Stylish condominiums. Waterslides that make your heart pound. Baskets of perfectly fried shrimp and grilled grouper sandwiches. Sunburned noses and breathtaking sunsets. It's all part of that fabulous adventure known as Destin–one of our favorite family vacation spots. Let us show you our favorite spots while you uncover some of your own.
When you visit, you'll want to rent a condominium. Sure, there are some familiar- name hotel offerings and even a few bed-and-breakfast options, but when in Destin, the way to go is condo. That means you can cook some of your own meals and have room for the entire family to spread out.
Condo renting can be tricky though. Google "Destin condo rental," and you'll get more than 600,000 results. The best way to start the quest is by contacting a rental agency. The four most popular in town are Dale E. Peterson Vacations, ResortQuest, Sterling Resorts, and Southern Resorts Vacation Rentals. You can also check out listings on the convention and visitors bureau's Web site ( www.destin-fwb.com). There's a box on this site called "Emerald Specials" that gives year-round deals. Check it often for the lowest rates.
For those who like to travel like a Trump, go for Signature Beach. Less than a year old, this exclusive property houses a mere 18 units, and only a few participate in a rental program. Staying here will run around $543 a night (four bedrooms; price available through ResortQuest; higher during spring break).
If you like the intimate size of Signature Beach but want something more affordable, try Destin Towers. After a few days here, you'll feel more like a resident than a visitor. Rooms go for $208 a night (two bedrooms).
For something larger, the classically styled Silver Shells offers a day spa, movie theater, and gorgeous 7,500-square-foot pool. Spaces rent for about $229 a night (two bedrooms). We also like the luxurious Inn at Crystal Beach ($307 a night for three bedrooms), mainly because of its waterfront restaurant, Beachwalk.
SunDestin is great for families, although it's been worn a little hard through the years ($256 for two bedrooms). With an arcade, children's programs, and a huge outdoor pool, it's party central and a favorite among families and teenagers. One hard-to-find feature that we appreciate is 24-hour front desk service. You'll find it at Silver Shells, Inn at Crystal Beach, and SunDestin.
The best fried shrimp and fish sandwiches are at The Crab Trap(pictured). Because it also sits on the water, you don't even have to change out of your swimsuit to dine.
Surprisingly, there are quite a few Italian spots too. We like the ambience and wild artwork and decor at Grafitti & The Funky Blues Shack, but we absolutely never miss a trip to Café Grazie. The pastas are fresh; the sauces, decadent; and the overall experience, unforgettable.
There are two restaurants worthy of a celebration. Destin Chops serves lobster and steak dishes in a quiet setting. Beachwalk Crystal Beach, housed in the Inn at Crystal Beach, sits right on the water and offers delicious flavors.
As for our number one favorite in Destin, the honor goes to Harbor Docks. It's great for families and also offers a full sushi menu. Try the Fresh Catch Parmadine ($24.95) with crabmeat, almonds, and melted Parmesan cheese over the day's choice.
The beach is Destin's playground. Still, there are other activities if you want a break from sandy toes and salty water. (Is that possible?)
Big Kahuna's Water and Adventure Park (pictured) drenches in a different way. Slide, float, and tumble down 40 different attractions including a lazy river, a wave pool, and huge slides. You can also play miniature golf and race go-karts.
Want something a little less heart pounding? The Destin area offers some really terrific shopping and not just of the cheesy souvenir type. Start your spree at Destin Commons, a new outdoor complex anchored by a Rave Motion Pictures theater, Bass Pro Shop, Hard Rock Cafe, and Belk. Scattered around these biggies are both boutiques and well-known stores, as well as a playground area and a 49-head pop-up fountain for kids to run through.
Stop in K. Bella Jewelry, a boutique that sells handmade necklaces, earrings, and bracelets by owner Kacynthia Porter. You'll want to take a peek at her reasonably priced baubles; past clients include Madonna and Faith Hill.
If you're not shopped to the max, there's more to discover. Pretty Please sells some of the best children's finds, from hand-painted artwork to high-fashion clothing. At Uniquely Chic, stylish home and gift items abound.
No matter where you stay, dine, or play, you'll fall in love with Destin. And in April, with average temperatures at 75 degrees, this beach town can't be topped.
photo: Many condominiums offer umbrella-rental programs, or you can buy your own and carry it to the beach.