A beach getaway par excellence, Destin occupies a narrow peninsula, with Choctawhatchee Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.
The first thing I have to talk about when it comes to Destin is the beaches, with otherworldly sugar-white sands that look almost like snow. These are lapped by transparent waters with an alluring shade of emerald green.
I’m not going too far when I say that Destin has everything you could want from a coastal destination.
If you want to see dolphins in the wild, snorkel for tropical fish, laze on a perfect beach, do some luxury shopping, or enjoy some quality family time at seaside attractions, it’s all at your fingertips here.
1. Henderson Beach State Park
Featuring more than a mile of unspoiled beach with shimmering waters, Henderson Beach State Park is an absolutely must.
Even in a region praised for its heavenly beaches, I’m not sure anywhere can compete with this place. It’s all down to the natural setting, with nothing more than 30-foot dunes behind.
Though the beach is the park’s centerpiece, there’s also a nature trail on the west side, which is a little like walking among massive snowdrifts. Finally, when the sun gets too much, there are covered pavilions for a little respite.
2. Destin Commons
Another place great for strolling in Destin is this sprawling lifestyle center, designed like a quaint town.
Destin Commons offers upmarket shopping, dining, and entertainment, on cute streets with tree-shaded sidewalks, benches, and shrubs.
A few of the brands I noticed on my visit were Abercrombie & Fitch, Sephora, Forever 21, Lush, Build-A-Bear Workshop, Hollister, American Eagle, and Soma.
Kids won’t get bored, as there’s an awesome free play area under the clocktower. This has a large fountain/splash pad and playground equipment.
There’s a diverse dining scene, including a trendy food hall with nine options. Added to that is the AMC Destin Commons 14 for a complete day out.
3. Silver Sands Premium Outlets
I’m not lying when I call Destin a shopping paradise. Because, if you still have time, there’s another world-class destination a few minutes east in Miramar Beach.
Silver Sands Premium Outlets has close to 100 factory stores for famous premium brands. For a rough idea, you’ll find Le Creuset, Disney, Polo Ralph Lauren, Saks 5th Avenue, L’Occitane, New Balance, Lacoste, Converse, Levi’s, The North Face, and Calvin Klein.
As with any outlet, expect big discounts on the usual retail price (50%+), with additional discounts for first responders, teachers, military and so on.
Unlike a lot of outlet malls, Silver Sands is all about the shopping, with just a couple of eateries and no entertainment options.
4. Destin Harbor Boardwalk
For around a ¼ of a mile along Destin Harbor, the Destin Harbor Boardwalk is an attraction with a lot of feathers in its cap.
First off, it’s a fine place for a stroll, especially if you’re here to soak up the sunset late in the day.
There’s a variety of shops and plenty of restaurants, many of them offer stunning views over the water to Norriego Point and beyond.
Perhaps most of all, Destin Harbor Boardwalk is the gateway to a world of activities on the water. Think fishing charters, dolphin spotting tours, boat rentals, waverunners, sunset cruises, and a lot more besides.
5. James Lee Park
On the east side of town, by the Walton/Okaloosa line there’s an exquisite public beach with plentiful amenities.
The shore at James Lee Park is accessed via nine walkovers leading across the dunes. Complementing the beach covered picnic areas, restrooms and showers. The beach has the same powdery white sands, and emerald waters that everyone loves about the panhandle.
For those visiting from out of town who haven’t brought their own beach gear, it’s possible to rent chairs and large umbrellas for the day, and the cost is very reasonable.
On a sunny day, I think this place is as close to beach perfection as it gets, with no high-rise developments, in contrast to Destin’s western beaches.
6. Destin Snorkel
The warm, clear waters around Destin are perfect for snorkeling. As well as having near-perfect visibility, they’re full of a huge variety of colorful marine life.
What I love is that you don’t need to be a trained diver for amazing wildlife encounters here. Destin Snorkel is one of the area’s premier tour companies in Destin.
In addition to snorkeling, they offer dolphin watching, shelling and sunset cruises that are perennial favorites.
Destin Snorkel tours tend to fill up quickly, especially during peak times, so I’d make a reservation well in advance of your trip.
7. Destin History & Fishing Museum
Source: Ebyabe / Wikimedia
Destin has always been a popular spot for trophy fishermen, but is also home to one of the largest commercial fishing fleets in the Sunshine State.
In a settlement that started out as a fishing village some 200 years ago, the Destin History & Fishing Museum is a compelling window on the past.
I was riveted by the exhibits here, charting Destin’s development, the fishing industry, and the Destin Fishing Rodeo, one of the longest-running fishing tournaments in the country.
