Travel Tips

Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Destin & the Emerald Coast, Florida

Locations in this article:  Orlando, FL Santa Rosa, CA

Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort - FloridaPeter is broadcasting his radio show live from the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Florida.

Located on Florida’s Emerald Coast, this former fishing village offers much more than sun, surf and golf.

With its rare coastal dune lakes, state forests and mom-and-pop commercial zones, the locals have plenty to brag about. Keep reading to find out what locals recommend.

Tom Losee, co-founder, Yolo Board

The area around Florida’s Scenic Route 30-A has some of the most picturesque scenery in the area. Because there is a bike path that runs the entire length of this state road, the whole area is really best explored without a car.

Grayton Beach State Park - FloridaGrayton Beach State Park has a beach on one side and access to the coastal dune lake of Western Lake on the other side. Walton County is particularly known for its rare coastal dune lakes (found only in about five areas in the world), which are unique lakes formed by the wind, where fresh water meets the salty Gulf waters.

Rarely do you see any other people on the lake. I like to paddle across on my Yolo (stand-up paddle) board, walk to the other side and paddle in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, you can paddle through the park through the connector that joins Western with Grayton Lake. From there, it’s possible to  paddle almost all the way to the Gulf, depending on the level of the water and condition of the pop-off.

For more fun in the sun, don’t miss our Beach Vacations section.

View from the Bridge of Western Lake - Florida State ParksAcross from Grayton State Park at Western Lake is a great access to the trail system that runs for miles through the beautiful Point Washington State Forest. The trails are mostly flat, but winding and very scenic and offer hiking, jogging or bicycling over varied terrain. It’s best to hit certain sections of the trails after a rain event, as the rain tends to pack down the sandier areas. Trails are marked by color and maps can be found at the information booth at the entrance to the park.

After an active day you can’t go wrong with picking a spot to eat or drink along the scenic “30a” corridor. Areas such as Seaside and Rosemary Beach tend to offer the most variety, from great coffee to fine dining. There is really something for everyone.

Find more active adventures in our Outdoor Adventures – Hiking & Biking section.

Zandra Wolfgram, contributing writer, Emerald Coast Magazine

At Dewey Destin Seafood Restaurant, biting into a grouper sandwich is like tasting history. The Destins landed here in the 1800s and shaped the towns economy, history and personality. When net banning almost drove them out of the fishing business, they opened a restaurant right next to the first Destin home. Dining here makes me feel connected to a family with roots and history as the Destins are truly living legacies in this town.

Baytowne Wharf - Sandestin, FloridaI love to support mom-and-pop style shops, and every shop in the the Village of Baytowne Wharf is a small, unique business: Bark Avenue, Toys & Treasures and Barefoot Princess are all adorable and the merchants remember your name. From there, you can walk over wooden bridges to the marina and tennis center to a nature park

Of the more unique spots in this area, there is a treehouse in Baytowne Marina in Sandestin constructed by Captain Joe Lee, a treehouse builder from North Carolina who scouted the entire resort for weeks until he found the perfect spot.

Jolee Island Nature Park is one of my favorite places to each lunch. It’s a quiet area where one can sit on swinging chairs overlooking the bay. Across from it is a nature trail and playground tucked into the woods that kids love to explore.

Learn more about nearby Panama City Beach with our Spring Fishing Guide, Pt. 1: Five Top Fishing Destinations.

Overlooking the Gulf is the upscale Fish Out of Water restaurant at the WaterColor Inn & Resort which serves a lemon drop martini that is heaven in a glass – no lie. In 2009, Chef Philip Krajeck was the only chef in the area to be recognized as best chef in the South by the James Beard foundation.

Big Mamma’s Hula GalleryAt Big Mama’s Hula Gallery on Grayton Beach, you can find funky folk art from more than 30 artists and grab a beer out of the fridge in the center of the shop. The gallery is run by Debbie Weant Lane, aka “Big Mama,” and for some reason I share things with her I would never tell anybody. It’s therapy for me to go there, browse the shop and talk with her.

Wine is a lifestyle here. Our local go-to wine guru is Chan Cox, who owns eight wine shops, including Chan’s Wine World in Destin. He offers tastings every week called Friday Night Flights, and  the Wednesday evening Cheese Tease. Chan’s is a must for any visiting wine lover.

The city is all abuzz about the opening of Le Grand Cirque at Grand Boulevard in Santa Rosa Beach. The renowned traveling circus is billed as an amazing family show, and will be a notable major attraction in this already popular destination.

In nearby Pensacola, you can check out the Naval Aviation Museum. Learn more about that experience with Celebrate Veterans Day With Six Military Museums.

Brenda Rees, Historian, Shaping Florida

Unincorporated South Walton, as part of the eighth-oldest Florida County, has historical venues that match its unique and beautiful environment.

Deer Lake State Park - FloridaLocals love Deer Lake State Park off Scenic Highway 30A, with high dunes where locals and tourists can imagine early native people spotting Spanish explorers.

Nearby, a favorite South Walton restaurant, Café 30A, features a regular Tuesday Martini Night with locals and visitors.

The Smith House at Grayton Beach was built in 1925 by Kenneth “Tuff” and Alline Smith from shipwreck remnants. Lovingly restored by new owners Billy and Kelly Buzzett, the Smith House is available to rent, and is considered one of the more well-known homes in a historic and beautiful area.

Santa Rosa Beach is celebrating 100 years in 2010. Although settlers were in the area earlier, Charles Cessna officially plotted the Santa Rosa Plantation in 1910. (Fact: The Sandestin resort is named because it’s halfway between Destin and Santa Rosa.) Locals are planning a celebration for Santa Rosa Beach 100 on Saturday, September 11 and Sunday September 12, 2010, which will take place at Gulf Place Town Center, a quaint commercial area just steps from the beach.

By Sarika Chawla for

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