ES­CAPE TO THE FLORIDA PAN­HAN­DLE,

Destin area brims with fun for the fam­ily.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - AUSTIN360 SUNDAY - By Kristin Fi­nan

The shades of blue stack up on the hori­zon like a beach-lover’s paint chip. Sky. Ocean. Pool. When I envision the Florida Pan­han­dle, these are the col­ors I see.

Grow­ing up, I cher­ished my fam­ily’s an­nual Au­gust pil­grim­age to Destin, where we’d spend a care­free week fill­ing up on hearty break­fasts at the Donut Hole, shop­ping for trin­kets at Banana Bart’s and Alvin’s Is­land and tak­ing a break from the beach at Big Kahuna’s Wa­ter and Ad­ven­ture Park.

When my hus­band and I re­turned with our three chil­dren last month af­ter a sev­er­a­lyear hia­tus, I was re­lieved to find that all of my old fa­vorites such as Dewey’s Destin were still stand­ing and had been joined by a host of fun new op­tions such as Un­cle Buck’s Fish Bowl & Grill.

It’s im­pos­si­ble not to have mixed emo­tions when see­ing how much the Emer­ald Coast has grown over the decades, but when it comes time to make sand-and-sun-in­fused mem­o­ries, there’s no place bet­ter.

Here are some ex­pe­ri­ences to con­sider dur­ing your next trip to the Florida Pan­han­dle.

BUC­CA­NEER PI­RATE CRUISE

Yo-ho, lads and lasses — when you board the Buc­ca­neer Pi­rate Cruise, you’re in for an ad­ven­ture.

Although I was fa­mil­iar with the rec­og­niz­able pi­rate boats, I had never boarded a Buc­ca­neer Pi­rate Cruise un­til last month. All three of our kids, ages 9, 6 and 5, en­joyed the ex­cur­sions, which in­cluded every­thing from sword fight­ing and trea­sure hunt­ing to face paint­ing and corny jokes.

The pi­rate por­tion of the cruise is prob­a­bly most en­ter­tain­ing for chil­dren 10 and un­der, but teens and adults also will en­joy the breath­tak­ing views the boat af­fords of the Emer­ald Coast. The snack bar is im­pres­sive, too.

Info: 850-269-0896, des­tin­pirate­ship.com

GUL­FAR­IUM MARINE AD­VEN­TURE PARK

Since it first opened in 1955 — ad­mis­sion then was $1 for adults and 50 cents for chil­dren — Gul­far­ium Marine Ad­ven­ture Park has wel­comed mil­lions of vis­i­tors eager to in­ter­act with the an­i­mals that call it home.

From in­ter­ac­tive en­coun­ters to ed­u­ca­tional ex­hibits to daily shows, there’s some­thing for all ages.

Our fam­ily es­pe­cially en­joyed our Dis­cover Dol­phins pro­gram, which al­lowed us to get up-close and per­sonal with an At­lantic bot­tlenose dol­phin fam­ily that in­cluded Delilah, 44, her daugh­ter, Lily, 15, and Lily’s daugh­ter, Kaya, 3.

As we gen­tly stroked Lily’s skin, our in­struc­tor told us most chil­dren de­scribe it like hot dogs or hard-boiled eggs, an as­sess­ment with which our chil­dren agreed.

Our kids also en­joyed see­ing some rare an­i­mals, such as an al­li­ga­tor snap­ping tur­tle, and were de­lighted by the fun facts posted on each of the bath­room stall doors, such as, “Sea cu­cum­bers poop and breathe through the same open­ing on their bot­tom side.”

Info: 850-243-9046, gul­far­ium.com

DESTIN SNORKEL

Her­mit crabs, fish and dol­phins — oh my.

Three hours may sound like a long time to be scav­eng­ing for sea life, but Destin Snorkel’s Two Stop Snorke­l­ing Tour proved to be the per­fect length of time for our fam­ily, which en­joyed each facet of this well-or­ga­nized tour.

Our boat, which was helmed by Cap­tain Andy, made two stops, start­ing first along the jet­ties, where we glimpsed small schools of fish travel in shim­mer­ing un­der­wa­ter clouds, then fin­ished along the bay, where we de­lighted in dis­cov­er­ing shells of all shapes and sizes.

The pods of dol­phins that flanked the boat for a por­tion of the trip added to the ex­pe­ri­ence, as did the gi­ant cooler of free soda and bot­tled wa­ter.

