Emerald Coast:‘The perfect family escape’

ResourcesThe Emerald Grande 10 Harbor Blvd., Destin, Fla.(866) 386-2279emeraldgrande.comNathanial Bowditch schooner(850) 650-8787The Gulfarium 1010 Miracle Strip Parkway Fort Walton Beach, Fla.(850) 243-9046 gulfarium.comThe Crab Trap on Okaloosa Island1450 Miracle Strip ParkwayFort Walton Beach, Fla. (850) 301-0959myspace.com/thecrabtrapBig Kahuna's Water Park1007 U.S. Highway 98 East Destin, Fla. (850) 837-8319bigkahunas.com

Looking for a long weekend hideout along 24 miles of sugar-white sands and sparkling emerald waters? Whether your agenda is to build sand castles on the beach or jump the waves on jet skis, the Emerald Coast is the perfect family escape. Situated along Florida’s upper Gulf Coast in the center of the Emerald Coast, Destin is closer to Mobile than Tallahassee, visible in its easy Southern pace and its culinary specialties: blackened red snapper, black-eyed peas and hush puppies.

The Emerald Grande, located on Destin Harbor, features condo-style suites (a two-bedroom unit that sleeps up to eight comfortably starts at $335 per night). Some additional amenities include a beach-edge pool overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, a full-service spa and free water taxi service to a pristine, private beach.

The Crew Kids Program, with its daily schedule of activities, is ideal for kids who would rather do everything from arts and crafts to dance classes while their parents and older brothers and sisters enjoy scuba diving or a deep sea fishing excursion.

Don’t miss a ride on the Nathanial Bowditch (located on the Destin Harbor docks in front of the Lucky Snapper restaurant), a 54-foot schooner that offers dolphin sails, seashell safaris and starlight cruises. We enjoyed the seashell safari: setting anchor near an uninhabited island, we jumped into the ocean and snorkeled our way to the shoreline. The water was shallow enough for my son, age 7, to comfortably ease into his first snorkeling adventure. Ashore, we collected seashells and spotted crabs. Suddenly we heard that familiar jangle,"Turkey in the Straw,” it was none other than the wandering ice cream skiff with a cooler full of popsicles and treats pulling up onto shore. On our return to Destin Harbor, we were treated to an impromptu dolphin show as a pod raced in the wake of a speedboat.

What’s a trip to Florida without the requisite stop at a kitschy flip-flop style museum? The Gulfarium, Florida’s oldest marine park, is the home of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, tropical penguins, alligators and sea turtles. Stay for a dolphin show (warning: major splash advisory is in effect for anyone sitting in the first three rows) and visit the gift shop afterwards for your coconut head pirate and flamingo toothpick holder.

You likely spotted some wandering crabs on the seashell safari. Now it’s time to eat them for dinner. The Crab Trap on Okaloosa Island offers a tasting of all things crab: She Crab Soup, Blue Crab Claws, Crab Cakes, Fried Crab Claws, Jumbo Lump Crab Linguini, Dungeness, Snow Crab and King Crab legs, to name a few. Kids are treated to their own mini sand bucket and shovel, crayons and a coloring sheet. Across the way is a beachfront play park, so the kids can burn off any extra energy after dinner.

Don’t miss Big Kahuna’s Water Park. Yes, you read that right. Big Kahuna. And you will certainly need big kahunas to step onto the Cyclone, which can best be described as being strapped to a 160-foot propeller spinning on an 85-foot pole. Because that’s exactly what you’ll be: strapped to a 160-foot propeller spinning on an 85-foot pole. Hop into a yellow tube and meander down the Lazy River or slip down any of the fun slides. Smaller slides and water play parks will delight the youngest kids in your family.

Best of all, head back to the beach, lie back on a chaise and catch some late-afternoon rays. You’re in Florida. And you’re on vacation. Relax. Enjoy. Repeat.

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