What to do in Destin, Florida
I start dreaming about my summer plans in the middle of winter. My favorite place to visit for much-needed relaxation is Destin, Florida. I am in Texas, so it's a relatively short flight, the beaches are clean with white, powdery sand, there are plenty of fun things to do and good food to eat. It has taken s about six years of summer visits to come up with the perfect vacation.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHEN TO BOOK:
We've rented houses on Miramar Beach, stayed at Emerald Grande Harbor Walk, and my personal favorite is a mix between the two - Henderson Park Inn and Henderson Park Resort. You get the best of both worlds staying with the Henderson Park properties. I'll break down the differences between the options.
Leased condo on the beach: staying in one of these is great because you walk directly onto a private beach, it's cheaper since you can cook your food, and rent a golf cart to drive up and down Scenic Highway 98. Best of all- the beach in front of your property is not crowded, as it's private. However, you run out of things to do for entertainment, and it's a bit of a drive to either Sandestin or Harbor Walk. When we first started going to Destin, Uber wasn't a thing, so if you didn't have a car with you - you were stuck. That's not the case anymore, so it's really a moot point. I've gone through VRBO or Ocean Reef Resorts to find a house, and both have been fine.
Emerald Grand: is directly on the Harbor Walk. If you are more about being around restaurants, souvenir shops, and minor attractions - this is for you. You are on the bay side instead of the waves of the Gulf, so even if you have an ocean view, you won't hear the waves, which I find soothing. And, you hear traffic, boats, etc. from your patio. The food at the hotel was meh at best, and I am not in love with any of the restaurants on the Harbor Walk, either. The food trucks are good, though. They do have a ferry to a beach on the bay, but I don't suggest this (see below).
Henderson Park Inn: is an 'adults only' property directly on the beach for ages twenty-five years and up. It's a boutique hotel that is focused on taking care of you.
The perks are: free bikes you can take at any time, private beach, oceanfront rooms, a Tiki Bar that serves free cocktails for an hour a day, bonfires at night (weather permitting), free refreshments (cookies, candy bars, sodas, waters), and a delicious breakfast prepared by chefs each morning. Also, you can sign up for a picnic lunch each day.
We stayed in two rooms while we were there based upon availability (the hotel books out). We first stayed in a corner suite, which was nice, but a bit small if you're going to be there a week. We moved to the Presidential Suite, which has much more room and ran about 900 USD per night.
Since it's a yearly vacation, we splurged. I'd say if you are trying to save money, the smaller rooms are still nice. You want to spend most of the time outside of the room, anyway. There's plenty of space to spread out on the property.
If you have kids and an 'adults-only' property won't work - no problem. Directly behind this property is a resort equipped with a lazy river pool with a bar/waitstaff and an adults-only section, an ice cream store, and one of the most amazing restaurants in Destin, Primrose. The resort (unlike the Henderson Park Inn that is directly on the sand) is a bit back from the beach, but I can imagine you can still see the ocean from certain rooms.
MY FAVORITE RESTAURANTS:
Primrose. This place has a 4.1/5, but I disagree with that - for a beach town, this was amazing. I've read many of the reviews, and it appears their breakfast buffet is expensive and nothing out of this world. Therefore, go for dinner. They have a great menu with seafood, burgers, pasta, and sushi options. They have two chefs listed on their site, so that's probably the reason they can have such a spread of options. My husband had the burger, which he said was amazing, and I had the sushi, which was fabulous. The ambiance of the place is fantastic.
Beachwalk Cafe this place is amazing. They claim they are the only fine dining directly on the beach. I can't argue with that. When my husband and I dined here, we were sat at an awkward table - probably the worst table in the place, but it was still a great experience. There are many options to sit outside on the beach, or at least have a window overlooking the water. We had a tiny table at the entrance. I suppose when you make reservations (which we did have), specify that you want a table with a view. Let's talk about their dishes - get the Grouper Vince dish. You won't be disappointed, as that's what they are known for. Everything they did and served was as good as it could be. Plus, I got a rose at the end of the night, which was a special touch.
Horizons at Henderson Resort. Yes, it might seem like this is a Henderson Park ad, but they're not paying me. We just discovered many hidden gems on our last visit.
This is more of a casual bar-type restaurant. We tried the red snapper bites, which were suggested by our waitress, and they were amazing. The gumbo was good, and my husband's burger was delicious. There is a large bar in here, and this place has a better view over Primrose. You can't really see the beach directly, as it's in the distance, but it still has a good ambiance.
