ESCAPE TO THE FLORIDA PANHANDLE,
Destin area brims with fun for the family.
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
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
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.
White-sand beaches stretch outside the Hilton Garden Inn Fort Walton Beach.
A selection of shells found during an excursion with Destin Snorkel.
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.