The Ultimate Vacation Guide to Destin, Florida, a White-Sand Getaway on the Emerald Coast

Set your sights on Gulf waters.

Destin, Florida, USA - Oct. 24, 2014: Beach goers enjoy the white sandy beaches and emerald blue waters of the panhandle in Destin, Florida. Originating as a small fishing village, it is now a popular tourist destination.
Photo: fallbrook/Getty Images

With the sparkling, clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico lapping at 24 miles of white-quartz sands, the Florida Panhandle city of Destin is a longstanding vacation spot for beach lovers of all ages. But there's more to love here along this barrier island set between Pensacola to the west and Panama City to the east: world-class golf, beach resorts, and fishing (Destin is affectionately known as the "world's luckiest fishing village"), plus lots of beachy bars, seafood spots, and attractions.

Plus, it's hard to argue with an average of 343 sunny days per year, not to mention an average annual high temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit and low of 61. This incredibly benign climate makes Destin a spot to play outdoors, both on and off the water, all year round. Here's what to do in this playground along Florida's Emerald Coast.


Best Beaches in Destin

Let's start here: All the beaches in Destin are sugar-white, soft, and surprisingly cool underfoot even in the heat of the summer. Why? The sands here contain finely ground, rounded quartz crystals that originally washed down from the Appalachian Mountains at the end of the last Ice Age. Those white sands also reflect the sun brilliantly back through the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico, creating a stunning emerald cast to the water (and no doubt contributing to this stretch of Florida shoreline being dubbed "The Emerald Coast").

Nearly 60 percent of the beaches along the Emerald Coast are preserved, so do not miss a chance to explore the natural gifts of Destin and beyond. With a mile of stunningly white, protected sands along the Gulf, Henderson Beach State Park has six picnic pavilions, a playground that overlooks the water, and a sweet 3/4-mile pet-friendly trail that winds among the park's protected dunes and vegetation. To the east of this treasure, the beauty continues with the Shore at Crystal Beach Public Access and Park with a small parking lot, a pavilion, and picnic tables. And a bit farther east, James Lee Park leads to another gorgeous strand of white sand, which is accessible via nine dune walkovers (and has 150 parking spots and a trio of picnic pavilions).

Boardwalk, Henderson State Park, Destin, Florida, USA

A pair of beaches sit on either side of East Pass (and the jetties that mark it), a deep-water channel between Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The strand to the east of the jetty is ideal for watching the boats come and go, and there's great snorkeling on the interior of the jetty as well.

While not directly on the Gulf of Mexico, Norriego Point is a wonderful little white sand peninsula at the end of Holiday Isle, with one side facing Destin Harbor and the other East Pass. With gentle dunes, weathered wooden fences, and sea oats, it's a picturesque spot to hang out, not to mention watch the boats on East Pass. Bonus: The Destin Water Taxi stops here, so you can leave your vehicle behind.

Best Outdoor Sports in Destin

Destin Fishing Rodeo
Emerald Coast CVB

When spending time in a place known as the world's luckiest fishing village, it would be a crime not to join the angling scene. Start at Destin Harbor, home to the state's largest and most elaborately equipped charter fishing fleet. Book a charter for a half or full day, drop a line off the nearby 1,200-foot Island Pier, or surf cast from the city's beaches. And if watching the fleet return and unload is more your speed, plan a walk along the harbor's docks between 4 and 6 p.m., when most of the boats come in (particularly on Fridays and Saturdays). Want to watch marine life instead? Book a dolphin or sunset cruise on the 80-foot Southern Star or an educational tour on Boogies Watersports' glass-bottom boat.

Under the water, the fun is just as expansive. Emerald Coast Scuba offers snorkeling excursions off the Destin jetties as well as scuba options for every level diver—including first-timers. Note also that Destin is home to some serious wreck diving, including sunken barges, tugs, liberty ships, landing craft, airplanes, army tanks, and bridge rubble—all hangouts for grouper, flounder, and cobia.

The Emerald Coast is home to eight championship golf courses, and in Destin proper you'll find the semi-private Kelly Plantation Golf Club with miles of white-sand waterfront and 7,000 yards of greens. Meanwhile, the top-ranked Regatta Bay Golf & Yacht Club is nestled between nature preserves and the Choctawhatchee Bay.

