Adventurous Activities in Destin and Fort Walton, Fla.
By Janet K. Keeler
Visitors to the beach towns of Destin and Fort Walton understand perfectly why this stretch of the Florida Panhandle is called the Emerald Coast. The wide, white beaches and the emerald-hued waters are indeed the jewels of Florida.
But there’s more here than beachcombing and sunbathing in beautiful surroundings. Adventure experiences and activities abound, many of them having to do with water.
Destin sits on a barrier island bounded by Choctawhatchee Bay to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.
Fort Walton Beach is just a few miles west, across from the barrier island of Santa Rosa and at the west end of the bay. Nearby is Eglin Air Force Base. So that’s where you are, and now to find adventuresome things to do.
10 ways to be adventurous along the Emerald Coast...
Destin bills itself as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” and you can put that label to the test on a fishing charter that takes you out into the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty miles from land and you are at “The Edge,” the edge of the Continental Shelf and the fishing ground for blackfin tuna, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel and the occasional wahoo and sailfish. There are dozens of charter boats with knowledgeable captains available to take novice and experienced anglers on memorable excursions. For those looking for even more adventure and deeper depths, some boats head 50 miles out to hunt marlin and swordfish.
SAILING THE SKY
Kiteboarding is fueled by a combination of wind and water, which makes it a popular sport all over coastal Florida. Fort Walton Beach is a hot spot for kiteboarders because of its waterfront parks, including Lee, Beasley, the Dunes and the Boardwalk, that have great launching spots. The Dunes is popular with locals and is part of a nature preserve. Lessons are available for those new to strapping themselves to a large, steerable kite. Florida Kiteboarding has three-hour sessions, which may sound like a long time but keep in mind this is extreme sporting and may require some time to master. XL Kites has smaller trainer kites for thrill-seekers starting out.
There are many fine spots to practice your snorkeling techniques along the Emerald Coast. The artificial Navarre Beach Gulf Snorkel Reef is about 100 yards off shore and snorkelers often reach it aboard rafts or paddleboards. Heed all warnings about weather conditions. Snorkelers (and scuba divers) can spy sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and octopuses. Destin Snorkel is open seasonally for guided tours that stop in the bay for shelling and crabbing, and then at the Destin jetties to fish watch. There are other packages available and they include equipment rental.
The Tree Top Challenge Ropes Course at Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone in Destin will test what you’ve got. Climbers can negotiate five courses of escalating difficulty to show off agility and balance. Their reward is a fabulous view of the bay, and bragging rights, of course. The Ptero Jump is a reverse bungee trampoline that allows jumpers to control the heights you reach while being securely harnessed.
Just on the western edge of Port Washington State Forest are stables that offer horseback riding excursions. Riders see the sights of the state forest, which dips down to skirt the Gulf of Mexico between Grayton Beach and Seaside. Riding a horse through the forest gets visitors to areas not accessible by car, including marshlands and vast acreage of tall slash pines. Riders with no experience welcome.
Left your mountain bike at home or are new to this rugged form of biking? Not too worry. Bob’s Bicycles in Fort Walton Beach is just one of many businesses that rent the big-wheeled bikes (and those meant for paved paths). Once you’ve got wheels, head to the unpaved Timber Lake Mountain bike trails near Eglin Air Force Base. Mountain bikers and hikers share an eight-mile loop. There is a tamer 19-mile paved trail, sometimes called the Timpoochee Trail, which runs alongside scenic 30A from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach. Bikers can pick up the trial in a number of spots and a cruise along the trail provides views of the gulf, marshlands, dunes and the charming coastal towns of Rosemary Beach, Seaside and Grayton Beach.
Give your core a workout as you cruise through Destin on a Segway. Destination Segway Tours offers several packages, all including an instructional session, that provide the local flavor of the town. Some of the sties visited or viewed include Clement Taylor Park, Crab Island, Destin History and Fishing Museum, and HarborWalk Village. Wear your bathing suit on the Shore Thing Tour because the tour breaks for a quick swim. The Moonlight Tour is timed for great sunset photography.
Blue crab is served in many Panhandle restaurants and you can catch your own on a half-day adventure with Destin Indoor Fishing Co. The excursion begins with fishing and dolphin watching, but the main event is crabbing along the National Seashore coastline. The boat will anchor and you will wade in waist-deep water hunting for blue crabs plus seashells including delicate sand dollars. There are morning (five hours) and afternoon (four hours) excursions and both stop at a floating restaurant near Crab Island for, well what else, crab. Or maybe just a cold drink and a seafood appetizer.
Henderson State Park just east of the busy attractions of Destin, is a mile-long oasis on scenic shoreline. There are 60 campsites in the park that accommodate both tents and RVs. Surf fishing for pompano, red fish and whiting is popular here as is geocaching. The high-tech treasure hunt is a good way to learn about the geography of this park gem. Swimming and hiking are other attractions. The three-quarter-mile hiking path winds with coastal scrub and dunes and is more leisurely than challenging. For non-campers, Henderson is a perfect spot for a daylong outdoor adventure that will suit folks of differing physical abilities (and desires).
Scuba divers, both beginning and advanced, find their bliss at a number of dive sites off the coast of Destin and Fort Walton Beach. There are natural reefs and wrecks to explore plus artificial reefs to inspect, such as concrete pyramids and sunken airplanes. As new bridges are built, rubble from the old bridges becomes divers’ playgrounds. There are several companies, including Dive Destin, that provide equipment, offer scuba lessons and mostly half-day dive trips. Snorkeling is always a possibility. Blue Water Escape’s boats leave out of Fort Walton Beach, taking beginning through advanced divers on different trips. Besides underwater sightseeing, popular activities are photography, spearfishing and lobstering in season (August through March with a two-day mini-season in late July).