Sandy Feet Welcome

By: Sarah Beth Hopton

One family's experiment with a beach house vacation rental in Destin. (Hint: They loved it)!

A confession: I've always wanted a beach house and this year, I got one. Our beach escape came with all the amenities expected of a retreat: a balcony overlooking the ocean, plenty of room for our two kids (on the other side of the house, no less), and a garden tub I could soak my feet in after an oh-so-stressful day at the beach.

What our beach house didn't come with is the upkeep and expense requisite a true second home because this year, we booked the TOPS'L Beach and Racquet Resort through ResortQuest, Northwest Florida's largest vacation home network.

Ranked by Tennis magazine as "A Top U.S. Tennis Resort," TOPS'L has a lot to offer in the way of recreational programs for the kids and beachside service for the adults. But most importantly, it didn't feel like a rental.

Our comfy, fully equipped condo felt like home away from home with its key lime colored walls and sun-bleached furniture. And the cost? Let's just say our luxurious digs were surprisingly affordable for this middle-class family of four.

Although the Southern hospitality Destin is known for is year 'round, we found the locals unusually willing to offer up sweet spots for fishing and dining. So for dinner, we feasted like kings at the legendary seafood joint Dewey Destin's. And we lunched at delis like Callahan's, which sports a gourmet meat and cheese deli in the back - a worthwhile stop before a picnic on the beach.

The day we were slated to charter a fishing boat didn't turn out to be calendar weather, so the boys and I went in search of a different kind of catch: the bargain!

Less than 10 miles from the TOPS'L Beach and Racquet Resort is the Silver Sands Premium Outlets. Now, I was raised in a family where schlepping overstuffed bags of bargains until your ankles swelled was a right of passage. So, I feel qualified to say that the Silver Sands Outlet Mall is one of the best this side of the Mississippi.

With a huge selection of stores from the Children's Place Outlet to Dooney and Bourke, it's the perfect answer to not-so-perfect fishing weather.

Eight hours of bargain hunting will stir the appetite, and fortunately Destin is a family-friendly destination, so there are several restaurants that cater to kids. We chose Fudpucker's because while Mom tried to reconcile her checkbook, Dad and the boys could play in the game room and feed live alligators.

The following day, we woke to the famed Florida sunshine streaming in our beachside master bedroom window. The air was crisp, the sky cloudless and it was time to put the luckiest fishing village in the world to the test.

On a recommendation from the folks at the Harborwalk Marina, we chartered the Swoop party boat. Now, ours is a fiercely competitive family, dominated by men, so you can imagine everyone's shock and horror when Mom caught the first fish.

By the end of our eight-hour trip, which runs about $350 plus gratuity, we encountered two pods of dolphin and I'd out-fished the boys 2-1 - and that's no fish tale!

So what if the mate baited my line for me and expertly cast my reel? The skill, I argued, was in feeling the slight tug of the line as a five-pound fish 30 feet below nibbled off bits of bay oyster. The boys weren't buying it.

Back at the marina, curious passersby stopped to appraise our bounty: four sheepshead, one pompano and one redfish. And that's just the fish we were allowed to keep, as my husband is a catch and release kind of guy.

After the mate gave us a brief lecture in the art of cleaning fish, we set in to hack our way to what would eventually be dinner. So messy was the task that a four-year-old walking by pointed out that she thought it was okay to eat the fish, but we really shouldn't kill them.

Fish aside, spending so much uninterrupted time with my family is what made Destin the luckiest fishing village in the world, and as we fried up our fresh caught-n-cleaned fillets that night and settled in to watch the sun set, I felt very lucky indeed.

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