It only took one beach vacation to get hooked on Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island. We returned year after year, and stays grew longer and more frequent. Eventually, the Emerald Coast became our home.
Want the inside scoop on a beach vacation destination? Ask a local. Here’s a sampling of savings along our beautiful beaches.
The Emerald Coast offers accessibility and affordability. Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island are a four- to six-hour drive – a one-tank trip – from much of the Southeast.
With reasonable airfares and minutes from area beaches, Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS) offers direct service to Atlanta, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Memphis and Tampa. Destin Airport (DTS) accommodates private and corporate aircraft.
In some places, family dining easily tops lodging costs. Not here. From seafood shacks to landlubber grills and fast-food snacks, local fare doesn’t weaken the wallet.
Save dollars with early dining, two-for-one entrees and kids’ menus. Another Broken Egg Cafe has been voted Best Breakfast on the Emerald Coast for five years in a row. Head to Fudpucker’s in Destin for lunch/dinner specials and free live gator shows. Watch the action in Destin Harbor while digging into a seafood feast at Harbor Docks. For the best pizza, it’s Helen Back on Okaloosa Island. Get the best hot wings at Buffalo’s Reef. And, my granddaughter’s favorite: A kid’s meal and the playground at Angler’s Beachside Grill.
Catch dinner. Book a bottom-fishing trip in Destin, the “World’s Luckiest Village,” for as little as $35 for five hours, or fish from the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier for $7. Not an angler? Buy fish, shrimp and crab that were swimming in the Gulf only hours before at Destin Ice Seafood Market or Sexton’s Seafood.
Life along the Emerald Coast revolves around the water. Here’s how free-and-easy beach days play out with our gang. I opt for a lazy day under a big beach umbrella with a good book and daydreaming. Dad digs sand fleas for bait and reels in dinner. The kids build the Starship Enterprise – no simple sandcastles for us. Beachcombing for tiny coquina shells like miniature angel wings and an occasional perfect sand dollar is a must. A fast-paced volleyball game gets the adrenaline flowing, followed by a cool-down of snorkeling and body surfing buoyant waves.
Occasionally, we encounter a nesting sea turtle on moonlight strolls. During summer months, huge sea turtles drag their massive bodies from the sea to dig nests and lay their eggs on our beaches. If you chance upon a nesting mom or newly hatched babies, don’t disturb them. They are federally protected.
Beyond the beach, it’s never boring. Enjoy free admission to the Air Force Armament Museum. Step back in time at Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center. Putt a round at old-fashioned Goofy Golf, where a family of four plays for under $10. Picnic at Liza Jackson Park or Fort Walton Beach Landing. Turn the kids loose in the splash fountain at Destin Commons and Uptown Station. Snag discount coupons at the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau for Southern Star Dolphin Cruises, a high-speed ride on Sea Blaster, parasailing and boat rentals. Check out jam-packed local calendars of events for free concerts, festivals and flicks.
Bunking along the beaches costs less than you might think. Choose your place in the sun from a wide range of accommodations offering promotions and AAA, AARP, military and first-responder discounts.
For example, The Resorts of Pelican Beach in Destin deals out discounts of 10 to 25 percent. Look for specials at Emerald Grande, rising majestically over Destin Harbor and steps away from fishing charters, dining and nightlife at adjoining HarborWalk Village.
Four Points by Sheraton on Okaloosa Island offers packages for family fun and romance, along with the unique Sunshine Protection Package. Stay three consecutive nights in 2009 and get 20 percent off the best available rate at Ramada Plaza Beach Resort, along with a free kids’ summer camp and “dive-in movies.” And the new resort Waterscape boasts a complimentary fun-filled water park with two swimming pools, a lazy river, waterfall, playground and barbecue areas.
To compare types of properties, specials and amenities, visit the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau at www.destin-fwb.com.