Best Places to Visit in Destin

Air Force Armament Museum
Emerald Coast CVB

Enjoy a break from the sun (or fill up a rainy day) with some quality museum time. First up: the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base, for an up-close exploration of 29 military aircraft from the World War II era to the present day, including the fastest plane ever built, the SR-71 Blackbird (admission is free). Next: Destin History & Fishing Museum, a small and charmingly old-fashioned spot full of artifacts and photos that bring the area's piscine legacy to life. Keep the kids busy and slide in some STEM at the Emerald Coast Science Center in nearby Fort Walton Beach, and finally, get a glimpse of the deep history of the area with a visit to Fort Walton Beach's Heritage Park and Cultural Center—home to a prehistoric temple mound (and museum), plus a Civil War exhibit building, the Camp Walton Schoolhouse Museum, and the tiny and delightful Garnier Post Office Museum.

And for the members of your crew who love a buzzy outing full of options, head straight for HarborWalk Village, an outsize collection of shops, charters, themed restaurants and bars, and all manner of amusements (not to mention the home of Emerald Grande vacation rentals), which doesn't take itself too seriously and might just fulfill the promise of something for everyone.

Best Local Restaurants in Destin

With its charter fleet bringing in thousands of pounds of fish daily, Destin is ground zero for enjoying a remarkable array of local catch, including Gulf classics such as grouper, red snapper, flounder, wahoo, cobia, oysters, crab, and of course, those big, sweet Gulf shrimp. The range of restaurants—from salty oyster spots on overwater piers to elevated dining rooms in beautiful new resorts—means there's a Gulf-to-table experience for every taste and budget.

Tracey Minkin

When it comes to Southern hospitality (and Gulf Coast joie de vivre), no one does it better than Lucy Buffett, and her namesake Lulu's Destin is a fantastic spot to park it at the beachside thatch-roof bar or hang out inside and dig into classics like her inimitable seafood gumbo. (You can also rent paddleboards right from Lulu's waterfront—so plan on staying all day.)

Harbor Docks
Tracey Minkin

With its metaphorical toes in the sand near James Lee Park, The Crab Trap Destin is pure fun and a Gulf shore classic (check out the tiki bar, don't miss the signature hot crab dip, and stay for the outrageous sunsets). Right on Destin Harbor, Harbor Docks is another salty classic with a front-row view of the boats that are hauling in your meal. Grab a seat on the shady porch, order up a Harbor Docks Rum Punch and smoked yellowfin tuna dip, and feel yourself at the epicenter of Destin seafood life. For dinner, Camille's at Crystal Beach has old-fashioned charms, great sushi among other specialties, and sources its fresh catch from Harbor Docks Seafood Market (and the downstairs Beach Bar & Coffee Shop is a great option for earlier in the day).

Donut Hole
Tracey Minkin

For morning hits, all roads lead to the iconic Donut Hole Bakery Cafe, but prepare to wait in line for a box of their donuts or a seat at the wildly popular restaurant. On the other end of the breakfast spectrum, Formula Fresh in Destin Commons puts out great cold-press juices and acai bowls. For grabbing and going, there's no better stop than the Local Market for sandwiches, local beers, and artisan ice cream.

Best Hotels on the Beach in Destin

Henderson Beach Resort
Courtesy of Henderson Beach Resort

Everything changed in Destin with the arrival of Henderson Beach Resort, a stunning luxury beach resort just steps away from white sand beaches adjacent to Henderson Beach State Park (and a sister to the beloved Henderson Park Inn, which sits right on the beach). With shingled gables and sweeping porches open to Gulf breezes, this is a bit of Nantucket come to the Panhandle, and the blend is just right. There are 170 guestrooms and eight suites, two gorgeous pools (one adults-only), a stunning spa (with 11 specially designed spa guestrooms for the hardcore escapist), top-flight restaurants and bars, and a tremendous collection of activities, from paddleboarding and kayaking to bicycling.

For the vacation rental/condominium experience, Destin has a broad array of options. The Henderson Lofts are a fashion-forward collection of one- and two-bedroom units on The Henderson resort property that come with the option to purchase resort amenity access. Many more options can be found here.

When to Go to Destin

Henderson Beach State Park
Emerald Coast CVB

Despite the fact that the mercury climbs in the summer months of June through September (and the Gulf temps generally remain higher than 80 degrees), this season remains the most popular time to visit Destin. The shoulder seasons of fall and spring bring slightly cooler temps and fewer tourists to share the beaches with, and even winter is a divine time to visit.

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