Looking for a beautiful, affordable place to take the whole family for a fun-filled vacation? Emerald Coast Florida might be it. From emerald-green waters and powdery white-sand beaches to world-class fishing and exotic gourmet dining, there’s something for everyone in the friendly seaside towns of Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island. If you’re bored on the Emerald Coast, it’s only because you choose to be.
The Best Beaches in the South
Covered with pure white Appalachian quartz ground to a fine powder over the millennia, the 24-mile Okaloosa County coastline has some of the softest sand you’ll ever feel seep through your toes. Equally stunning are the clear emerald-green waters. Completing the picture are stretches of rolling sand dunes dotted with sea oats and sand pines that provide refuge for sandpipers, egrets, and other coastal birds. These are beaches the way nature intended: pristine and beautiful. And thanks to the combined efforts of the Okaloosa County Environmental Council and the Tourist Development Council, these beaches will stay that way forever: Sixty percent of the beaches are protected by law and will never be developed. Rigorous clean-up schedules also ensure that 195 acres of seashore remain debris-free so that families can frolic in the sand and sea without worry.
Safety for All
Safety is a major concern in Okaloosa County. The locals work their hardest to protect their guests, the environment, and the local wildlife. Every day the Park Service posts flags so swimmers know where it’s safe to bathe. The color-coded flag system makes it simple: Blue means it’s safe to swim; yellow means exercise caution; and red means danger, with no swimming allowed. On shore, the Park Service prohibits littering, glass, fires, animals, and vehicles, rules which help to maintain the sand’s snowy-white appearance.
Human safety isn’t all that concerns Okaloosa County. The locals recognize that the beaches are their most-valued asset and they work hard to protect them. The Dune Restoration Project supports the planting of sea oats and other vegetation that strengthen the dunes against the sometimes destructive forces of wind and water. Visitors are expected to heed the strict laws that protect the safety of endangered sea turtles, so you should avoid disturbing these gentle creatures and their nests. By following these simple rules, humans and nature can peacefully coexist in a unique environment that is safe for all.
World-Class Fishing and Other Water Adventures
If you and the kids are looking for adventure away from the beach, there are plenty of affordable possibilities located in the shallows near Choctawhatchee Bay. Parasailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, and snorkeling are just a few of the activities the whole family can enjoy. If fishing is your desire, Destin is the place for you. It serves as a harbor to over 140 vessels that offer deep-sea, inshore, and bottom fishing for as little as $25 a half-day. Fish for red snapper, grouper, amberjack, and triggerfish. Or, hunt big-game fish such as blue marlin, dolphin fish, wahoo, and blackfin tuna.
Looking for something more relaxing? Another affordable adventure is a three-hour excursion aboard the historical Nathaniel Bowditch. Perched on the bowsprit of this 54-foot traditionally rigged steel schooner, you and the kids can stand watch as dolphins playfully race the craft. Later, when the sun fades into tangerine skies, and the emerald waters deepen into sapphire blue, enjoy a romantic wine cruise at sunset.
If a day on the water is not your idea of a fun vacation, never fear. Okaloosa County has wonderful museums, great shopping, and one of America’s oldest free-standing aquariums. Visit the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum and see over two dozen planes up-close, as well as a fighter-cockpit simulator. Nearby, you can journey through 10,000 years of Native American history at the Indian Temple Mound and Museum. And for those who love a hands-on experience, there’s the Focus Center children’s fantasy science museum. Great shopping is just minutes away, too. Visit the wonderful shops at Silver Sands Factory Stores or pick up some fun tourist trinkets at any of the local Alvin’s Island stores.
No trip to the Emerald Coast would be complete without a trip to the Gulfarium-home to Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, tropical penguins, and turtles. Begin your visit by attending the Dolphin Show where Princess, Panama, and Delilah perform aquatic dances and other daring acrobatic feats, to the delight of audiences young and old. Head down to the Living Sea where a 150-year-old turtle teases a scuba diver who educates the audience about underwater life. Listen to a saltwater serenade as the Sea Lions perform their own music and acrobatics at the Sea Lion show. End your visit with the Multi-Species Show where dolphins and sea lions play together to demonstrate their strength and gymnastic agility.
Exotic, Family-Friendly Gourmet Dining
When the sun goes down, there are over 400 family-friendly restaurants to choose from. If it’s exotic fare that entices the family, head to Nigel Manley’s World Grill & Microbrewery to enjoy an ostrich steak while the kids feast on a burger and then escape the adults to play on the jungle gym outside. If seaside dining is more to your liking, feast on crab at the Back Porch. Missing the game on TV? Drop by the Angler’s Beachside Grill and Sports Bar. If you’re heading back from a day at sea the Lucky Snapper is a wonderfully convenient choice for delectable seafood dishes. Craving Italian? Enjoy the charming Neapolitan atmosphere and delicious hearty pasta dishes at Café Grazie–all at a price that won’t break the bank.
Whatever your pleasure, you’re certain to find something for you in the seaside towns of Destin, Ft. Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island. The Emerald Coast is truly a gem of a place.