By Kellilynn Hann
Destin, Florida. Known for its white sand beaches, crystal-clear ocean and exceptional fishing, this Panhandle town is the most popular destination on Florida’s Emerald Coast, drawing about 3.6 million visitors each year.
One of the brightest jewels in Destin’s crown is Crab Island, a submerged sandbar in Choctawhatchee Bay, five minutes by boat from Destin Harbor. Covered in just 1-4 feet of water that’s brilliant turquoise during high tide and clear emerald green the rest of the time, it’s like a four-acre swimming pool where visitors can wade, snorkel, play and relax.
Heather Thomas, co-owner of Destin Vacation Boat Rentals, has been doing business in the area for 14 years. “Nearly everyone who rents a boat in Destin stops at Crab Island,” she says. “It’s a fun and beautiful place.”
In the past, there were a lot of floating businesses on the island, selling everything from food and cocktails to T-shirts and floaties. New regulations, however, have changed what’s available to visitors.
“It’s caused a lot of confusion,” said Thomas. “People are expecting to visit the same vendors they have in the past, but they’re not there anymore.”
For example, the floating music stage, larger restaurants, and the giant Inflatable obstacle course are gone.
Further changes are on the horizon as the National Park Service is considering banning all commercial activity at Crab Island in 2022, Thomas said.
“If you’ve never been to Crab Island or wanted to go again, this may be the last year you can get the ‘full experience.. Book your boat rentals early, because news is spreading fast!”
So, what can you expect on your visit? Here’s a guide to planning your vacation to Crab Island for this season and beyond.
Getting to Crab Island
First and foremost, you cannot swim to Crab Island. It’s farther from shore than it looks and there are strong currents. Luckily, there are plenty of watercraft options to get you there safely — and don’t require a boater’s license.
The most popular rentals are pontoon boats because they’re stable, easy to drive, and comfortably carry 10-12 people. Some are even double-decker with slides. If you want to explore the waters around the sandbar and plan only a short stop at Crab Island, speed boats and jet skis are available for rent as well.
If you’re the type who prefers to let the experts handle the details, consider one of these tours:
Destin Vacation Boat Rentals offers a Crab Island Adventure Tour that covers everything from parking to play. Enjoy unlimited use of clear-bottom kayaks, paddleboards, snorkeling gear and their exclusive inflatable playground in the Gulf Islands National Seashore before heading over to experience Crab Island. They also have a transportation-only shuttle to and from Crab Island.
Crab Island Pontoons offers tours for up to six people on a double decker pontoon boat with slide. Rental includes a licensed captain, a cooler of ice, paddleboards, water toys, snorkel masks, inflatables and more.
Crab Island Cruises is a charter service for up to six people that lets you customize your trip. Take a tour of Destin Harbor, look for dolphins, go snorkeling, or spend the whole day on Crab Island— you decide! They provide a certified captain, cooler of ice, bottled water, floating mats and volleyball nets, beer pong, and more.
Fun for Everyone
Once you drop anchor at Crab Island, you have a variety of options depending on the type of day you want.
Cyndi Cramblett, TV host and author of the travel blog, Postcards to Me, visited Crab Island with three friends.
“It was a very lively, fun day," Cramblett said. "We rented a pontoon boat, brought our own alcoholic drinks, and arrived at high tide when the water was very pretty. It looked like the Caribbean! We enjoyed watching everyone play.”
Cramblett and her friends spent the whole day on the sandbar, alternating between wading, floating, and relaxing on the boat. “I’ve traveled all over the world and Crab Island is definitely a unique experience," she said. "If you’re looking to chill in paradise, I highly recommend it.”
Crab Island’s clear, shallow water is also perfect for kids.
Christina Ropp, author of Littles, Life & Laughter blog, visited Crab Island with her young children.
“My daughter was five at the time and my son was two,” Ropp explained. “We rented a pontoon boat with a canopy and docked on the outer edge where it was quieter. There were tons of families where we were.”
“My daughter could stand up in the water and we brought our own floaties. We waded over to the ice cream stand and bought some snacks from some of the vendors on the little boats.”
Ropp and her family also docked the boat on a strip of sand a few feet off the west edge of Crab Island where tours often stop for snorkeling. “We walked around a bit and found some great shells,” she said. “People always ask me where I got those shells — that’s the secret place!”
“I definitely recommend Crab Island to families,” she said. “We had a great time. The kids are always asking to go back.”
Travel Tips and What to Bring
Sun protection — Bring sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and a lightweight shirt. You can rent a boat with canopy for much-needed shade.
Food and drink — Alcohol is no longer sold at Crab Island, but you’re free to bring your own (no glass containers). For the 2021 season you can still purchase food, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. Bring cash and don’t forget a bag for trash.
Safety — If you plan to drink alcohol, have a designated driver. Locals recommend bringing some rope to tie your floatie to the boat so you don’t drift away while enjoying your nap. For kids, the weakest currents are on the northwest side closest to the Coast Guard station.
Fun — Bring your water toys! Think personal or group floaties, a frisbee, football, boogie boards, snorkel mask, floating cooler, RC boats. Note: Destin Vacation Boat Rentals’ Crab Island Adventure Tour is currently the only one with an inflatable obstacle course, and it’s only for tour guests.
Crab Island’s Future
The National Park Service is still deciding the future of Crab Island. The main concern is that it has been an important nursery for marine life, but overuse has damaged or destroyed important seagrass beds. Therefore, it’s highly likely their Commercial Services Strategy, which they aim to complete by 2022, will limit or totally ban all commercial activity on the island.
Although these regulations mean Crab Island won’t be what it once was, it’s still a place well worth visiting.
“The changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Heather Thomas. “We’ve all gotten so used to being entertained every second, it’s good to pare back — just go out, drop anchor, and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.”
The return of the seagrass will also increase wildlife, giving you a better chance of spotting cow nose rays, fish, dolphins, sea turtles and crabs.
It looks like no matter when you go, your Crab Island experience will still be magical.
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