulf Coast Burger Co., which is known for its crazy #Cat5Shakes.
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Fun in Fort Walton
Just across the bridge from Destin is Fort Walton, which is also filled with activities that are perfect for the family. Spend the afternoon surrounded by sea creatures at the Gulfarium, or make your own fun at Wild Willy's Adventure Zone, home to a 4D movie theater, a laser maze, minigolf, a 60-foot ropes course, a reverse bungee trampoline and more. Hungry? Stop by Rockin’ Tacos for some delicious, yes, tacos, or drop by The Gulf Okaloosa Island, which was constructed with recycled and salvaged shipping containers and features a menu filled with locally sourced ingredients.
Light the night
I can't think of a better way to round out a trip to Destin than beneath a sky filled with stars and fireworks. Sound nice? Book a Cattywampus Catamaran Firework Cruise, where you'll have an up-close view of all the colors above.
Info: Departs from The Gulf Okaloosa Island, 1284 Marler Ave. cattywampus-snorkeling.com.