Destined for Paradise
By Patrick Martin
Get up close and personal with plenty of sea creatures at the Gulfarium. /Destin-Fort Walton Beach photo
Published: Sep/Oct 2000
Anyone who has visited the pure, sugar-white beaches of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area of northwest Florida usually doesnt need much convincing that the Emerald Coast could be what a tiny portion of heaven looks like.
The beaches are enhanced by usually brilliant blue skies and a nowhere-else-but-here color of the ocean, the sort of blue-green sparkle usually seen in expensive jewelry stores. The climate is superior, even by Florida standards, with fewer occurrences of the standard-issue afternoon thundershower than visitors will find lower in the peninsula.
For many visitors, access to this pleasure trove is nearly a days drive closer than to the bottom half of the state. Its even in the Central Time Zone. So how can a little slice of heaven be improved?
By visiting in the fall.
Floridas Emerald Coast is a well-planned community, including the road system. The main thoroughfare, U. S. Highway 98, is an amply maintained, four-lane ribbon through paradise. There are parallel roads for local traffic that make getting around the area as easy to negotiate as peel-and-eat shrimp.
Still, there are the inevitable crunch times that occur in the heaviest vacation months, from about mid-May until mid-August. Premium rates are in effect then for the outstanding array of seaside resorts, condos and rental cottages. It is the high season not just in cost, but in traffic, competition for restaurant tables and other entertainment.
While the crowds and prices both subside around Labor Day, the beautiful conditions and level of activities do not. Fall fun starts in late September with the Race Around The Island, with more than 100 sailboats tacking their way around Okaloosa Island. Thousands observe the 100-mile race. This years event, on Sept. 23, is the 20th annual race.
A month-long Fishing Rodeo is held each October. Unlike many inland events, geared for professionals only, the Destin Fishing Rodeo is open to crusty salts and landlubbers alike. More than 450 awards and daily dockside parties punctuate the festival, which has more the feel of a long party than a glinty-eyed competition. The collective haul each year lends evidence to Destins claim of "Worlds Luckiest Fishing Village."
A perfect complement to that event is the Destin Seafood Festival, which will allow the most bottomless-pitted seafood lover to be satisfied. The diversity of cuisine almost matches that of the ocean itself, from shark kabobs to fried alligator. There is plenty of non-predatory fare, too.
The seafood festival begins on Friday, Oct. 6, when it runs from 210 p.m. at Harborwalk in Destin. On Oct. 7, the event goes from 10 a.m.10 p.m., then concludes on Oct. 8 from 10 a.m.6 p.m.
For those more interested in land-based fun, the Okaloosa Fall County Fair will run from Oct. 2028 at the County Fairgrounds on Lewis Turner Boulevard in Fort Walton Beach.
The fair, in its 34th year, features both kinds of music, your country and your western, as well as livestock judging, antique car shows and art booths. Carnival rides and other amusements are offered during the events nine-day run. In planning for a fall visit, it would be easy to concentrate on the special events and forget about the everyday attractions that make the Emerald Coast a great place to visit regardless of season.
The warm gulf waters, even that far north, make ocean swimming possible in September and October. The white sand beaches make for one of the most beautiful and romantic strolls, day or night, that a seaside visitor is likely to find anywhere.
The area also is home to first-class golf courses, which boast a mind-boggling total of 1,044 holes suitable for linksters ranging in skill from beginner to expert. Spectacular ocean views are common.
Deep sea fishing, even apart from the October rodeo, is readily available from a number of private and semi-private charter boats available for hire. For those who like to keep their feet on terra firma, there are numerous piers and public access beaches from which to wet a line.
If youd prefer to look at the fish instead of catch them, head to the Gulfarium. Sharks, moray eels and sea turtles can be seen in their natural habitat through a glass-enclosed tank. Penguins, otters and alligators are featured in separate exhibits, and live shows present the antics of dolphins and sea lions.
The Emerald Coasts restaurants, virtually all of them casual, offer an array of options that couldn't all be sampled if a visitor stayed a season. The head of the dont-miss list for this writer is the Louisiana Lagniappe, a Cajun-themed waterfront eatery that doesnt go to four alarms with the spices. Everything sampled was terrific, including crabcakes to die for.
With all of this, its easy to fall for the Emerald Coast. But its even easier to fall in the fall.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.