This story was originally published in the Oct/Nov 2014 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
Each summer, beach bound families flock to the sugary soft sand and crystal clear blue-green surf of Florida’s Emerald Coast seeking fun and a lifetime of memories. But when the tourists retreat in early fall and the fishing villages return to their roots, there is an unforgettable beauty and tranquility to the barrier islands along the northern Gulf of Mexico in the Florida panhandle. The unique pleasures along the beaches that stretch from Fort Walton eastward through Okaloosa Island and on to Destin in the fall are one of the coast’s best kept secrets. And for those who’ve have fallen in love with the Emerald Coast in the off season, it’s a secret worth keeping.
World’s Luckiest Fishing Village
Destin began as a sleepy fishing village in the 1830s and the town’s many activities still revolve around the docks in Destin Harbor. Year round, a parade of fishing boats traverse the harbor at twilight and pass through its narrow entrance as they make their way into the Gulf of Mexico in search of a fresh catch of red snapper, amberjack and grouper. In October, saltwater anglers aboard private and charter boats head out in search of the Destin Fishing Rodeo’s biggest catch. More than 30,000 anglers try their luck at deep sea fishing in the month-long event and they can be seen weighing in their prize gamefish – everything from marlin, sailfish and king mackerel to amberjack and grouper – all day long on the docks at AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar.
Harborwalk Village, a newly expanded collection of boutiques and restaurants that sit just below Emerald Grande Condominiums on the water’s edge, is the gateway to the fishing docks and many of the area’s water adventure outfitters. Jackacuda’s, Destin’s best sushi restaurant and arguably one of the best overall, opened in Harborwalk Village earlier in this year.
Peek Below the Surface
In early autumn, the summerlike temperatures and coastal breeze are ideal for a natural escape aboard a standup paddleboard or kayak. Boats and boards are a great way to cruise the harbor and Choctawhatchee Bay, visit waist deep Crab Island, or just hang out on a sandbar. Both are available for rent from outdoor adventure companies, like GUSU Paddlesports, which launches from the docks in Destin Harbor and provides instruction and guided tours. Some paddleboard and kayak outfitters offer eco-tours, fishing tours and lessons.
The Choctawhatchee Bay, where saltwater and freshwater converge, has a rich and diverse ecology. The unique ecosystem is teaming with a diverse bounty of marine species, including fish and shellfish, and is a playground for dolphins. Fishermen who wet their line in the bay may catch redfish, speckled trout, shrimp and oysters. Kayakers, paddleboarders, snorkelers and fishermen can launch from the Gulf Islands National Seashore on Okaloosa Island, which runs between Destin and Fort Walton Beach. Land lovers will find miles of coastline for nature hikes and birdwatching among the picturesque sea oat topped sand dunes. On the Gulf side of Okaloosa Island, well-timed kayakers can enjoy paddling alongside a pod of dolphins trolling for a meal in the early morning or evening hours. The social creatures have been known to engage in a game of chase or dance in a private Gulfarium-like show for lucky water adventurers.
Rest and Relaxation
The waterparks, go-kart tracks and amusement parks are closed by fall, but that means fewer distractions from the relaxation and memory making that beckon families to return each year. With toes deep in the sand and waves lapping gently, generations of families reunite on the lightly populated beaches and while away hours visiting, splashing in the surf, building sandcastles and getting lost deep in the pages of a novel.
Of course, golfers know that the lush courses along the Emerald Coast – with its sunny skies, warm gulf breeze and tropical vegetation – are a paradise for players. The area is home to eight championship golf courses, including Regatta Bay, which is nestled among nature preserves along the Choctawhatchee Bay. Golfers navigate seaside bunkers on the 6,894-yard, par-72 course that was named one of Golf Digest’s “Top Places to Play in North America.” The course was designed by Robert C. Walker, former lead architect for Arnold Palmer.
Fine Finds and Fresh Catch
Good Morning America named the area one of the “Top 10 Most Beautiful Places in America,” but there’s more to do along Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island than check out the scenery. Eclectic shopping and cutting-edge eateries await those who visit the charming tourism-centric towns of the 24-mile Emerald Coast in the off season.
Tucked in the corner of Fort Walton’s Uptown Station, a revived mid-century shopping plaza, is an Italian restaurant that offers one of the best brunches along the Florida panhandle. The owners of Mama Clamenza’s serve up scratch-made family recipes and European delicacies for breakfast on weekends. Their lunch and dinner menu features wood-fired pizzas, Italian classics and desserts expertly paired with wines and cappuccinos. The restaurant has a demonstration kitchen where they host events and sell-out classes based on their award-winning recipes.
Quaint, historic buildings make up the downtown shopping district of Fort Walton Beach. The smattering of locally-owned shops includes A Cupcakery By The Sea, a gift shop and confectionary that is as beautifully decorated as its sweet treats. A couple of doors down is 3 Dogs and a Chick, a one-of-a-kind pet store whose “top dog” is passionate about bettering the lives of animals, which is apparent in the selection of delicious treats for dogs and quality gear for people.
The Boardwalk on the west end of Okaloosa Island, the barrier island located between Fort Walton Beach and Destin on US Hwy. 98, is home to several gift shops and restaurants. Chief among the reasons for stopping here is The Black Pearl Woodfired Grill, whose open-air beachfront dining room offers one of the coast’s most breathtaking views of the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. The award-winning restaurant offers inventive takes on in-season seafood favorites.
On the south end of the Bay Bridge is Destin Commons, an open-air lifestyle center filled with national brand premier retailers and locally-owned shops. The complex opened another avenue of shops and restaurants this season, including fashion retailer H&M and a dining and entertainment complex called Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl and Grill. Uncle Buck’s is a Bass Pro Shops concept that expertly combines a restaurant, bowling alley and private party facilities into one destination for everything from private parties to rainy day fun.
With so many new attractions and hidden gems, even regular beachgoers will find a variety of exciting new activities and interests along the popular stretch of Florida’s panhandle coastline. But visitors in the off-season will enjoy a quieter pace, a deeper tranquility, a closer look, and a little something the locals like to call “Emerald Coasting.”
Story by Nathalie Strickland
Photography by Tyler Tangalin