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When you’ve been away from the Gulf of Mexico for too long, it’s easy to forget the exact color of turquoise that it is. It’s easy to forget the soothing sound of the waves, crashing endlessly on glistening white beaches. Or the moist ionic breezes that gently caress your skin. But it all comes rushing back the instant you cross over the Marler Bridge leading to Florida’s “Emerald Coast”, and the beauty of Destin’s seaside comes into view.

And so it was early this October, when Delta Airlines flew several journalists including me from Nashville to Fort Walton Beach Airport, where my all-too-brief beach jaunt began. Though many of you may be familiar with the much-more-crowded Sandestin to the East, the Emerald Coast including Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Okaloosa Island boasts seductive but often overlooked charms.

Known as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village”, Destin’s history dates back to the 7th century A.D. when American Indians inhabited the area because of the bountiful resources provided by the Gulf and the lush forests surrounding the coast. Spanish explorers visited Florida as early as 1538. Eventually, a Spanish surveyor named Don Francisco Tapia was commissioned to chart the Florida coast, and drew the first known map of the Destin Florida East Pass and surrounding shores in 1693.

Destin’s modern history is attributed to a fisherman, Captain Leonard Destin, a Connecticut Yankee who settled in Northwest Florida on or about 1845. Captain Destin initiated the fishing industry in the area that is named after him, and these activities continue to this day. Destin is now known as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” and Destin Harbor is home to the largest and most elaborately equipped charter fleet in the state of Florida.

The Emerald Coast abounds with laid-back charms. Foremost among them is the newly renovated Henderson Park Inn, a true beachside bed and breakfast and one of Destin’s most captivating secrets. This stately 32-room New England style inn is located right on the beach, which can be enjoyed from your own private balcony, or by grabbing a towel and heading out the door. Inn Keeper Ryan Nolan has thought of everything, including big comfy beds with elegant bedding, a luxurious Jacuzzi to be enjoyed with Gilchrist & Soames bath amenities, Egyptian cotton bath robes for resting and relaxing, and so much more.

Complimentary breakfast and lunch are included in your room rate, as well as a beach service that includes chairs, towels, umbrellas and water sports equipment, plus a fabulous wine and fruit assortment arrival gift. My favorite touch? Bicycles lined up outside, available for your use any time, and only a short five minute ride to the fun shopping at Destin Commons. Best of all for all you romantics out there, Henderson Park Inn is especially tailored to provide an intimate, serene environment for couples to enjoy (guests must be at least 25 years old)! ($239-349 depending on room and season) The front desk is open 24 hours a day! For reservations or more information, visit www.HendersonParkInn.com or call 1-866-398-4432

For dinner on our first night, we traveled a short distance to the fabulous new Emerald Grande at Harbor Walk Village, developed by Legendary Resorts. Harbor Walk Village is a new development that will turn Destin Harbor into a day and night time destination, featuring shops, clubs and restaurants, including New Orleans famed Commander’s Palace, and Camellia Grille. The Emerald Grande is a world-class luxury resort and condo destination, which is clear from the minute you walk through the door into a fabulous marble lobby featuring hardwood floors in a gorgeous combination of cherry, maple and American walnut, with 22 ft. ceilings, huge custom- made chandeliers, oil paintings, and a hand-crafted 15-foot nautical compass inlaid in the entryway floor.

I had a chance to visit a $2 million dollar 2-bedroom water-side apartment with a top-flight open plan kitchen, home theatre set-up, and a fabulous wrap terrace offering views in all directions. If it wasn’t for the price tag, and the fact that it was already sold, I would have snatched it up in a nanosecond. The complex also offers a spa & fitness center, the multi-level Grande Vista Pool Deck featuring a beach entry outdoor pool and a heated/cooled indoor pool for four season enjoyment. The Captains Deck is an outdoor event space overlooking the Destin Harbor and Gulf of Mexico, a romantic spot for weddings, anniversaries and other happy occasions. The Emerald Grande also offers a “New You Luxury Vacation” that includes both surgical and non-surgical plastic surgery at Destin Plastic Surgery, only 15 minutes away. For those seeking the becoming-ever-more-popular combination plastic surgery/luxury resort packages who don’t want to go to NY, Miami or Beverly Hills, this may be for you.

Dinner at the Emerald Grande was as delicious as the surroundings, featuring seafood delicacies that a land-locked resident of Tennessee can only imagine. The meal began with an Appetizer called Scallop Americain, a delicious concoction of fresh New England scallop with white wine, tomatoes, Americaine sauce and risotto Milanese.An amazing Crabmeat Gazpacho followed, with a finish of Gulf Fresh Fish Schnitzel served with arugula, grape tomatoes, olive oil and cracked black pepper. With Florida Orange Crème Brulee for dessert, the meal was a most memorable highlight of our Emerald Grande experience. (Rates for Emerald Grande and range from $212 - $600 (4 bedroom penthouse), based on per night and based on season.Check this out! Celebrate New Year's Eve at the Beach - New Year's Eve Celebration Package at the Emerald Grande -3 night stay in 2 Bedroom - $833 plus New Year’s Eve bash and so much more! For reservations and information, go to www.legendaryresorts.com or call 1 800 676 009)

The next morning, I awakened to a delicate pink and blue sky meeting the gently lapping waves. After a quick walk down the beach, we were whisked off to a lovely breakfast at one of Destin’s most popular breakfast spots, Another Broken Egg. Here, casually dressed visitors, including us, lined up for a chance to savor an amazing choice of breakfast favorites. (Check it out at www.anotherbrokenegg.com or call 850 650-0499 for reservations) Next, we visited the Gulfarium Dolphin Encounter, Tour and Show housed in a 50’s retro building featuring leaping pink and turquoise sea mammals on the exterior walls. Inside delightful, well-trained Dolphins and Sea Lions performed their amazing feats of aquatic athletic prowess for an extremely enthusiastic crowd. The series begins with the famous top deck Dolphin Show, featuring trained Bottlenose Dolphins performing in the main tank. Following this show is a fan favorite, the Sea Lion Show. Prepare to laugh as these animals always keep the trainers on their toes. Rounding out the program of shows is our MSP Show, with Bottlenose Dolphins and a California Sea Lion performing side-by-side. A cute gift shop bursting with dolphin related items also allowed this visitor to take some of the fun home with her. ($18.50 for adults, $11 for children) For information and tickets to the Gulfarium Dolphin Encounter go to www.gulfarium.com.