Surf Hut this was my favorite go-to place before discovering the spots at the Henderson properties. However, the last time I went (2019), it wasn't quite as good as I remembered it to be. This is a journey down Scenic Highway, but we rode our bikes from Henderson Park Inn last time, and it wasn't terrible. I must add that I'm not in shape and hadn't ridden a bike in thirty years, so if I made it - anyone could make it. The years we rented beach houses - we had a golf cart and drove there, which was fun.
This is primarily a seafood restaurant, although they do have other stuff on the menu, such as ribs and shish kabobs. Any of the fried seafood options are good - you're on vacation, so calories don't count. The crab legs are good, but the Crap Trap crab is better. Their gumbo is okay, not great. I haven't tried them, but many in my group go for the chicken kabobs, so they must be good, as we have picky eaters. The best thing about this spot is the airy beachy feel to it. It's on the beach, and pretty much, any place will have a great view.
Crap Trap get the crab. Enough said. This place is a solid choice for seafood.
It's Alaskan crab legs (go figure), but they are tasty. Not the best I've ever had, but this is a beach, so you get that in trade. This place is directly on the beach, but not all seats have the best view. Ask for a beach-side seat if they have it.
The gumbo was good, but realize - I'm a gumbo snob, given that I have the Nola Cluster in my DNA (I really do). My family is from Louisiana, and I'm a first-gen Texan. Nobody makes gumbo like Cajuns. But this place serves a pretty good bowl of it. We rode our bikes here from the Henderson Park Inn, and it wasn't too far. If you're renting a beach house, you can rent a golf cart or scooter and make it here, as well. From the Harbor Walk, you'll need to drive or take an Uber (which goes for the other restaurants, as well).
General notes about where not to go: almost anywhere else I didn't mention will have sub-par food. I don't want to call anyone out specifically, but we've tried a ton of places in Destin, as we visit once a year. I've never had a 'great' meal at the Harbor Walk other than the grilled cheese food truck. I can't remember liking anything at SanDestin, either. It seems the prime location places lack food quality and taste because they have the hotspots on the water, which saddens me. If you have had a great experience at a restaurant in Destin that I didn't cover - let me know by leaving a comment below.
MY FAVORITE THINGS TO DO IN DESTIN:
Obviously, there are many things to do at the beach. The best beach option we've found is the Henderson Park Inn, but as I said above, that's for adults only.
The Henderson Park Resort (which is behind the Inn - walking distance, but across a small road) has access right next to the 'adults only' beach, and it's roped off. So, the Inn's beach access isn't as calm and peaceful as you'd like on busy days - as a rope doesn't stop the shrill kid screams from invading your ears. If you want 95% private beach time - it's probably best to rent a beach condo with 'private beach access' in the listing.
At either Henderson beach, you can get paddleboards, boogie boards for wave riding, etc.
The Emerald Grand resort doesn't have beach access, but they have many things to do within walking distance from your room. It's a trade-off. Albeit, you walk through a semi-creepy parking garage to get to Harbor Walk, but just don't go alone. You can take a ferry to a beach on the bay side, but there are no waves, and it's severely overcrowded. Oh, and no restrooms. That is why I don't care to go back to Emerald Grand. I need my beach time - to hear the waves, get some space and quiet time, and see the waves from my window.
Beach safety: I would highly suggest life jackets for all ages while you are near the water. One of our stays included Coast Guard helicopters and boats searching for bodies when people ignored the red flag warning about riptides. It's dangerous when the flags are red - even in knee-deep water. Please don't ignore the flags posted on the beach. There were twelve drownings one year (2016) along the Florida coastline. A man from Austin (where I'm from) lost his life via a riptide. It was a family of four, and all were pulled out via the same riptide. The three survivors also nearly drowned, but were rescued. It was heartbreaking to watch the Coast Guard search for his body the next morning. It was a dark day. I cannot imagine what his family went through that night, and probably continue to endure.
Also, in 2019, there was a Vibrio scare where some people were dying or getting very sick from the warm waters of the Gulf. Not to scare you, but if you have open wounds, you should seal them off before going in the water - especially in later summer when the concentration of bacteria has increased. I prefer to keep the water as a visual, relaxing ambiance. I don't get in the water. *Stepping down from my PSA soapbox.*
you have a good time. The captains play music while speeding around the Gulf, bouncing on waves and doing fun turns. They will stop for dolphins if they see them. It's not too scary, as you can tell right away that the captains know what they are doing. We did this one time during Hurricane Alberto, and the waters were pretty choppy. He pushed the limits so we could have fun, but he didn't go that far out because of the weather - and that was just fine! I highly recommend this attraction. They have a 5-star review on Google for a reason.
