By Janet K. Keeler
The coolest block in Destin is likely the very place that you’ve planted your family for a vacation. This is because there’s hardly a square inch of Destin, one of Florida’s most popular playlands, that’s not devoted to leisure-time fun.
In Destin, perched on a barrier island bounded by Choctawatchee Bay to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, cool is in the eye of the beholder. And many beholders there are. During the busy spring and summer season, the 13,000-resident population of Destin easily triples, with many visitors coming from neighboring Southern states.
Some return year after year because they consider Destin their second home. As soon as they arrive, most make a beeline for the sugar-sand beach, pulling beach-accessible wagons loaded with umbrellas, towels, shovels and buckets, coolers and plenty of sunscreen.
Destin offers activities that appeal to all sorts of visitors, including thrill seekers who want to see the sights from a fast-moving boat to others eager for a more gentle experience. That might include watching the wildlife or maybe a geochacing treasure hunt during a visit to Henderson Beach State Park. Fishing is a major draw to Destin, which is called the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” Fishing can be as simple as casting a line off a nearby pier or surf fishing for pompano or red fish. The more adventurous might book a deep-sea fishing charter and head south into the Gulf in search of grouper, amberjack and the more elusive wahoo.
Perhaps catching fish isn’t your thing, but eating it is. The Back Porch Seafood & Oyster House on scenic Highway 98 offers more than a glimpse of the culinary delights of Florida. The Back Porch, with a location in another Panhandle vacationland, Panama City Beach, claims to have invented the amberjack sandwich not long after opening its first location in 1974. That’s not the only seafood served between two pieces of bread: grouper, red snapper, mahi mahi plus crab cakes and fried oysters and shrimp take up residence there, too.
The Back Porch also tells you that Destin is about more than the fried seafood platter. As you wait for a table, and this is highly likely, listen to the host amplified over the P.A. system as tables become ready. “Smith, party of eight!” “Sanchez, party of 10!” “Taylor, party of 15!” Then watch as the Smiths, Sanchezes and Taylors parade by, multi-generations often led by the grandparents holding the hands of beloved grand ones.
These big parties don’t squeeze out the smaller ones; there are plenty of tables for two in the mix. At a busy place like the Back Porch, watching people is as much of a draw as Gulf of Mexico shrimp and scallops Alfredo or crab claw appetizer.
Once you settle on accommodations in Destin, you may be able to park the car for the duration and walk or take the public EC Rider to wherever you want to go, especially if that’s the beach. When you stay on the south side of Highway 98, you’ll be that much closer to a game of sand Frisbee or a dip in the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’ve come to Destin for the miles and miles of shopping complexes, a car with a big trunk (or an extra suitcase if you’ve flown into Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport) will be necessary to haul home the bounty you’ve scored from the dozens of national retail outlets. The beach is certainly a draw but so is the retail therapy. Harborwalk Village on the busy harbor is another place to hunt for souvenirs and survey water excursions, or find accommodations.
For a long weekend in Destin, we chose a hotel about a football field away from the Back Porch. This put us close to the beach and just across 98 from the Track Family Recreation Center. The beach, plus outdoor activities such as Segway tours and kayak and paddleboard excursions, is the main entertainment in daylight hours, but after the sun goes down, the Track calls. From bumper cars to an arcade to carnival rides to miniature golf, the Track has good-time activities for all ages, including the Taylors and their group of 15. Thrill-seekers happily line up for the Hurricane 360 or SkyFlyer rides.
After a couple hours at the Track, head back to the hotel unless there’s time for a pre-bedtime stop at the Candymaker candy store and breakfast café for homemade saltwater taffy or an ice cream cone. Since you’re in Florida you must pucker up for the key lime taffy, but there are other flavors including pina colada, watermelon, peppermint and peanut butter. The Candymaker is open seasonally from March through October. A full country breakfast is served daily 7 a.m. until noon. Candy and other sweets can be had until 10 p.m. on weekend nights; 9 p.m. during the week.
A late night at the Track puts off a stop at the Candymaker until morning. Until then, we dream about a stack of pancakes with bananas Foster topping or a heaping plate of Southern biscuits and gravy. That’s plenty to fuel hours on the beach.
With full bellies and a wagon loaded with beach accouterments, it’s time to head to the wide, white beach. The coolest blocks in Destin include surf, seafood, shopping and sweets, with a side order of sure-fire carnival fun. And there’s plenty of that to be had in this Panhandle vacation city.
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