Pristine beaches. Emerald green water. And family-friendly activities galore. Welcome to Destin on Florida’s Panhandle.
From its soft and ever-so-fine, white Appalachian quartz beaches to the soothing, emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it's easy to see why Destin has grown from a sleepy fishing village to one of the most popular vacation spots in Florida’s Panhandle. Destin has it all: world-class fishing, boating, paddleboarding, golfing, shopping, entertainment, and award-winning restaurants. Whether your family is looking to relax on the beach or take in the vibrant social scene, it’s all just a few sandy steps away.
What to do?
Of course, the beach is the number one reason that vacationers flock to Destin. If your hotel doesn’t have access to a private beach, you can easily get to the surf from one of 13 access points within the city limits. The first thing we noticed was how clean and soft the sand was everywhere. The ocean here is shallow; my 4- and 5-year olds enjoyed how far they could walk out into the water. The waves were gentle, too, so they weren’t tossed around and could play safely. The sand is perfect for building sandcastles. In fact, you can learn some great building techniques by booking sandcastle lessons with Beach Sand Sculptures. Cost: Youth (under 4) Free; Family (1 to 5 people) $200; book in advance as these lessons are quite popular.
Visit Destin Harbor and Harborwalk Village in the heart of downtown Destin. Day or night, this area is a hub of activity. Harborwalk Village is where you’ll find an array of restaurants and waterfront shopping. It’s also rental central for paddleboards, kayaks, pontoon boats, and jet skis. Need more? There’s also glass bottom boats, fishing, parasailing, pirate ship excursions, sunset cruises, dolphin cruises, and live music.
KidTripster Tip: Parking fills up quickly everywhere during the day, so plan to arrive early.
We decided to join the crew on the Buccaneer Pirate Cruise (100 Harbor Blvd.). You can book this two-hour tour at HarborWalk Village Marina. We loved it! Our 5-year-old son was in his element with the water gun and sword fights. The ship was a bit crowded with most of the audience gathering in the middle of the main deck for storytelling, dancing, and pirate activities. For more elbow room, you can steal away to the upper deck to enjoy the views. This cruise is geared to kids under 12, but the banter between crew members is enjoyable for parents, too. We had a lot of good laughs! Snacks are available for sale on the main deck; the menu consists mainly of hot dogs, soft drinks, chips, beer, and wine. Cost: Youth (under 3) Free; Youth (4 to 14) $19.50; Adult $34.
Put Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park (1007 Highway 98) on your list! This popular park features more than 40 attractions, including kiddie pools, wave pool, rides, slides, lazy rivers, and a Flow Rider. There’s also a thrill ride called the Sky Coaster that hangs you 100 feet in the air and then swoops toward the ground at speeds up to 60 mph! Big Kahuna’s closes at the end of September. Check the website for latest prices.
Crab Island is popular among locals and sits along the East Pass near the Destin Bridge. To get there, you can charter a cruise or rent a boat, kayak, paddleboard, or jet ski; don’t attempt to swim to the island because the currents are too strong. It’s truly a unique Destin experience. Crab Island is generally family-friendly before lunch; it’s recommended you get there for some of the early activities but head out by 1 p.m. when it becomes more of a party scene. If you want to avoid crowds, go to the island before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. During peak season, it’s most crowded Wednesdays through Sundays. SunVenture offers excursions to Crab Island. 3-hour trip cost: Youth (2 and younger) Free; Youth (3-14) $24.50 Adult $40.50.
Where to eat?
You can’t walk around Destin without hearing about the Donut Hole (635 Harbor Blvd.), so let me put that one on the table right away. It’s so popular that it’s not uncommon to find the line winding outside. So if you want to sit down for breakfast or lunch, arrive early. Otherwise, expect a 30-minute wait to grab your donuts to go. Our family had a sit-down lunch here. My husband tried a Reuben sandwich, piled high with corned beef and sauerkraut. He says that it’s one of the best that he’s ever had. And of course, my kids loved the donuts! Be sure to check the “Everything $10.95” specials board on your way in.
Jackacuda's Seafood & Sushi (56 Harbor Blvd.) doesn’t disappoint. We found the service here to be top-notch, and the food was fabulous. If it weren’t a little on the spendy side, we could have spent all day eating! The waiter kindly brought fruit from the bar to our little ones while we waited for our order. The kids ordered fried fish with fries off the children’s menu. My husband and I had fish tacos, fried avocado, lemon garlic oysters, and topped it all off with Jac’s white chocolate pie. Oh wow, delicious!
For a casual, kid-friendly spot with a full menu of fresh seafood, head to Dewey Destin’s (202 Harbor Blvd.) This outdoor eatery is family-owned and serves up fresh seafood with views westward where you can catch those beautiful sunsets over the bay. The children’s menu includes standard items like hot dogs, chicken tenders, and fried fish.
KidTripster Tip: Dewey Destin’s has a second location on Crab Island.
Where to stay?
From the full-sized kitchen to the spacious bedrooms to the full laundry, the apartment-style suites of Destin Gulfgate have everything your family could possibly need. The staff is friendly and the units are clean; ask for a newly-remodeled unit for updated decor. And the view? You can’t beat it! Right on the beach, the balcony is equipped with loungers so you can relax and take in the spectacular ocean. Or head down to the private beach and enjoy complimentary lounge chairs as you soak up the sun. The pool was a huge hit with my kids. You can walk into the shallow end and watch them enjoy fun water features. Or slide into the deeper end and swim. Destin Gulfgate is conveniently located within walking distance to several restaurants as well as adventure parks across the highway.
All two-bedroom units are priced the same, but there’s a difference in rates depending on the season. Off-season rates drop as low as $175/night. During peak season, you’ll pay around $438/night. October is considered off-season, but you can still enjoy summer temperatures at a lower rate of $224/night. Check the website for discounts.
KidTripster Tip: Destin Gulfgate has partnerships with several local businesses, where can get discounts, including 10%-off at Jackacuda's. You can find a full list on the resort’s website.
Henderson Beach State Park gives your family the opportunity to get close to the water and those sugar-white dunes with a 208-acre park. There are 60 campsites for tents and RVs; water and electricity included. Costs $30.00/night.
Destin is located on the Gulf of Mexico along the Florida Panhandle. It’s about a 4-hour drive from New Orleans, 5-hour drive from Atlanta, and 6-hour drive from Tampa.
Tracy Atwood is a former journalist and mother of two children, a 4-year-old girl and a protective, 5-year-old big brother. She has recently discovered Crossfit fitness and developed a newfound love for extreme, obstacle course mud runs.