Florida's Panhandle

Coast Into the New Year in Fort Walton Beach and Destin

Article by Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

Photography by Lance Thompson, Pamela Kleibrink Thompson

Originally published in Boise Lifestyle

When people think about Florida vacations they often imagine thrill rides in Orlando, Everglades wildlife, or Miami’s night life.  But Fort Walton Beach and Destin in the Florida panhandle provide plenty of thrills, wildlife, and night life without crowds or theme parks.

The powdery, snow-white sand of the Emerald Coast is made up of finely ground, perfectly round quartz crystals. Soft as cornstarch, the sand squeaks beneath your bare feet with every step.

Thrills await you on the Gulf.  Carouse with scalawags aboard the Buccaneer pirate cruise, scuba dive on a natural reef or parasail high over the waves. The Emerald Coast offers nautical adventure for everyone. Closer to shore you might experience the delight of a devil ray or skate encounter.           

After immersing yourself in the warm emerald water, head to one of the local eateries with panoramic waterfront views and dine on delectable seafood fresh from the Gulf. The Shack, in Fort Walton Beach, received Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice Award for being in the top 10% of restaurants in the world. Try their summer salad – a fresh spring mix topped with strawberries, mandarin orange slices, sliced red onions, candied pecans, bleu cheese crumbles and homemade strawberry balsamic vinaigrette. Or treat yourself to the Firecracker Shrimp Tacos drizzled with spicy remoulade sauce and a side of lemon dill rice at The Back Porch, a Destin tradition since 1974.

Military tradition is strong in the area. The Navy’s Blue Angels home base is in nearby Pensacola. The fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird, is the centerpiece at the Air Force Armament Museum. Other warbirds housed in the museum include a Mustang and Thunderbolt from WWII. 

Birds of a different kind soar in the Panhandle’s skies, including the great blue heron. The rookery in Veterans Park on Okaloosa Island is home to nearly 200 species. Follow the Women Veterans Memorial pathway to view life-size bronze sculptures by Jon Hair which honor eight women who made significant military service contributions throughout U.S. history.

At Henderson Beach State Park look for black-chinned hummingbirds, piping plovers, American oystercatchers and more.

Hear a different kind of warbling from musicians, such as Elvis Costello and Rosanne Cash, at the 30A Songwriters Festival from January 12 - 15, 2024.

With entertainment options including comedy shows, a touch of magic, or live music, Fort Walton Beach’s nightlife is vibrant.

Every Saturday, The Block offers a night of laughs. On Wednesday, electric slide your way across the dance floor. 
The longest running magic show on the Gulf Coast, Maximum Magic at HarborWalk Theater in Destin, features Noah and Heather Wells, who were awarded the Merlin Award, magic’s equivalent to the Oscar.

Enjoy local and regional artists at Downtown Music Hall on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, January 21, check out singer/songwriter Nick Horton.

The Island Resort at Fort Walton Beach hosts bonfires on the beach, live music and karaoke.

Game for something different? Try vintage PacMan or Mario Kart on a Nintendo 64 at The Rad Bar. Sample some different games like indoor hacky sack and giant Jenga while tasting a craft beer at the Salty Duck. 

After sundown, join the hunt for ghost crabs and sea turtles. Pick up a free flashlight with a red filter (to avoid disturbing turtles with bright lights) at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Visitor’s Welcome Center. Four types of sea turtles nest in the area from May 1st through October 31st: Loggerhead, Green, Kemp’s Ridley, and Leatherback.

Whether your dream vacation is to fish, snorkel, golf, or do nothing at all, the Emerald Coast has it all. 

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