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Florida’s Emerald Coast

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Play in the ocean, visit with the dolphins, sneak in some learning – these beautiful beaches have it all!

In a perfect world, my family would take a trip to the beach at least four times a year – once for every season.  But we’re lucky if we get there once each summer.  On our most recent trip, we visited the panhandle area known as Florida’s Emerald Coast – Destin, Ft. Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island.  With bright blue and green waters, soft, beautiful beaches and enough attractions to keep you busy for a week – even if you didn’t have the ocean to play in – it’s not easy to say goodbye to the area Nashville Parent, Williamson Parent and Rutherford Parent readers have voted number one beach destination three years in a row.

Approximately seven-and-a-half hours from Nashville, the drive down to the coast is flat and easy.  Destin is the most heavily visited area on the Emerald Coast, while Ft. Walton Beach maintains its small town appeal.  We stayed on Okaloosa Island, the connector between Destin and Ft. Walton.  Most of the area’s family attractions are located on this friendly island.

My husband, our girls and I spent three nights at the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort, a family-oriented hotel right on the beach.  The hotel’s game room and two swimming pools are great when you need a quick break from the sand.

It’s All About the Ocean

Two of Okaloosa Island’s most popular public beaches are The Boardwalk, a great people-watching spot that boasts shops, restaurants and the island’s only pier; and Beasley Park, a more natural area with snack bar, shaded picnic areas, restrooms and lots of beautiful beach, ocean and dunes.  Sea turtles nest on shore between April and November.  If you see them, let them be!

To get off the beach and onto the water, we took a dolphin cruise on board the Emerald Magic, one of Moody’s Charter Boats.  We spent two hours exploring Destin Harbor, Destin Bay and the freshwater Choctawhatchee Bay.  Along the way, we were thrilled to see a group of dolphins swimming along with us.  We followed them for a while, amazed at their total comfort at having us in their midst.

Captain Tom was an excellent source of information about Destin, the harbor and its inhabitants.  He told us about the Old Destin Post Office Museum, where visitors can go back to the time when Destin was not a tourist destination, but a humble fishing village.  The museum, open Wednesday afternoons, is home to artifacts, photographs and more.

Sea lions, Science and Water Slides, Oh My!

When we weren’t playing in the sand or swimming in the bright blue water, we spent time checking out the local museums and attractions.  With more than a dozen different species to discover and continuous sea life shows all day long, the Gulfarium is one of the area’s biggest draws.  The bottlenose dolphins and California sea lion shows are a lot of fun, though watching a dolphin jump out of its pool and onto dry land is a little disconcerting!  For those who love fish, the Living Sea show takes place in a 60,000-gallon aquarium with a SCUBA demonstration.  The girls enjoyed the touch pool, where they were able to “pet” the safe-to-touch sea animals.

For an afternoon of hands-on science exploration, the Emerald Coast Science Center can’t be beat.  More than 200 exhibits invite kids to do everything from creating a hurricane to reconstructing the body’s inner workings.  Just down the street, we learned more about the area’s first inhabitants at the Indian Temple Mound Museum, the world’s largest burial mound next to salt water.  For more indoor fun, take the 30-minute drive to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, the second-largest aviation museum in the world.  Kids can watch “The Magic of Flight” at the IMAX theater and run amok amongst the 170 restored aircraft as well as equipment, artifacts and memorabilia.

For something slightly less educational, check out Big Kahuna’s Water and Amusement Park.  Open from Memorial to Labor Day, the park is home to more than 40 water attractions along with rides, miniature golf and go-karts.  We also enjoyed Island Golf Center, which features two 18-hole miniature golf courses (the Lost Lagoon is for beginners like us), as well as Par 3 golf and an arcade.

ONE WORD: SEAFOOD!

It goes without saying that seafood on the Emerald Coast is fresh!  The Back Porch Restaurant is a local favorite located right on the gulf in Destin.  We enjoyed lunch at Anglers, a casual seafood restaurant adjacent to the Okaloosa Island Pier and public beach.  We particularly liked their fried fish and yummy cream of crab soup.  Even better was the open-air ocean-view seating above a beach playground for the kids.

If you’re going for sheer quantity of seafood, a visit to Captain Kidd’s Seafood Buffet in Destin is a must.  The buffet features a variety of fried and grilled fish as well as crab, shrimp, clams, oysters, mussels and crawfish plus a vegetable, salad and dessert bar.  Special food just for kids – fish sticks, chicken fingers, pizza, macaroni and cheese and more – are also included.  The best time to visit is between 4 and 6 p.m., when the second adult eats for half-price.

With beautiful beaches, a laidback atmosphere and a never-ending list of kid-friendly activities, Florida’s Emerald Coast is a wonderful place to make that once-a-year summer trip.

For more information

Okaloosa County Visitors
and Welcome Center
800-322-3319; www.destin-fwb.com

Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort
800-238-8686; www.holidayinnfwb.com

Moody’s Charter Boat
850-837-1293; www.moodysinc.com

The Gulfarium
800-247-8575; www.gulfarium.com

Emerald Coast Science Center
850-664-1261; www.ecscience.org

Indian Temple Mound Museum
850-833-9595; www.fwb.org (under “parks and recreation”)

National Museum of Naval Aviation
850-452-3604

Big Kahuna’s Water and Amusement Park; 850-837-4061; www.bigkahunas.com

Island Golf Center; 850-244-1612

Ashley Crownover is a freelance writer.

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