The Buccaneer Pirate Cruise is a must-do. If you are staying at Emerald Grand resort, you'll hear these guys shooting off their cannon in the mornings, so beware. The first time, it caught me off guard - and I was on our balcony. Yikes.
So, this cruise might be for kids, but I'm a kid and found it to be quite entertaining. They do cater to young ones, however. There is a snack bar, shop with pirate gear (which we purchased swords and bandannas from), and they do serve cocktails on the ship. The pirate crew puts on a fun show for everyone during the one-hour trip in the Gulf. I entered the hula hoop competition, which was fun, but I put my sword in my bathing suit strap, and it hindered my abilities. I couldn't keep the hula up to save my life. I had to redeem myself by purchasing a hula hoop when we got home. One day, I might try to re-enter this competition...or not - my family was highly disturbed at how terrible I performed. Alas, I'll never be a professional hula-hooper. I can live with that.
Gulfarium Adventure Park: I'm not usually one for zoos, or anywhere they hold animals captive, but this place seems to be doing it right. From what I saw, these animals are taken care of like pets. I had the feeling they were all living their best life, and the Google reviews for this place support that. It's a relatively small place, but that's good - the trainer to animal ratio is acceptable. You can tell the trainers love these animals. We did one of the side experiences you can purchase, and were able to meet the sea lion (Tina), and seal (Milo). They were amazing. There are a few more experiences you can purchase, like to swim with stingrays. I think it's worth spending a couple of hours here. It's not a whole day thing.
7-D Virtual Experience at Harbor Walk this is at the Harbor Walk. It can get expensive with a big group who want to try various scenarios, but if you want to have a quick burst of fun, you should try this place. They have about five or so scenarios you can try (zombies, wild west, mine train, etc.). Everyone sits in a seat of a row of ten seats facing a huge screen. When ready, you'll shoot at things on this screen in hopes of getting a high score. It's all about pride and beating the other nine or so people who were shooting at the screen. It kind of sounds silly now that I think of it, but it's fun and something to do away from the beach.
Gulf Coast Escape Rooms: I'll be honest - you're at the beach, so why coop your group into a locked room? I'll tell you why! Because sometimes, you want a challenge and a break from the sun. Some of our group thought it was lame, but the hardcore competitors stayed and did a few of the rooms.
Yes, in the photo, we named our team Alberto, since we had to walk through hurricane winds to get to the escape room. There was nothing else to do that year (2018), as we went right when Alberto was harassing the coastline. *Sigh*
But this place is pretty good. They usually have about four different rooms going at once with varying difficulty. I like this place, as it just gives you something else to do besides eating or sitting in sand. As you can see by the gender in the photo - the boys were out after the first escape experience.
Rent waverunners: I was skeptical at first. I didn't want to get eaten by a shark, and I didn't want to drown or get into a losing fight with a boat. Who wants that? Nobody. All of these fears manifested into a near panic attack as my husband and I set off into the vast green sea. However, I surprisingly enjoyed myself. It was a lot of fun. We stayed in the calmer bay area by the Destin Harbor - yet we were still in the open air with so much water surrounding us. My husband drove well, and I was very glad of that. I'm unsure if I could have pulled off driving the thing, but I suggest doing this if you have a good driver.
They do have bonfire companies that will come out and set up a bonfire on the beach if you've rented a condo. One year, my brother and his wife messed with getting a permit from the city, renting the bonfire items, and having to set up and take everything down afterward. Don't do this. Hire someone to take care of everything for you - it is well worth not having to hassle with all of that. If you have kids, get some sparklers.
We've tried some of the glass bottom boats, dolphin cruises, fireworks cruises, and they were all just meh for us. They do have parasailing, deep-sea fishing, and a few other attractions that you can sign up for at either Harbor Walk or Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Sandestin is worth a visit, as they have better shopping than Harbor Walk, and you can rent bikes and go on their trails. There are some attractions for kids, such as a rock-climbing wall and zipline. Oh, and you can play golf there, of course.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND ADVICE:
When to go: we've gone in late May and tried mid-July once. My opinion is to go earlier in the summer. It's less crowded, not as boiling hot, the water isn't as bad with bacteria - but you do have a good potential for red flags on the beach. Albeit, when we were there in July, we had red flags every day, as well.
If you plan on visiting Harbor Walk or Sandestin, check their calendar of events and see if they have any shows, parades, live bands, etc. and schedule your visit accordingly.
Let me know if you have any questions by posting below!