On show are scores of mounted fish, historic photographs, antique fishing equipment, and diving gear.
8. The Emerald Coast Science Center
For something more educational, this attraction introduces children to the wonders of science and the natural world.
The center’s exhibits touch on animals, aviation, robotics, and even physics. Unlike many look-but-don’t-touch attractions, they encourage kids to interact, think, and explore.
The exhibits alone will keep little ones engaged and entertained for hours. The center’s staff offer a variety of regularly scheduled programs that include interactions with animals, storytime, and general tours.
One that blew me away was the sciPad, which can best be described as a room-sized iPad, with lessons in a range of fields, from language to sciences.
9. The Track, Destin
To me, no seaside town is complete without a classic family entertainment center. That’s exactly what you get at The Track, part of a chain with six locations in the Southeast.
The headline here is go-karting, with no fewer than five different tracks. Two of these circuits offer single and double karts, so younger thrillseekers can ride along with a parent.
If there’s one track that you need to try, it’s Wild Woody, a three-level all wooden circuit that feels like a Mario Kart level without the power ups.
Elsewhere, there’s much more going besides go karts, with carnival rides, two mini-golf courses, bumper cars, and an arcade.
10. June White Decker Park
If you prefer a public beach with a little more life there are several public access points along the shore. One that I appreciate is the accessible June White Decker Park, which has a boardwalk/ ramp down to the sand.
Set just west of Henderson Beach State Park, this spot has lifeguards on duty, and is within easy reach of a clutch of restaurants and family attractions, including The Track.
The sand and water are always immaculate, and you’ve got basic amenities like showers and restrooms at the entrance.
11. Kelly Plantation Golf Club
Kelly Plantation Golf Club is on a particularly scenic stretch of land fronting Choctawhatchee Bay. Before the course was built this was once a turpentine plantation, and a lot of the pines still have holes from where they were tapped.
The course’s 18 holes wind their way through bayous, magnolia, and palmetto stands and stunning waterfronts.
I found the greens and fairways to be impeccable and that there was a pleasant mix of natural rough, water and sand hazards to make things both scenic and challenging.
Now, Kelly Plantation is definitely not an inexpensive place for a round of golf. All the same, for those looking for a memorable game regardless of the cost, it’s a perfect destination.
12. Village of Baytowne Wharf
Effortlessly close, there’s an endearing dining and shopping spot on Choctawhatchee Bay in Miramar Beach.
I think I have to start by saying that even though this is a commercial development, the scenery is nothing short of dreamy. True to its name, the Village of Baytowne Wharf sits on the water, facing west on Choctawhatchee Bay.
I can think of few prettier places to be when the sun goes down. You can choose from a handpicked assortment of eateries, whether you’re up for seafood, steaks, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, the list goes on.
There’s a farmers’ market on Sundays (10:00 am – 2:00 pm) all year round, as well as concert series, seasonal fun, and annual festivals.
13. Buccaneer Pirate Cruise
In old times, the waters around Florida, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico were crawling with pirates.
Thankfully, those days are long gone, but it’s still possible for families to live the swashbuckling pirate life while visiting Destin.
Buccaneer Pirate Cruises are interactive activities geared toward children, but they usually end up being a big hit with parents too.
The tours take place on a 100-foot Coast Guard inspected and approved vessel. While onboard, kids will enjoy mock sword fights, water cannon battles, storytime, and even singing and dancing.
14. Cattywampus Catamaran Cruises
If you want to get up close to nature, my pick would be this enormous custom catamaran, offering truly memorable experiences on three-hour tours.
With almost 1,000 square feet of deck, Cattywampus Catamaran Cruises can accommodate more than 40 guests for public or private trips. Activities include eco and wildlife viewing tours, sunset cruises, and snorkeling and shell collecting adventures.
No matter which option you choose, you’ll likely see dolphins, sea turtles, and a variety of fish and birds. This vessel is able to access extremely shallow waters, for extra safe swimming and snorkeling.
15. The Air Force Armament Museum
A brief drive from Destin will get you to one of the region’s premier military museums. Across the bay in Eglin, the Air Force Armament Museum is next to the Eglin Air Force Base.
This installation is on a mind-boggling scale, and serves as a testing center for air-delivered weapons.
The museum documents that heritage, with an explosive array of rockets, missiles and bombs. I don’t think you need to be an aficionado to be wowed by this comprehensive roster of laser-guided and radar-controlled weaponry, from the Tomahawk to the Paveway series.
There’s also a formidable assortment of aircraft, including a B52 and an SR-71 Blackbird.