Above: The beaches at Florida’s Emerald Coast are consistently voted as the best in the South. Emerald Coast CVB photo
Below: The Gulfarium is a popular attraction, offering shows and exhibits. Deborah Reinhardt Palmer photo
Early risers stroll along the beach that’s as white as the sugar in the condo’s kitchen cabinet. In a few hours, this stretch of the Emerald Coast will have its fair share of families and college students on spring break, all out to enjoy the prettiest beach in Florida and some say the best in the South.
If a beach vacation seems as likely to you as swimming to the horizon, you aren’t alone this year in your hesitation to travel. A recent survey said 58% of Americans would not take a family vacation or would cut back considerably on what is spent on travel this summer. But a little legwork can pay off and get you to the beach this summer.
The beach within reach
The Emerald Coast is in northwest Florida’s “Panhandle,” and is made up of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island. Sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawatchee Bay, the Emerald Coast lies approximately 40 miles east of Pensacola and approximately 60 miles west of Panama City.
First up in the travel plan: find transportation to the beach. The Emerald Coast has air service to Fort Walton and Northwest Florida Regional Airport. Flying into the area is an option for Midwest travelers. An online fare search (April 2 using www.AAA.com) for travel June 1–8 from St. Louis to Fort Walton’s airport came up with the cheapest fare of $260 per person, round-trip on American Airlines. For a family of four, that’s $1,040 spent in airfare. Add the cost of a rental car to that, unless you will remain parked at the beach for a week. You’ll need to carefully research the location of your hotel or condo to put yourself within walking distance of some restaurants, shops or attractions.
It’s certainly more convenient to have a car while on vacation, which is why my family decided to make the drive to the beach from St. Louis. To get there and back, we drove about 1,400 miles, breaking up the drive to Florida in two days (we left late afternoon on a Saturday due to work schedules), staying overnight just outside Nashville, and completing the drive the next morning. We were walking on the beach by 2 p.m. Coming home, we elected to drive through, leaving Florida around 9 a.m. and getting home around 11 p.m., including stops for lunch, dinner and three to four rest breaks. The cost to rent a minivan for eight days was under $550, with unlimited mileage.
Mississippi and Louisiana residents have fewer miles to travel, so driving to the Emerald Coast makes sense for these travelers. It’s 300 miles from Jackson, Miss., and approximately 250 miles from New Orleans, La., to Destin.
Bucks for beds
A traveler needs a place to lay his head, and the Emerald Coast has a variety of lodging options that include hotels, condos, beach homes and a few bed-and-breakfast inns. Decide what your budget can accommodate, then search for the room.
The proximity to the beach is going to impact your room rate, as will your dates to travel. A property that sits on the gulf is more expensive that a condo or hotel across the street from the beach. Avoid the summer holidays if you can.
We stayed at two properties while in Destin. The Comfort Inn was located across busy U.S. Highway 98 from Henderson Beach State Park, a perfect location for swimming and fun in the sand. It was also next door to a popular eatery and attraction, Fudpucker’s Beachside Bar & Grill, which also has Gator Beach, a free alligator exhibit. For convenience, a strip mall that included Wal-Mart was on the other side of the hotel. Other restaurants and services were within walking distance, so in all, a good location. A free continental breakfast was included in the $99 rate (standard room with two queen beds, coffee maker, small refrigerator and microwave), which is good until June 21. After that, rates go up to $120. The property also had an indoor/outdoor pool and small fitness center. The downside was crossing the highway to the beach. A crosswalk sign was on either side of the highway, but each time involved waits up to 10 minutes.
And eating out one or two meals per day can get expensive. One way to cut cost here would be to pack bottled water, soda or juice boxes plus snacks for the beach in the afternoon and eat dinner out.
The other property we stayed at was the Inn at Crystal Beach. This beautiful condo resort was on the beach with all units facing the gulf. Rented through Dale E. Peterson Vacations, the two-bedroom, two-bath unit on the first floor had a full kitchen, small patio that walked out to the pool and hot tub, secure underground parking and best of all, we were on the beach.
We could save some money by eating more meals in, rather than going to restaurants. It felt more like our vacation home rather than just a room to sleep. One of DEP’s more upscale locations, the downside was the rate of $312 per night, which will climb to $425 during peak summer months. The rate includes a free round of golf for each day of your stay, one free daily video rental and one adult ticket per day to a nearby water park. We were able to negotiate a better rate by waiving these amenities, which brought the cost to approximately $150 per night.
When weighing the options for lodging, one of the most expensive components to any vacation, the comfort and convenience of a condo or beach house when at the beach is hard to pass up. A possible way to whittle down your family’s cost is to invite friends or family to join you and split the lodging fees.
We also found that dining out was not inexpensive in Destin. You will find a lot of national chain restaurants here, where a $30 lunch or a $50 dinner for three people is the norm. Even the local restaurants were moderate in price–we didn’t find any of the cheap but good beach shacks the local tourism bureau advertises. In the end, by staying at the higher-end property and cooking for ourselves, we saved a few bucks a day.
More Tips from a Tightwad
Look for free or cheap things to do while at the Emerald Coast to keep vacation expenses in check. Festivals and civic-sponsored events are terrific fun for little or no money.
One of the area’s biggest events, Billy Bowlegs Festival, is held June 4–8. This pirate-themed party has been running 54 years and includes a torchlight parade, fireworks, food, music, arts and crafts and activities just for children. It’s held in Fort Walton Beach.
Look for free evening concerts that feature a variety of musical genres beginning June 4 and continuing for 7 weeks in Destin at the Mattie Kelly Cultural Arts Village. Destin Commons, a popular shopping area at Crystal Beach, offers free movies for children every Tuesday and Wednesday in June and July.
Community theater can be a pleasant and inexpensive night out for the family. A few local companies will stage summer offerings. And Aug. 28 will be the Black History Arts Festival at the Emerald Coast Conference Center. The event features works and performances by area artists.
Popular attractions have reasonable admissions, including the Emerald Coast Science Center ($5 adults, $3 children). The most expensive attraction, Florida’s Gulfarium, is $19.25 for adults and $11.50 for children. It’s been around since 1958 and offers dolphin and sea lion shows. It has a homespun quality about it. The shows were good; the other exhibits were either in repair or were disappointing. We could have gone either way in seeing this one. It may have been just as entertaining to take a dolphin cruise. You can also see dolphins at no charge by visiting The Shallows, breeding ground along Santa Rosa Sound, Destin Harbor and Okaloosa Island.
Fishing charters are also available in each community, but these can also be costly. A less expensive alternative is fishing off the Okaloosa Pier for $7 ($4 for kids). Snorkeling cruises are a fun day out, but another option is bringing or buying a mask and snorkel and exploring on your own just off shore. Snorkel and scuba buffs will want to go with the pros, but this is a fine alternative for families.
All told, our family had a memorable spring break at one of the greatest beaches for about $1,300, proving that the Emerald Coast indeed is the beach within reach.
Deborah Reinhardt Palmer is managing editor of AAA Midwest and AAA Southern Traveler magazines.