Destin Ecotourism Attractions and Activities
By Julie Landry Laviolette
Sugar-white sand beaches, emerald green waters, abundant marine life and tranquil parks and conservation areas are a few of the jewels in Destin’s crown.
The city’s plentiful ecological attractions and environmental treasures make it a natural for visitors looking for ecotourism sites and eco-friendly adventures.
Here are some ways to enjoy green travel in Destin:
Whether you’re looking to learn about the Gulf Coast’s ecosystem, see how injured sea turtles are rehabilitated or spend time in a serene nature preserve, Destin has a variety of eco-attractions to offer adventure in ecologically responsible ways:
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park
Surround yourself with marine life at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, which offers educational exhibits, shows and encounters with dolphins, stingrays and penguins, among others. Stroll the Dune Walk on the Gulf of Mexico to learn about the importance of dunes and dune lakes in the coastal ecosystem. Learn about the park’s C.A.R.E. Center, which rehabilitates and releases injured sea turtles back into the wild.
Henderson Beach State Park
Head to Henderson Beach State Park, a nature preserve on a protected strip of the Emerald Coast with more than a mile of scenic shoreline and rolling white sand dunes on the Gulf of Mexico. Walk the nature trail to see the last remaining coastal scrub area in Destin. Enjoy bicycling, fishing, birdwatching, swimming and seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.
Mattie Kelly Park and Nature Walk
Bordering Joe’s Bayou on Choctawhatchee Bay, Mattie Kelly Park and Nature Walk offers visitors a peek at wetlands and access to the bayou and a large fishing pier. The nature trail includes a raised boardwalk with interpretive signs overlooking marsh grasses, royal fern, muscadine and cattails. Across the wetlands area are beautiful longleaf pine, with needles that grow up to 15 inches long. The pines serve as natural habitats for many rare and endangered plants and animals.
Norriego Point is a white sand peninsula with sand dunes and sea oats that offers protected inlets with calm swimming areas. It is popular for boating, kayaking and paddle boarding.
Alaqua Animal Refuge
Alaqua Animal Refuge is a nonprofit animal sanctuary that takes in neglected and homeless animals. Located on a peaceful 10-acre farm about 20 minutes north of the Emerald Coast’s beaches, the refuge offers daily guided tours of the farm, which houses horses, donkeys, goats and cows, among other animals.
The Emerald Coast offers diverse coastal ecosystems, beaches, inland forests and more to explore. Low-impact activities will help you explore the ecological beauty in an earth-friendly way:
Try stand-up paddleboarding, known as SUP, which is popular in Destin’s calm, clear waters. There are many rental companies offering delivery and pickup, and locally made BOTE Paddle Boards offer demos in nearby Fort Walton Beach.
Nighttime Beach Walk
Interested in learning more about sea turtles and how to protect the endangered species? Join the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau for a free Nighttime Educational Beach Walk. You’ll learn how the sea turtle is vital to the area’s ecosystem and how you can help protect them.
Pack your binoculars and go birdwatching for a chance to spy terns, gulls, black skimmers, brown pelicans and several species of shorebirds, among others.
Explore the wetlands through a nature trail or boardwalk stroll to see unique plant life and wildlife.
Fish Choctawhatchee Bay’s brackish waters, a mix of fresh and salt water that supports a vital sea grass system that acts as a nursery for redfish, speckled trout, shrimp and other species. Try surf fishing, paddleboard fishing or find a quiet pier.
Paddle a segment of the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. The 1,300-mile sea kayaking journey is divided into 26 sections around the state.
Looking for an adventure on the water? Try kiteboarding, an extreme sport that combines wakeboarding and sailing, or experience the thrill of windsurfing. Glide along the Gulf of Mexico on a surfboard for an adrenaline rush. Surfing lessons are available along the coast for all experience levels.
Go shelling along the sugar-white sands of Destin’s pristine beaches. Take a shelling boat tour for a snorkeling adventure with dolphin sightings.
Scuba dive Destin’s emerald waters to explore artificial reefs, wrecks and a limestone shelf at depths of up to 90 feet. Many local dive shops offer lessons, certification classes and a variety of excursion itineraries including beginner and advanced PADI training. The East Jetty Pass is a popular spot for dive courses. Certified divers can explore Destin’s wreck alley, which is about 16 miles wide and holds about 16 vessels.