“Dol­phins use echolo­ca­tion to find food buried in the sand,” Cap­tain Andy ad­vised as we watched the dol­phins’ fins crest break the wa­ter’s sur­face. “They send out lit­tle clicks and whis­tles. If any­thing is sit­ting in that sand, they can use their nose to dig that up.”

Info: 850-269-2329, des­tin­snorkel.com

LULU’S DESTIN

A sign greets vis­i­tors as they ar­rive at LuLu’s Destin: “Our job is to make you for­get about yours for a while.”

Be­tween the ded­i­cated kids’ play beach, the water­front views, the ex­ten­sive drink menu and the con­sis­tent live mu­sic, it is in­deed easy to for­get about your job, or your prob­lems, while you’re here.

One of three LuLu’s restau­rants, LuLu’s Destin is run by Lucy Buf­fett, the self-pro­claimed “crazy sista” of Jimmy Buf­fett (and yes, the band did play “Mar­gar­i­taville” while we were there).

From the white-cheddar queso to the deca­dent, ten­der shrimp, the food was stel­lar. We also couldn’t get enough of the Hot Fun Krispy Kreme Bread Pud­ding, which in­cluded 2.5 Krispy Kreme dough­nuts(!) driz­zled with vanilla cus­tard sauce.

Perhaps the high­light here, though, was the restau­rant’s ded­i­ca­tion to pa­trons with food al­ler­gies. Our 6-year-old, who was newly di­ag­nosed with a gluten al­lergy, de­lighted in hav­ing her own ded­i­cated server, and my hus­band and I breathed a sigh of relief know­ing that what­ever she ate would be safe for her.

We left wish­ing we could waste away every day at LuLu’s.

Info: 850-710-5858, lu­lubuf­fett.com

BIG KAHUNA’S WA­TER AND AD­VEN­TURE PARK

I def­i­nitely have a soft spot for Big Kahuna’s, which opened in 1986 and where rau­cous games of putt-putt and screa­min­duc­ing zips down slides punc­tu­ated the sum­mers of my youth.

But how would it stack up for my kids, who were used to fre­quent trips to Sch­lit­ter­bahn on 100-de­gree days?

Thanks to its short lines, va­ri­ety of rides and quick walk to the park­ing lot, I now have a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion fas­ci­nated by this lit­tle wa­ter park.

Info: 850-837-8319, bigkahu­nas.com

HIL­TON GAR­DEN INN FORT WAL­TON BEACH

Our home base for this trip was the Hil­ton Gar­den Inn Fort Wal­ton Beach, a new beach­side prop­erty lo­cated steps from the Gulf of Mex­ico. Our kids cher­ished play­ing in the sugar-white sand and body-board­ing over the crys­tal-clear waves be­fore plung­ing into ad­ja­cent lazy river swim­ming pool, while my hus­band and I en­joyed cock­tails served from the on-site Tiki bar.

Our suite was spa­cious and kid-friendly, com­plete with bunk beds and a bal­cony that af­forded those blue-on-blue panoramic views.

Info: 850-362-1000, hilton­gar­denin­n­fort­wal­ton­beach.com For gen­eral in­for­ma­tion about the Emer­ald Coast, visit emer­ald­coastfl.com.

KRISTIN FI­NAN/AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN PHOTOS

White-sand beaches stretch out­side the Hil­ton Gar­den Inn Fort Wal­ton Beach.

A se­lec­tion of shells found dur­ing an ex­cur­sion with Destin Snorkel.

KRISTIN FI­NAN/AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

A pi­rate ad­dresses the lads and lasses aboard the Buc­ca­neer, a pi­rate cruise ship that’s per­fect for fam­i­lies.

Destin Snorkel helps vis­i­tors spot marine life and shells.

Blue meets blue at the Hil­ton Gar­den Inn Fort Wal­ton Beach.

A photo of Lucy Buf­fett and her brother, Jimmy, hangs on the wall at LuLu’s Destin.

Vis­i­tors to Har­borWalk Vil­lage can en­joy a bev­er­age in­side a wa­ter­melon.

The Donut Hole in Destin, Fla., is known for its hearty break­fasts.

A dol­phin en­ter­tains the crowd at the Gul­far­ium Marine Ad­ven­ture Park in Fort Wal­ton, Fla.

Hu­mans and gulls alike flock to Dewey Destin’s seafood restau­rant.

Make some new friends at the Gul­far­ium Marine Ad­ven­ture Park in Fort Wal­ton, Fla.

Each serv­ing of Hot Fun Krispy Kreme Bread Pud­ding at LuLu’s Destin in­cludes 2.5 fresh Krispy Kreme dough­nuts.

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