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Fun For All On Florida’s Emerald Coast

World’s luckiest fishing village

By Elizabeth Anthony

If paradise at an easy pace is the kind of place you prefer when you vacation, then Florida’s Emerald Coast is calling your name. This gem of a get-away is well within reach (two hours from Houston by air; 10 hours by car straight down I-10), and no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll find friendly faces, fantastic accommodations, and lots of fun.

The Emerald Coast (Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island) features 24 miles of irresistible sugar-white sands and sparkling emerald green waters and boasts breathtakingly beautiful beaches. Acclaimed as the “Number One Beach Town in the South” by the readers of Southern Living for 14 years in a row, the water here is illuminated to a brilliant emerald green by the whiteness of the sand. These sprawling shores provide ample seating for performances by dancing dolphins and sandpipers, as well as postcard-perfect sunrises and sunsets over the Gulf – compliments of Mother Nature.

The easy pace of life is alluring in its Southern charm and likewise, its seasons are pure Deep South — sensational springs, warm summer days and cool winter evenings — for tempting temperatures year-round. While doing as little as possible is the primary goal along the Emerald Coast, visitors also enjoy teeing off on 1,080 challenging holes of famous golf, fishing from Florida’s largest charter boat fleet for the elusive big blue, sailing in the emerald-flecked surf and bronzing on powder-white shores.

As you can well imagine, lots of the area’s fun begins at the beach. Although the shorelines are swept bare, an aquarium of treasures from sea horses to cockles, clams and striped cowries can be discovered about a mile out. A miracle of nature makes Florida’s Emerald Coast a favorite for aquatic adventures. The underwater 100 Fathom Curve draws closer to Destin than to any other spot in Florida — creating the speediest deepwater access on the Gulf, so exceptional snorkeling and diving are possible close inshore — a rarity. Pontooning, parasailing, waterskiing, sailing and windsurfing are additional Gulf and Choctawhatchee Bay water escapades.

If fishing is more your sport, then you should know that Destin’s East Pass, hailed as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” is only 10 miles from 100-foot depths. Harboring the largest and most elaborately equipped charter boat fleet in Florida, more billfish are caught each year on the Northern Gulf than all other Gulf ports combined. The game fish are also of the widest variety on the Gulf, from cobia and tarpon to triggerfish and king mackerel. Whether you’re a seasoned “old-salt” or a first-timer, there are numerous deep-sea excursions — offshore, bottom, inshore and others.

Acclaimed for its collection of great golf escapes, the area tees up an incredible 1,080 holes. Challenging links designed by world-renowned architects as Finger, Dye and Fazio, utilize the surrounding waters – bay, bayou, gulf and sound – and natural contrasts of woods and wetlands for scenic, yet challenging, oppositions. The popular courses of the Emerald Coast are reasonably priced and pure pleasure to play year-round. Avid golfers will want to visit the Sandestin® Golf & Beach Resort. It’s four championship golf courses; Baytowne Golf Club, Raven Golf Club, Burnt Pine Golf Club and The Links Course; which are all spectacular. This is the ultimate golf resort in sunny Destin, Florida. For tee times, call ahead 850-267-8155. www.sandestin.com

Those with a taste for tennis will be equally tantalized with the more than 100 courts that dot the area.

Festival lovers, too, will never be disappointed. From peg-legged, patch-eyed pirates and kaleidoscope-colored sailing regattas to scrumptious seaside seafood fests, Native American celebrations, and  more than 300 annual special events, guarantee a continuous calendar of fun. Beach town bashes range from the Billy Bowlegs Festival and Mardi Gras celebration to the month-long October Destin Fishing Rodeo and Emerald Coast Boat Week, including the famous Poker Run.

A collection of area attractions celebrates simplicity with fun “flip-flop” museums and amusements from marine to military. Florida’s Gulfarium hosts everything from 600-pound gray seals to two-ounce clown fish in 14 intriguing exhibits. The crowd-pleasing Dolphin Show features bottlenose dolphins jumping 18 feet above the water’s surface. Patriotic pleasure is found at the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum.

The Heritage Park & Cultural Center – guarded by the largest ancient (1400 A.D.) mound by saltwater — journeys through 10,000 years of over 6,000 ceramic artifacts from four prehistoric tribes. For more whimsical fun, the Emerald Coast Science Center is a child’s science fantasy.

Blackwater River State Forest and Eglin Reservation offer tubing and canoeing down crystal-clear rivers and camping and hiking amid acres of pine, hickory and maple. Area amusement parks are additionally a popular source of family fun with dune buggy races, bumper boats, water parks and slides and putt-putt golf.

Emerald Coast restaurants serve some of the freshest seafood in Florida. A variety of tasty fish (from amberjack and red snapper to yellowfin tuna) is always available for savoring during any one season. Bordering the Gulf, harbor, bay or bayou, more than 400 culinary characters — from cedar seafood shacks, lighthouse-bedecked oyster bars and tiki-topped harbor decks to gracious antebellum estates and elegant Gulf-air cafes — shrug off sophistication (required “dress code” is flip-flops and beach tops in most cases) and showcase local seafood celebrities with pure unbridled zest. Looking for fine dining? Visit the Beach Walk Cafe, located in the Henderson Park Inn Bed & Breakfast. They offer great local fish, superb steaks and fantastic desserts. www.HendersonParkInn.com.

As for accommodations, the Emerald Coast sparkles in this realm as well. Surprisingly, Destin/Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island accommodations provide priceless beach vacations without the price. More than 14,000 Gulf-edged rooms are available including popular hotels, spacious condominiums, a bed and breakfast inn, beach cottages and five-bedroom bungalows. The area can even accommodate guests at one of the four campgrounds.

Some noteworthy options are found via ResortQuest, one of the nation’s leading vacation rental hospitality and resort real estate companies, and a part of the Wyndham Vacation Rentals brand. They will handle all aspects of your stay, from booking to check-in to housekeeping. ResortQuest offers a choice of approximately 2,000 luxury condominiums, townhomes or villas along the Emerald Coast, all directly on the beach or across the street from the beach and each with amazing views and easy access to all the dining and entertainment the area has to offer. www.resortquest.com

The Azure Condominiums, a newer property on Okaloosa Island, is a favorite. This Gulf-front Mediterranean paradise features three- or four-bedroom units with floor-to-ceiling patio doors, spacious patios and upscale appointments, which include gorgeous granite countertops and big whirlpool tubs. Visitors love the two large pools — each with its own hot tub, a Spray Park for the young or young-at-heart, an exercise room and the beautiful boardwalk to the beach. www.azurecondominiums.com

Seaside savings are year-round with exceptional bargains September through February. Additional visitor information is available by visiting www.emeraldcoastfl.com or calling the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Inc. at 800-322-3319 or 850-651-7131.

Photos supplied/Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast CVB.

Sparkling water, white sandy beaches

Sandcastle fun

The Links Course at Sandestin

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