Driving to Florida: New Orleans to Destin
By Kevin McGeever
Remember logic and propositions? If p then q?
Since childhood, I’ve spent 50 years of vacations doing these mental gymnastics around road trips. If we leave at (enter time here), and the map (now Google) says the drive will take (enter hours here), then we can reach (enter destination here) by … it’s the illogical madness that precedes “Are we there yet?”
Or, to illustrate my obsession, if we leave New Orleans by 6 a.m., then we will be digging our toes into white quartz sand and counting our blessings with each tumble of Gulf of Mexico surf on the Destin shore by 10 … 10:30 at the latest.
Better, maybe we could get out the door by 5:45. Yeah, I won’t sleep that night.
But with the passage of time comes wisdom -- allegedly -- or just a new set of mind games.
What if we left New Orleans early Monday morning and arrived in Destin by … Tuesday? Or even Wednesday? What if we started our Florida vacation as soon as we crossed into Pensacola and …
- set up camp on the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore;
- watched the Blue Angels execute aerial acrobatics in the skies above the original home of Top Gun fliers;
- paddled the saltwater tidal marshes of Big Lagoon State Park, an endpoint of the 1,515-mile Florida Circumnavigational Trail;
- or toured Forts Pickens and Barrancas and absorbed the American Civil War chapters of the City of Five Flags?
So many things to do in Florida if we just made the time. Or threw away the daily calendar.
Consider these reasons to pull off the road between Pensacola and Destin and make a new memory.
There are beaches …
Two hundred miles of them in fact, like a necklace of white pearls stretching west to east. Pensacola Beach, Navarre, Fort Walton, Destin, Miramar, Seaside, Grayton, all the way to Cape San Blas and St. George Island.
Each new day on one of these Panhandle shores brings a fresh case of sensory overload: the white sand that crunches and massages with each footfall; the rolling surf that transitions from pale green glass to emerald and rinses away worry; the open air that reminds you of the one and only requirement on this vacation. Breathe.
There are state and national parks …
Almost 100 rare plants and animals thrive on the wet prairie habit of Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park. Like the carnivorous white-top pitcher plant, the alligator snapping turtle, and Chapman’s butterwort.
The Blackwater River State Park website is quick to assure readers that the water here is more a transparent golden-brown when seen against the white sandbars. Again from the website, this did-you-know … the park contains “core areas of the largest contiguous longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem left in the world, one described as being rarer than a tropical rainforest.”
There are scenic highways …
Pensacola Scenic Bluffs is the original member of Florida’s 26 scenic highways, designated for their visual beauty and the unspoken encouragement to ease off the gas pedal and elevate the appreciation. The cliffs and Escambia Bay are the main features of this 11-mile stretch, best seen from the boardwalks of Bay Bluffs Park.
Scenic Highway 30A hugs the 28-mile South Walton coastline, connecting visitors to beach towns and greenway trails and 15 coastal dune lakes, an ecological rarity found only in a few places around the world.
There are cities …
Pensacola was the first European settlement on the North American continent in 1559, but a hurricane would make the Spanish occupation short-lived. Centuries later, the remains of Tristan de Luna’s fleet in Pensacola Bay are the ongoing focus of archeological explorers.
The deep, protected harbor always made Pensacola a prize, for the colonial Spanish, British, and French, and then the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War.
Naval Air Station Pensacola was established in 1914. The free museum features 150 restored aircraft from the past 100 years.
In 2019, Pensacola and specifically the Belmont-Devilliers neighborhood were added to the Mississippi Blues Trail. Belmont-Devilliers was a Florida cornerstone on the Chitlin Circuit, the network of Southern towns that provided commercial and cultural acceptance for Black musicians and artists such as B.B. King, Junior Parker, and Sam Cooke.
The Beaches of South Walton are not a single city but a collective of 16 beach neighborhoods along Highway 30A, each with a personality defined by its architecture and local color.
Seaside’s cottages, residential-retail blend and pedestrian way of life were the backdrop for the 1998 feature film Truman Show. Rosemary Beach is a town of wrap-around porches, boardwalk promenades, and communal gatherings at the four public swimming pools. Grayton Beach is regularly cited as one of the best shores in America and its nature trail winds through a salt marsh, steep dunes, and a coastal forest thick with twisted scrub oaks and magnolias.
WELCOME TO DESTIN
You have arrived in the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” and the crown jewel of the Emerald Coast. Here are some of the things to do in Destin.
Harborwalk Village is a one-stop-fits-all for rentals of paddleboards, kayaks, pontoon, jet skis, parasailing, glass bottom boats, dolphin cruises and pirate ship excursions, plus restaurants and shopping.
Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park has more than 40 water play areas with huge slides, a wave pool and lazy river, along with miniature golf and go-karts. Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park has dolphin shows and wildlife encounters for ages 3 and up.
Adventures are available by sea, land, and sky, from leisurely to a jolt of adrenalin. Calm waters and shallow depths make the perfect runway for kiteboarding, a viewfinder lens for snorkeling, and a playground for first-time paddleboarders. Farther offshore, certified divers can explore artificial reefs and charter boats provide the first step in a sea-to-table fishing experience (more on this in a moment).
What’s so “lucky” about the fishing here? The edge of the Continental Shelf -- the fishing ground for blackfin tuna, grouper, amberjack, king mackerel and the occasional wahoo and sailfish -- is just 20 miles offshore. There are dozens of charter boats with knowledgeable captains available to take novice and experienced anglers on memorable excursions.
You can create your own travel itinerary for driving from New Orleans to Destin with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool. It’s just logic: If we go to Florida on vacation, then we will have fun.
Distance from New Orleans to Destin: approximately 250 miles (400 kilometers)
Driving time: 4 hours
Best route(s): I-10 east into Florida, then 281 south and 98 east.
Fuel costs: use this calculator.
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare.
Rest areas: Interstate 10
Alternative transportation: Greyhound bus to Fort Walton Beach; travel time 10 hours