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The towns of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island anchor the busy 39-kilometre stretch of coastline known as the Emerald Coast. The museums, condos and fishing attract snowbirds by the boatload, while families come for the myriad of high octane attractions to keep kids busy.
The coastline’s trademark sugar-white sand is made up of pure Appalachian quartz and stays cool even in the heat of summer. It’s that same high quartz content that gives the water its signature emerald green colour by reflecting sunlight back up through the surf.
In the mid-1800s, Choctawhatchee Bay’s claim to fame was the birth of charter fishing in the Panhandle region. With that launch, a healthy charter fishing industry was off and running and the area never looked back. In recent days, charter fishing in Destin and Fort Walton Beach continues to be a huge draw for visitors – Destin Harbor is home to the largest fishing charter fleet in Florida.
The big draw on the Emerald Coast is the water – kayaking, boating, swimming, diving and kiteboarding. And fishing. Especially fishing. The town of Destin is officially known as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” and the salt and fresh waters lure anglers who are eager to toss their lines into the clear, warm depths and try their luck.
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5 Ways To Cast A Line
- Charter a pontoon boat for some back bay fishing in the saltwater of Choctawhatchee Bay. The bay waters are known for Spanish mackerel, redfish, flounder and speckled trout.
- Pier fishing from the bridges is popular, especially for visitors who are not travelling with their boats. Casting from small jetties and bridges hooks speckled trout, white snapper and redfish.
- Grab your gear and join the Destin Fishing Rodeo. Sign-up is free to anglers fishing aboard a registered boat in the Rodeo.
- Try some offshore fishing. Just a short boat ride from the coast, the offshore shelf drops to depths of over 30 metres. Troll for mahi mahi, tuna, sailfish and wahoo.
- Do a little after-hours fishing from the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier in Fort Walton Beach. The 385-metre long pier is lit for night fishing. It’s a favourite spot where the locals catch tarpon, tuna and king mackerel. Bait and tackle rentals are available and no fishing licence is required.
Discover The Museums
Air Force Armament Museum. “It looks just like something from Star Wars,” says Jack Dorr, a Vietnam veteran and volunteer tour guide at the Air Force Armament Museum. “This SR-71 Blackbird is the most popular plane here because it’s the fastest one and the most space age looking one. Everyone comes out and says oohh and ahh.”
The museum is filled to the rafters with impressive warbird aircraft and a display of weapons and intelligence-gathering technology such as seismic reconnaissance sensors that are able to listen in and track movements from a great distance away.
Another popular display is the Airborne Battlefield Command Control Center, a multi control airborne bank that was loaded lock, stock and barrel into the back of a military aircraft.
Destin History & Fishing Museum. “The Gulf fisheries are some of the most productive in the world,” says Miss Kathy at the Destin History & Fishing Museum. Born and raised on the back bay, her ancestors settled in the area immediately after the U.S. Civil War. “For the first 100 years there were just eight original families here. Then the first bridge was built in 1935 and the rest of the world discovered Destin.”
It’s been 175 years since seafarer Leonard Destin saw the potential for a fishing industry in Destin’s Choctawhatchee Bay. What started with simple handlines and seine nets has exploded to the largest charter fishing industry in the state. The tale of “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” is played out at the Destin History & Fishing Museum, including maps, historical photos, rods and reels and fishing equipment from lures to electronic fish finders.
Indian Temple Mound Museum. A time capsule of information, the large shell mound in downtown Fort Walton Beach is thought to be one of the largest human-made prehistoric earthworks constructed on saltwater. Considered a sacred site by Native Americans, the hand-built mound is now a protected archaeological site.
The truncated pyramid made from sand, shells and clay was created as a political and religious centre and was originally the base for a temple building, a spot that was the focal point for spiritual ceremonies. At the time, it would have dominated the landscape and was the centre of a Native American settlement, circa 700-1500.
A small building houses artifacts from the early Native American culture, including pottery, spearpoints, jewellery and tools made from shells and stone.
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Breakfast: Snowbirds love, love, love the Donut Hole in Destin. As soon as you step inside, the addictive sweetness of fresh baking fills the air as all of the warm, doughy creations are made on site. The glass display cases with rows of donuts, cruellers and muffins fill just as fast as they sell them.
Lunch: Bathing suits are okay-fine at The Back Porch Seafood & Oyster House in Destin. The Back Porch’s initial claim to fame is the invention of the amberjack sandwich, served chargrilled, bronzed, blackened or fried. Coupled with a glass of “The Ultimate Back Porch Punch” and a view of the turquoise Gulf waters, it’s the perfect way to break up a day.
Dinner: There’s fresh and then there’s fresh right off the dock. AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar is right on the docks at Destin’s historic inner harbour, so the catch doesn’t get any fresher. Start with fried blue crab claws served with AJ’s signature Key lime sauce. For a main, put away the calorie counter and order the N’awlins shrimp, served with traditional New Orleans seasonings and swimming in a pool of melted butter. There’s dancing upstairs at the Bimini Bar, named one of the Top 100 Nightclubs in America, where live music plays seven days a week, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. AJ’s is also the weigh-in spot for the Fishing Rodeo tournament, so the crowds can get large and spirited.