Snorkel your way through Destin’s underwater ecosystem or try SNUBA, which lets you explore underwater to depths of 20 feet and is safe for anyone age 8 and older in good health. See marine life not accessible through snorkeling alone with a certified dive instructor guide.
FOOD AND DINING
With a nickname like the “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” Destin is legendary for its fresh catch. Home to North America’s largest private charter fishing fleet in one port, Destin Harbor holds more than 140 charter vessels. The fleet brings in thousands of pounds of fish daily, with more than 20 types of edible fish. The abundant catch has inspired a unique Gulf-to-Table cuisine that supports local fishermen and the community and brings acclaimed chefs and restaurants to the area.
Want to know exactly where the fish you are being served was caught? Fish Trax tracks the info to helps consumers learn more about the seafood they eat to help communities maintain sustainable fisheries. Several restaurants, including Dewey Destin’s, LuLu’s, Jackacuda’s and Brotula’s offer this service.
Chow down on farm-to-table salads, rice bowls and other health-conscious fare at Everkrisp.
Tempt your taste buds at Cuvee Kitchen + Wine Bar, which focuses on farm-to-fork ingredients and local seafood with a seasonal menu.
Getting around Destin in an earth-friendly way is a breeze. Take advantage of ride-share companies like Uber or Lyft, use the power of your own two feet or rent a bicycle or scooter.
Explore Destin Harbor, a very walkable area with attractions, Gulf-to-Table dining and the massive Destin charter fishing fleet.
Grab some friends and take a unique, pedal-powered boat tour of Destin’s emerald waters with Salt Water Cycle Pubs. Each boat has 10 pedal stations that guests use to pedal their way along a designated route.
Rent a bicycle and cruise on over to the beach, nature trail, restaurant or store to pick up supplies. Several bike rental shops offer drop-off and pick-up service.
Looking for a little more adventure? Rent a scooter or scooter car to zip around Destin’s streets.
Take advantage of public transportation with the Emerald Coast Rider bus system, also known as E.C. Rider.
Eco-friendly lodging in Destin can be found under the stars at a campground or at a resort property that has pledged to adhere to earth-conscious practices. Do your part by reusing linens and watching your personal water consumption and energy use.
Henderson Beach State Park
Henderson Beach State Park, a nature preserve that sits directly on the Gulf of Mexico, offers 60 campsites connected to the beach via a boardwalk. There are restrooms, a shower station, grills, a playground, picnic areas and campfire circles.
Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park
Nearby Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, a sprawling 357-acre park, offers family and tent camping, nature trails, a children’s playground and boat ramps with access to Rocky Bayou, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico with year-round saltwater and freshwater fishing. There is a three-mile paved bicycling trail, a picnic pavilion overlooking the bayou and canoe and kayak rentals.
Holiday Inn Resort Fort Walton Beach is an IHG Green Engage Hotel, a world-wide sustainability effort to reduce energy, water and waste and improve environmental impact.
Green Lodging Program
The Florida Green Lodging Program has certified Residence Inn by Marriott at Sandestin and Courtyard by Marriott at Sandestin for their commitment to conserve and protect the state’s natural resources. Find an interactive map of Green Lodging here.
If you want to do your part to help beautify or preserve the fragile ecosystems of the Destin area, there are several ways to engage in volunteerism:
Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance
The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance is a nonprofit that offers volunteer opportunities in water quality monitoring, invasive plant removal, beach clean ups, used fishing line recycling and oyster reef restoration.
Friends of Emerald Coast State Parks
Friends of Emerald Coast State Parks works with Henderson Beach State Park and Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park to preserve the parks’ natural and cultural resources.
Emerald Coast Animal Refuge
The Emerald Coast Animal Refuge in Fort Walton Beach recruits volunteers for animal rescue, animal care and community education, among other needs.
Adopt-A-Dune and Adopt-A-County litter control programs are sponsored by the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department.
Enjoy Destin’s pristine beaches, serene conservation areas and wildlife viewing opportunities for an ecotourism experience of a lifetime.