There’s no place I’d rather be than Destin, Florida.
Growing up, my family took an annual pilgrimage to this bustling beach town on the Florida Panhandle each August, packing into our Volvo station wagon in the wee hours of the morning and making the 11-hour trek from Austin in one fell swoop.
Even though I now make that same annual pilgrimage with my own kids, I still feel a rush of excitement each time we approach town and spy the sign that greets visitors: “Welcome to Destin, the world’s luckiest fishing village.”
Destin is best explored over the course of a lingering week or two, but if your time is limited due to busy schedules, as ours was during our August visit, it’s also doable to get a taste of this tourist town’s sights and sounds in a long weekend. If you’re considering a trip to the Florida Panhandle, here are some highlights of what to see and do in Destin.
Beaches: The crystal-clear waters and the sugar-white sands are what keep people coming back to Destin year after year, and for easy access to those award-winning beaches, start at Henderson Beach State Park, which offers direct beach access with ample parking and restrooms. James Lee Park Beach is another free public access point with lots of parking.
Do: You can’t come to the world’s luckiest fishing village, as Destin is also known, without fishing, and multiple companies offer deep-sea fishing options that range from a few hours to full day trips. The Swoop II Party Boat, which we took, offers trips starting at $95 per person. We loved the Swoop’s attentive staff, who made sure that even the littlest members of our party reeled something in. Another water-related pastime in Destin is parasailing, and the aptly named Just Chute Me! will have you soaring through the skies in no time. In order to get a true history of Destin, which was founded in the mid-1800s, visit the Destin History and Fishing Museum, where you can learn about the people, fish and boats that made Destin what it is today. Beached out? You can still make a splash at Big Kahuna’s Water and Adventure Park, a Schitterbahn-esque waterpark home to everything from whirling slides to putt-putt courses. And for those seeking a break from the heat but who still want to incorporate a beach theme, bowling a round or two at Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl and Grill – which is decorated to make you feel as though you’re knocking over pins inside a giant aquarium – is the place to go.
Shop: On rainy days, there’s no better place to go shopping than Destin, which features a variety of places to splurge. One family favorite is Banana Bart’s, a quirky gift shop housed inside a bright yellow cottage perfect for grabbing a trinket, a souvenir or a present for the pet sitter. For boogie boards, Destin sweatshirts or airbrushed sanddollars, stop by Alvin’s Island, which has multiple locations along the Panhandle. For brand-name shopping sprinkled with local flavor, spend an afternoon at Destin Commons, where you’ll find stores ranging from Sephora and Forever 21 to Bass Pro Shops and Foot Locker. For outlet shoppers, visit Silver Sands Premium Outlets, home to shops such as the Disney Store Outlet, the NIKE Factory Store and Kate Spade New York Outlet.
Eat: One rite of passage for all visitors to Destin is a stop by the Donut Hole, where breakfast and, namely, doughnuts, are the order of the day. A staple since 1978, this part-bakery, part-diner locale gets crowded quickly, so expect to wait if you stop by during peak times like weekend mornings. It’s worth the wait, though, for the decadent doughnuts, pastries and cakes. For lunch with a unique side of quirk, head to Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar and Grill, where all things alligator take center stage. You can hold an alligator, feed an alligator, and, oddly, eat an alligator – the menu includes alligator sausage, an alligator burger and even a fried alligator tail. Sounds weird, I know, but you have to see it to believe it. For a lingering beachside dinner reminiscent of Margaritaville, check out LuLu’s Destin, which is, in fact, owned by Jimmy Buffet’s sister, Lucy. The menu is wide and allergy friendly, and the vibe, from the daily live music to the little beach where kids can play while their parents sip drinks at the beach bar, is unforgettable.
Stay: The Sailfish Yacht Club offers large condos on the bay side of town – kids will love spending evenings catching fish and crabbing on the wide outdoor deck. The hi-rise Jade East Towers is beachfront and beautifully appointed, ideal for families who plan to spend a great deal of time in the waves.