Monday, 1 December 2014

Trip Report - Destin, Florida

When Brits think of Florida they think of Mickey Mouse, babes in bikinis and detectives in pastel suits with their sleeves rolled up.  However there is more to Florida than, Disneyworld, Miami Beach and the war on drugs.

 Destin may be virtually unknown on this side of the pond but it’s a popular resort for Americans from as far as the mid west keen to get some beach action.  Nestled on the north western corner of the Floridian panhandle and perched on the Gulf of Mexico its incredible beaches and emerald green water offer plenty of opportunities for water based fun. I was sceptical about the claims but in the flesh the beaches are pristine enough to rival those in the Caribbean. 
Its not quite Robert Duvall urging on the troops in Apocalypse Now but there is a surprising amount of aerial traffic above you as you sit on the beach draining your margarita. That is because there is a large military presence in the area as the Fort Elgin/Valparaiso airport doubles up as a military base with jets and choppers a continuous rumble in the skies.

I stayed in Sandpiper  Cove  a well appointed  43 acre resort situated between Henderson State Park and the bars and restaurants of Harbour Walk. I booked with VRBO and was able to snag a studio condo for under  $100 a night inc taxes. The place is well maintained with private beach access, hot tubs, heated swimming pool, boat access, marina and a par 9 golf course.  It’s fabulous value.

 A word of warning though. In the country where car is king you will struggle if you don’t have your own transport as buses and taxis are virtually non existent.  Although comparatively near the action it was a good 40 minutes traipse to the Harbour Walk action along a pretty ugly stretch of the I98 every time we fancied a beer. Destin itself is not at all bike friendly and we had numerous reports of out-of-towners coming off worse for wear when they braved the traffic.

The HarborWalk itself is a fun experience. The boardwalk is lined with restaurants and bars like a Margaritaville and the huge  AJ’s where you can sit on the open air deck and watch the great sunsets.  On the other side are the fishing boats, charters and even a mock pirate galleon that can take you on dolphin cruises round the bay.  It gets pretty crowded in the summer but as we were they off peak there was just a steady trickle of people enjoying the atmosphere although a fair few places were closed up for the winter.

Another lively place is McGuire’s Irish pub right at the harbour with its own brewery, signature cocktails (the Irish Wake does damage) and huge portions.  With over a million signed dollar bills adorning the walls if I were the owner I’d just sell up and close now. It’s a unique venue with plenty of character (albeit the bastardized American take on Irish pubs) and a jovial atmosphere.

 First  prize in the food stakes must go to Buck’s Smokehouse bbq a blink and you miss it shack off the i98. The place serves proper southern BBQ with platters for as little as 12€. Its comparatively good value (Destin is an expensive place to eat out) and the meat literally falls off the bone.  Do not accept imitations, this has some of the best ribs and turkey I have ever tasted.

 For daytime fun we rented a two man kayak from Sailing South Watersports ://  for $35 and went out into the bay to see Destin from the water.  Its great exercise and good fun as you cruise past the expensive boats and there are opportunities to get out and enjoy some of the harder to reach beaches across the bay.  We paddled under the Marler Bridge to Crab Island, a spit of sand normally heaving with pontoons and revellers who have weighed anchor in he shallow waters and break out the Bud. We were the only people there but it was nice to chill out on Captain Nemo’s jetty and eat our packed lunch. 

Destin is a mecca for fisherman and this is evidenced but the large fish we saw hovering around the floating dock,  Their was also huge groups of harmless Moon jellyfish in the bay along with a few schools of dolphins around mid afternoon.

If you get bored of Destin there are some natural attractions within an hour's drive away (more of which in my next posts) We hired a car with Enterprise who offer a great service as they pick you up and drop you off anywhere in a 20 mile radius, and travelled an hour up to Blackwater River State Park and rented a canoe for $50 with . They dropped us off at the launch and we spent the next 4/5 hours cruising back to our car through the pristine wilderness without seeing another soul on the river. Its a pretty easy paddle through the crystal clear, ice cold Blackwater River with some lovely sand banks to stop and refuel.  Maybe we were too noisy but I expected to see a few bit more fauna seeing as we were literally in the middle of nowhere. In any event it was very calming and great for the soul.

So Destin has got great bars, great beaches, great food, natural delights and some of the friendlies people I have met.  It makes me wonder why not more people have heard of it. Disney conspiracy perhaps!

Next post: Santa Rosa and the Beaches of South Walton – Home of the Truman Show