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5 Ways To Chill
- Escapees from the northern chill like to stroll HarborWalk Village’s collection of shops, fishing charters, bars and restaurants along the Destin waterfront.
- Visit the Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base, just outside Destin. There are more than 25 planes on display, including a P51 Mustang, the renowned Second World War Allied fighter and the titanium SR-71 Blackbird, the reconnaissance plane that flew at Mach 3.2 from New York City to San Francisco in under an hour.
- Over a dozen championship greens have long, oak-lined fairways, lush greens and challenging water hazards to satisfy golfers from beginner to pro.
- The mysterious 100-fathom curve – the dropoff marking the beginning of blue water, leaving behind the shallows of the coastal region – is close to shore along the Emerald Coast, making for excellent snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities without having to travel far offshore by boat. The shallow waters are great spots to don a mask and snorkel and spot loggerhead sea turtles, giant manta rays and scores of brightly coloured tropical fish.
- Pack a picnic and sign up for a sunset cruise where the setting sun and the playful dolphins share centre stage.Photos Emerald Coast CVB
5 Things For Families
- 1. If the kids have energy to burn, HarborWalk Village waterfront may have everything you need – aqua adventures, dolphin cruises, weekly fireworks and seasonal festivals. If they’re in the mood for communing with nature, you can grab a rental kayak and paddle out past the Destin Bridge to Crab Island for a little solitude.
- Every child who enters a fish in the Destin Fishing Rodeo that weighs one-pound or more gets a rod and reel and a certificate suitable for framing. Fishing on the pier bridge jetty is free for anglers 14 years and younger (anglers over 15 pay a small fee).
- Visit the Camp Walton Schoolhouse for a blast to the past when one-room schoolhouses were the norm. In the early 1900s there were no bridges and no roads throughout the area. Students had to get to class on time by boat.
- Scout for dolphins. Either rent a pontoon boat and find a swimming spot or book a seat on a glassbottom boat for a dolphin cruise.
- Feed the penguins and the stingrays at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. Gulfarium is the second oldest marine park in the U.S. and is known for dolphin and sea lion shows as well as “talks with the trainers” who handle the park’s otters and reptiles.
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The Perfect Day
- Start lazy with a swim in the Gulf while you map out the rest of the day.
- Spread a blanket on the dune beach at the shallows along the Santa Rosa Sound and Destin Harbor for a front row seat at spying some dolphins at play.
- Head into town for a basket of peel-n-eat Gulf shrimp or a platter of hand-breaded fried oysters. The seafood is as fresh here as anywhere, so indulge, indulge, indulge.
- A short nap seems in order in order to recharge for an afternoon back on the water.
- Bundle up your rod and tackle (or rent some if needed) and join in a fishing expedition with one of the many Emerald Coast outfitters.
- Tie your boat up behind AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar for dinner and have the restaurant’s chef cook up your catch.
- Just in time, hop on a charter for a sunset cruise – it’s the perfect way to end the day.
- If you can’t make it down for the Destin Annual Fishing Rodeo, you can still watch the weigh-in action beamed live by webcam. The entire month of October is dedicated to the Rodeo, with over 100 categories and 35 species of fish drawing thousands from around the world. An online webcam beams the weigh-ins live.
- The displays at the Destin History & Fishing Museum are a real treasure trove. Included among the artifacts: a rod and reel once used by author Ernest Hemingway.
- Over the summer, HarborWalk Village has fireworks every Thursday over the Destin Harbor and on Saturdays there’s Rock the Docks featuring free concerts.
- Take a stroll along the newly expanded Destin boardwalk. The boardwalk now connects HarborWalk Village to many other restaurants and shops along the harbour. You can walk along the water, see all of the charter and fishing boats, and stop for a bite to eat or grab a drink.
- Fresh fish! Local favourites are grouper, flounder, amberjack and red snapper. Most restaurants serve up freshly shucked raw oysters.
- For a spectacular view, make the drive over the Marler Bridge eastbound from Okaloosa Island, heading into Destin.
- Hang out at Crab Island on the weekends. Known as Crab Island by the locals, it’s actually a sandbar next to the Marler Bridge where people anchor their boats and chill.
- Along Santa Rosa Boulevard there are seven public beach access points with free parking and bathrooms.
Mark Your Calendar
• Destin History & Fishing Museum’s Annual Gumbo Contest. Free admission to the museum on the day of the contest and after judging the gumbo is sold for the tasting. January.
• Annual HarborWalk Marina Destin Cobia Tournament attracts hundreds of anglers. March.
• Annual Destin Seafood Festival. Delicious seafood, live music, and arts and crafts kick off the Destin Fishing Rodeo. September.
• Destin Fishing Rodeo. A month long event of wall-to-wall fishing considered by many to be the ultimate tournament for saltwater anglers. Daily weigh-ins are free and open to the public. October.
• Destin Festival of the Arts. A juried fine arts show displaying work from artists around the country. October.
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