Dalia's note: Many regions in Florida go by nicknames -- Gulf Coast, Treasure Coast, Paradise Coast and so on. The area of Northwest Florida that includes Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island is known as the Emerald Coast. Susan Jarvis Moody writes the Emerald Coast Insider Blog for the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council. I met her earlier this year at the Boston Globe Travel Show, where her booth saw lots of traffic from folks looking to go beyond Florida's usual tourist destinations. Here's Susan:
Vacation can be expensive. I suppose that’s why we do it only once (or twice) a year. If you’re headed to the Emerald Coast, the beach is clearly the biggest draw. And while this attraction is free, you and your family may need a break from the sun and surf. Here are my top five ways to explore the Emerald Coast without breaking the bank.
1. Fishing can be an expensive hobby. Before you invest a lot of time and/or money, let your kids give fishing a try at the Okaloosa Island Pier. Children under age 5 are free, and $7.50 gives everyone else access to almost a quarter-mile of fishing space on the Gulf of Mexico. No rod? No reel? No problem. Rental equipment and bait are available for less than $10 per person. Don’t be surprised if you catch dinner. If you’re not interested in fishing, the Okaloosa Island Pier is a great place to watch the sunset. You can get updates on what’s biting, and the weather and fishing conditions at the Pier’s website.
2. The “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” got a little more festive with the grand opening of the Harbor Board Walk. Locals and visitors can walk the length of Destin Harbor, visiting restaurants and artists and watching charter boats pull in their daily catch. End your stroll at HarborWalk Village, where you can Rock the Docks on Saturday evenings and celebrate local heroes on Thursdays with music, kids' activities, a flyover of World War II planes and fireworks.
3. Rave Motion pictures and Shoreline Church host free family movies on Monday and Thursday mornings. Sometimes you need a break from the beach or the weather is not cooperating, so a movie can be just what the doctor ordered. Make a day of it by grabbing some lunch at one of Destin Commons' affordable restaurants, and then let the kids spend some time at the playground and the fountains and burn off some of that popcorn-induced energy. Doors open at 9 and movies begin at 10. Get there early to guarantee a good seat.
4. Henderson Beach State Park offers camping, biking and walking trails, a playground, and 6,000 feet of natural, undeveloped shoreline. There are 60 camping spots as well as pavilions for grilling and boardwalks for fishing. Paddleboarding, surfboarding and bird watching are popular ways to spend the day. Be sure to check the park’s events calendar, as these conservation programs are included in the $6-per-vehicle admission. Recent programming has included talks on endangered animals and rescue operations and stargazing.
5. Are you in need of a night on the town? Be sure to check out Historic Downtown Fort Walton Beach on the third Friday of the month for a family-friendly night of live music, local artists and great food. The monthly Art Walk is a great way to explore Fort Walton Beach. Many restaurants offer dinner and drink specials so you can enjoy dinner, drinks and dessert as your stroll through this great downtown business district.
If you’re visiting the Emerald Coast, you already know about the great dining and shopping. By taking advantage of some of these budget-friendly attractions, you’ll have some extra spending money for dinner or a great pair of shoes.
For more ways to "get a little sand in your soul," check out Susan Jarvis Moody's blog and follow her on Twitter @susanjmoody.