Later in the morning we hooked up with Darrell Jones, the President and CEO of the Emerald Coast CVB. He shared with us some of the things that make the Emerald Coast so unique. First and foremost among them is the amazingly white beaches, comprised of Appalachian Quartz – not sand (most people think it’s white sand) – which is soft to the touch and gentle on the feet. Quartz (sand) came from the Appalachian Mountains 20,000 years ago when the glaciers started to melt. The reason the water is emerald green is because it changes to different hues of green with the time of day and the location of sun, and is partially due to the fact that quartz is under water, too. He also added the Destin is in the process of beach restoration – hoping to add an additional 100 feet , and is projected to begin next fall at a $30 million cost. “Beaches are the #1 reason why people come to Destin,” Jones added, “and it has been for past past 2000 years.”

After his talk, Mr. Jones escorted us to what turned out to be yet another highlight of the trip-a charming restaurant called the Magnolia Grill. A Dr. G.G. French built the cottage in which the restaurant is housed in 1910; surprisingly, it was ordered from a mail-order catalog! It was shipped from New York to Pensacola by train and then to Camp (now Fort) Walton by barge. “It came in pieces: boards, planks, nails, wood shakes for the roof, cupboards and cabinets, plumbing fixtures, hardware, windows; everything needed to assemble a house by someone with ‘minimal carpentry skills’.” The restaurant’s landscaping is patterned after that found in Ft. Walton in the 1940’s and 50’s – featuring azaleas, spirea, lantana, camellias, and hollies. These compliment the existing palm trees, live oaks and magnolias that already graced the property.

To the uninitiated, the Magnolia Grill is just a charming place to stop for a delicious meal, but to those in the know, it’s also the repository for much of Fort Walton Beach’s history. Upstairs, beyond a discreet band of ribbon cordoning off a small staircase, is a museum of sorts, filled with a secret treasure trove of the town’s history, including rare photos, signs, books and furniture from the last 90 years. If you visit the Magnolia Grill, which you must if you are in the area, be sure to say hello to proprietors Tom and Peggy Rice, and perhaps you can cajole them into letting you take a peek upstairs. The Magnolia Grill also boasts another fun feature- it’s the starting point for a local Trolley that runs to the opposite end of town and back, with various stops along the way, and is a great, car-free way to tour the area. (For reservations and information go to www.magnoliagrillfwb.com or call (850) 302-0266 today!)

After a brief stop at the Henderson Park Inn, we were off again, this time back to Harborwalk, for a peaceful three hour cruise around the Destin harbor on the Nathaniel Bowditch Sunset sailing Excursion. (The ship’s namesake, Nathaniel Bowditch, was born in 1773, and was a genius at math, astronomy and navigation, far beyond his peers) Apart from the amazing view of the Destin Harbor and Okaloosa Island, one of our voyage’s finest attractions was the ship’s captain, Captain Rex, as full of yarns and tall tales as any pirate master. In fact, he really got me going when he told me about a rare experience that can only be had in Destin Harbor- seeing a mysterious “green flash” that only happens in the rarest of astronomical circumstances, as the sun disappears beyond the watery horizon. According to him, there are sea-farers who have waited for a lifetime to see it, but most are never blessed with a sighting. Was I lucky enough to see it on my very first trip? Alas, no, but I was really hoping. We did see dolphins aplenty though, leaping from the harbor into the air most gracefully. As it turned out, our 54’ schooner is sonar equipped, and in favorable conditions you can actually hear the dolphins’ voices. And best of all, you are encouraged to bring your own coolers, which you can fill with delights of your personal liking. ($35) (Call for a daily sailing schedule at 850 650 8787)

On the last day of our visit, several of us decided to go golfing-but not at just at any old course. Instead, we headed to the beautiful, lush Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club nestled among the breathtaking nature preserves along the Choctawhatchee Bay. Though the beauty of the environment didn’t improve my game any, I still thoroughly enjoyed the challenging Robert C. Walker designed, 6,894-yard par 72 course, the on-course circulating beverage carts, the chilled apples on the 1st and 10th tees, and particularly the state-of-the-art GPS system so I could order my lunch and find my ball at the same time! (For reservations and tee times call 850 337 8080)

For the last evening of the trip, all of us dressed up in our coolest duds and headed out to Zampieri’s Harbor Grille, a lovely restaurant overlooking a yacht basin and above a dance club, which we fully intended to visit later in the evening. We were charmed by Chef TK, who managed to create unique dishes for each dietary restricted member of our group, whether vegetarian or other. Afterward we went downstairs, where we danced to disco music ‘til the wee hours of the morning. For a place inhabited by Indians for 2000 years, the Emerald Coast has really come a long way!

For more information about the Emerald Coast, please go to the official source for information at www.destin-fwb.com

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 91 - September 4355
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