By Kevin McGeever
The drive from Dallas to Florida is 650 miles of east Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and then, thankfully, 50 miles of Florida vacation heaven.
The temptation on this scenic homestretch from Pensacola to Destin might be to push on. After all, you’re so close to the finish line.
But let’s face it: Our job here is to suggest a Northwest Florida alternative or two or three. So take some notes.
Add a day or more to the front end of this road trip and consider some of these thrilling possibilities:
- Florida has 26 scenic highways, three of them in the Panhandle and two a short drive from Destin. The 11-mile Pensacola Scenic Bluffs Highway features elevated views of Escambia Bay flanked by longleaf pine trees and live oaks. Scenic Highway 30A to the east of Destin is a leisurely, coast-hugging tour of lovely South Walton beach towns such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Alys Beach.
- The Blue Angels, the aerial acrobats and proud symbols of Top Gun combat pilots, are visible in the skies over Pensacola Naval Air Station a couple dozen days or more a year for shows and practices.
- Perdido Key is the westernmost beach in Florida and the Flora-Bama Lounge straddles the Florida-Alabama state line. The 1964 roadhouse “is part concert venue, oyster restaurant, Gulf Coast beach bar, and competition space. Oh, and it hosts a church service every Sunday.”
- Palafox Street, cited on an 1812 street plan as Calle de Palafox, is the historic heart of downtown Pensacola. From that colonial beginning, Palafox now includes “boutiques and retail shops, casual and fine dining, art and culture, and live music and theatrical venues, all residing within a harmonious blend of historical architectural styles.”
- You will exit Pensacola to the south and pick up Highway 98 heading east. Welcome to some of the greatest beaches in the world. The white quartz sand is a massage for the feet, crunching with each step like fresh snow. The gentle Gulf of Mexico surf transitions in color from glass-bottle green to emerald. More to come on the beaches. Read on.
You can create your own Florida travel itinerary for driving from Dallas to Destin with the VISIT FLORIDA planning tool -- but here are some more thought starters on what you can appreciate on your road trip through the Sunshine State, and what to expect when you reach the Emerald Coast.
Distance from Dallas to Destin: approximately 700 miles (1,127 kilometers).
Driving time: 11-12 hours.
Best route(s): I-20 east to US 49 to US 98 to I-10 to SR 281 to US 98.
Fuel costs: use this calculator.
Charging stations: plot your course on Plugshare.
Rest areas: Interstate 20.
Alternative transportation: Greyhound to Fort Walton Beach. Travel time 18-20 hours.
PLACES TO STOP ALONG THE WAY
Here are some Florida things to do from west to east, as well as the distances from Destin and the addresses of each point of interest, so you can program them into your GPS.
National Naval Aviation Museum
1878 S Blue Angel Parkway, Pensacola
Pensacola is naval aviation’s birthplace, with roots dating to 1913. The museum has flight simulators, a 3D ride, and IMAX movies, but at its heart are the 150 restored aircraft -- fighters like the World War II Hellcat and monsters like the C-130 Hercules. The best part? Admission is free.
Time allowance: 4 hours.
Distance from Destin: 56 miles (90 kilometers).
Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens
3182 Taylor Road, Pensacola (Barrancas)
1400 Fort Pickens Road, Pensacola Beach (Pickens)
Native tribes (Choctaw, Apalachee, and Pensacola) lived here first. In 1559, six years before St. Augustine was settled, Spanish sailor Don Tristan de Luna sailed into what is now called Pensacola Bay. The first Catholic Mass in the New World was held on Pensacola Beach in August of that year. The Spanish settlement was lost in a hurricane, but in the next 300 years the flags of five nations would fly here. Forts Barrancas and Pickens were critical chess pieces in the Civil War fight over Pensacola’s deep harbor.
Time allowance: 4 hours each.
Distance from Destin: 53-55 miles (85-88 kilometers).
USS Oriskany, World’s Largest Artificial Reef
30° 02.600'N; 87° 00.400'W
Two of Tristan de Luna’s galleons sank in Santa Rosa Sound in that 1559 hurricane and are the focus of an ongoing archaeological exploration. Certified divers in search of sunken ships needn’t travel far offshore the northwest Florida coast to access exciting artificial reef opportunities. Chief among them is the aircraft carrier Oriskany, the length of three football fields and the centerpiece of the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail.
Time allowance: 2 days.
Distance from Destin: 47 miles (75 kilometers).
Gulf Islands National Seashore
1801 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze
The national seashore is one of the few places in Florida where campers can set up right on the beach. Reaching the campsite requires a healthy hike on sand or a boat trip, but the reward is a front-row seat in one of nature’s cathedrals. And if you consider yourself an eco-friendly traveler, try these Pensacola experiences.
Time allowance: 2 days.
Distance from Destin: 39 miles (62 kilometers).
WELCOME TO DESTIN
Destin is the popular star of Northwest Florida’s roster of all-star beaches.
Navarre. Fort Walton Beach. Henderson Beach. Miramar. Topsail Hill. Santa Rosa Beach. Grayton Beach.
They are spectacularly the same -- a tricolor treat of white sand, emerald sea, and blue sky, a paddler’s playground, a forced feeding of relaxation.
They are also distinctive -- coastal dune lakes, family attractions, state parks, and retail-residential communities with bookstores, coffee shops, and food trucks.
We dare you to try a new one each day and celebrate the differences.
Long before Destin became an international vacation destination, it was the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” As luck would have it, Destin comes closest to the 100-fathom curve of the Gulf of Mexico -- just 10 miles offshore -- and thus offers the fastest access to deep-sea fishing in Florida. It’s no surprise then that since the early 1800s, Destin has had one of the largest recreational fishing fleets in the world. Charter boats are plentiful and the odds are reasonable that you can take your fresh catch straight from the dock to the chef’s table.
Off the beach and the Gulf, the family entertainment is bountiful, with indoor and outdoor attractions in Destin and Fort Walton Beach.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, a Fort Walton Beach roadside attraction overlooking the Gulf of Mexico for 60 years, targets kids 3 years and older -- that is, pretty much everybody. Touch tanks make it possible for kids to pet hermit crabs, starfish and stingrays. Exhibits feature otters, sea lions, exotic birds, penguins, and turtles.
Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park has 40 water play areas with huge slides, a wave pool and lazy river. There are also fountains and low-depth pools for toddlers.
The Track is a three-story wooden go-kart course, plus thrill rides, an arcade, miniature golf, an old-fashioned carousel, Ferris wheel, and bumper boats with water cannons.
Harborwalk Village is Destin’s waterfront showcase. The food options and shopping are plentiful, plus the Village is a headquarters for rentals of paddle boards, kayaks, pontoon, jet skis, parasailing, glass-bottom boats, dolphin cruises, and pirate ship excursions.
Alternative transportation is available for eco-friendly visitors interested in the four nearby state parks, the coastal dune lakes, and Okaloosa and Walton counties’ numerous natural experiences.
The point is, Dallas friends, plan accordingly. Enjoy your drive to Destin by stopping along the way.
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