Florida travel: White beaches and an emerald sea make Destin Fort Walton an ideal destination
Balance has never been one of my strong points, and standing on a board, paddling along Florida’s Choctawhatchee Bay initially proved a little too tricky.
The children had both mastered the skills - as had my wife - but for me, it took a little longer, under the watchful eye of our paddle boarding expert Harrison.
Soon, however, the four of us, along with our guide, were exploring the inlets of the tranquil bay just off the state’s Emerald Coast.
Harrison started up his paddle-board business at the height of the Covid pandemic but has never looked back, welcoming scores of Americans and other tourists to the water.
We were staying in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach region - a popular destination for Americans due to its powder-white beaches, green-blue sea and natural beauty.
After an hour or so spotting the birdlife along with the region’s highest priced properties from our water’s edge view it was time to return to shore and sample the region’s seafood cuisine.
Our destination was popular hotspot Lulu’s - where we joined boaters, boarders and families to tuck in to crab, shrimp and tuna, along with nachos, pulled pork and grits - a local favourite.
Lulu’s offers fun, food and music and attracts tourists and locals to its waterside location.
Boasting ‘good cookin’ served with a Southern flair’, it’s easy to see why the hotspot draws the crowds.
The resorts along Florida’s Panhandle coast are known for their miles of white beaches leading to the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Henderson Beach Resort
Our hotel - the Henderson Beach Resort - was just minutes from the beach and combined a traditional luxury feel with the modern amenities which made our stay special.
The resort recalls Destin’s history as The World's Luckiest Fishing Village with black and white images from the past lining its walls.
Our room boasted comfortable beds plus a bath and separate shower and a large covered balcony overlooking the resort’s pool and lazy river and across to the sea.
To one side stretched the mix of beachfront properties with their balconies and pools; to the other the Henderson Beach State Park reaching down to the sea.
As well as its adult and family pools, the hotel also has a fitness suite, spa and a variety of restaurants and bars ranging from fine dining in the Primrose to Sea Level meals and cocktails by the pool. There is also a rooftop bar where you can enjoy views of the sunset across Destin.
The hotel has its own access to the beach where guests can hire sunloungers and parasols and lie back and listen to the relaxing sound of the waves lapping the shore.
Henderson Resort sales and marketing director Andrew Lott says the hotel’s spectacular surroundings are a big attraction for guests.
“The beaches, the sand, the colour of the water - it’s the biggest thing people talk about when they come to this area,” he explained. “And for us it’s about the service - and we have to make sure the service is delivering this luxury experience.
“We see ourselves set apart from others in the market.”
The hotel is now five years old and its new owners, who took over in February, are now reinvesting in the property with holiday apartments being built around a new pool complex.
We also took the opportunity to jump on bikes provided by the hotel to explore the area along the Scenic 98 coastal route.
The quiet coastal route - parallel to the busy main road through the area - runs past villas and apartment blocks looking out to the sea.
Heading inland you reach the Destin Commons outdoor shopping centre which offers a range of stores plus music and entertainment. Our ride took us further along the coast to the Silver Sands outlet centre - ideal for picking up a luxury bargain.
The Crab Trap
Just along from the Henderson Resort is the Crab Trap seafood restaurant, which offers Gulf to table delicacies and is a must for those staying in the area with its beachside location and sea views.
Our waiter Joseph, who had served at the popular restaurant for 17 years, recommended the hot crab and shrimp dip to start which was creamy and delicious, and we followed this with Gulf grouper and Southern-style crab cakes - a perfect taste of the restaurant’s Gulf-to-table menu. The children were a little less adventurous, opting for burgers and fries.
The key lime pie was a must to finish as we sat looking out to sea and watching those still enjoying the day’s final minutes on the beach as the sun went down.
The Crab Trap says it is fully committed to bringing only the freshest seafood directly from the Gulf with deliveries arriving daily straight from the harbour.
The Florida Panhandle stretches 200 miles with the Emerald coast including cities such as Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City and Pensacola.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach
The Destin-Fort Walton Beach region draws tourists from across the States but has much to offer those from further afield including the UK especially as part of a tour of Florida or the USA as a whole.
The area describes itself as a natural playground for water adventurers - offering swimming, snorkelling, ‘snuba’ and boating.
Today, considered as one of America’s premier beach destinations, the area started as a small fishing village built around what is now known as Destin Harbor.
And what started as a group of fishermen casting close to the shore with nets from small boats in the mid 19th century has now evolved into what is the USA’s largest charter fishing fleet - operated by men and women tracing their lineage in the area back more than 150 years.
One of Destin’s popular attractions is the Harbor Boardwalk with its bustling stretch of shops, bars and restaurants along the waterfront. It is a focus for dining, harbour excursions and entertainment.
Here we met artist Kelly Pierre who moved to Destin from South Louisiana where his family owned shrimp boats. He told how despite loving a life on the water and his family seeing his future as a seafarer, his heart was in creating and painting.
Now with a studio on the Boardwalk, Kelly’s painting is inspired by his Louisiana heritage, his childhood and his faith.
One of Kelly’s biggest works is a two-storey painting of a pelican - the state bird of Louisiana - on the side of the Boardwalk’s East Pass Seafood & Oyster House, which he proudly showed to us and where we enjoyed lunch.
East Pass Seafood & Oyster House
East Pass opens out onto the harbour and Destin bridge and you can watch the lively tourist boats arriving and departing as you eat.
Chef Lynn told us that much of the fish is locally sourced and prepared. He recommended the Blackened Nola redfish which was delicious and was served with shrimps, courgette strips and a creamy sauce.
The children’s Butcher’s Burger was served with bacon jam - made by reducing the bacon and adding sugar and apple cider vinegar - pickles and fries.
All this was followed by the obligatory key lime pie and Oreo cookies and cream cheesecake.
Southern Star Dolphin Cruise
After lunch it was time for a tour of the Boardwalk shops before boarding a sunset dolphin cruise on the Southern Star.
The 80-foot double deck, glass bottom boat, took us out into the harbour and towards the open sea in search of dolphins. The crew boast that over 99 per cent of their cruises catch sight of dolphins - and we weren’t disappointed.
As the captain navigated the boat keeping us informed of what he spotted on the water as well as the coastline, we kept our eyes peeled for the initially illusive mammals.
But after heading out towards the Gulf, we soon spotted the magnificent creatures and were seeing them leap out of the water alongside the boat.
“I get paid to do this five times a day, and every time I see a dolphin jump I get as excited as if it was the first time,” said one of the team. And it was clear to see that she meant it.
The hour-and-a-half trip gave plenty of time to enjoy refreshments and get a view of Destin from the water as well as spotting the wildlife, before heading back to dry land for a spectacular firework display over the harbour as the sun went down over Destin.
We flew to Atlanta with Virgin Atlantic and then travelled to Destin by car - about a five-hour drive. Alternatively, you can fly from Atlanta to Destin-Fort Walton Beach.
Full details of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area can be found at www.destinfwb.com.
Rates at the Henderson Beach Resort start at $289 a night in February rising to $459 a night in June and July. See www.hendersonbeachresort.com.
Holiday Extras offers a range of parking options at Manchester Airport. Three weeks’ parking with Drop & Go is available from £103.49. Visit www.HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 316 5678. Prices were searched on August 30, 2022 for arrival on February 6, 2023.