#TravelTuesday: Families Can Play All Day In Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida

by Heidi Gollub on December 27, 2022 in Travels,
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A Destin-Fort Walton Beach vacation is an invitation to play. From sunup sea turtle track spotting to sundown sand crab hunting, you won’t want to miss a single adventure along Florida’s Emerald Coast. 

The recipe for a happy family vacation is a mix of easy planning, engaging activities, and good food that you don’t have to cook or clean up. Destin-Fort Walton Beach blends these ingredients to perfection, and sprinkles them with a touch of sugar-white sand. 

Visiting Destin-Fort Walton Beach with Kids

Free adventures await at the Little Adventures Outpost on Fort Walton Beach. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

Planning a fun family getaway to Destin-Fort Walton Beach is easy, thanks to the Little Adventures website. This site is a goldmine of big beachy entertainment for littles. Would your kids like to try surfing or learn how to build cooler sandcastles? There are lessons for that. Want to go snorkeling close to shore? Locals share the best beaches for families. Search for activities by age and build an itinerary that gets your crew in the water and making memories. If you have questions, local mom volunteers are available to chat through the site.  

When in Destin-Fort Walton Beach, keep an eye out for seasonal Little Adventures outposts. Here you’ll find enthusiastic, water-loving “scouts” who offer challenges designed to get kids trying something new. These 60 to 90-minute classes are completely free and might include scout-led paddleboarding, surf fishing, or stargazing. There’s no catch—the goal is to get kids excited about being active outdoors.  

Family Fun in the Florida Sun

How much time you spend in the sparkling Gulf of Mexico may depend on the time of year you visit. But whether you’re boogie boarding, boating, or fishing, you’re bound to have a good time. Here are some ideas for ways to make the most of your time in Destin-Fort Walton Beach.

On the water

Captain Pam giving instructions on how to steer the boat. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

Look for dolphin pods with Captain Pam of Smile n Wave Sailing Adventures. Kids love helping unfurl the smiley-face sail on her trimaran, Nice Tri, and learning how to steer the boat. Captain Pam knows where all her “dol-friends” play, so an excursion with her is sure to brighten your day. 

In the water

Look for sea turtles at Norriego Point. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

Pack up your snorkel gear and head to Norriego Point. This low-key Holiday Isle peninsula beach is free to visit and a great spot for shallow underwater exploration. Here you can spot sea turtles, needlefish, and moon jellies. You might also discover some of the hermit crabs who live in the tide pools. 

For more marine life, check out the artificial reefs around Destin-Fort Worth Beach. These range from underwater concrete piles to sunken shipwrecks and are excellent places to snorkel and scuba. On deeper dives, you might see an octopus, a sandbar shark, or a spotted eagle ray. The map of reefs is free, but you can also buy helpful waterproof cards about each artificial reef from Reef Smart Guides

Near the water

Rent fishing gear from the pier at Fort Walton Beach. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

Pier fishing at Fort Walton Beach is a low-stress way to introduce kids to fishing. Head to The Island Pier to rent rods and buy bait. Even if you don’t catch anything, you could spy dolphins, tiger sharks, manatees, and sea turtles. You’ll definitely see herons, who are looking for the same fish you are. 

If fishing is a hit, put Destin’s fishing rodeo on your calendar. This annual tournament lasts the entire month of October and has prizes of more than $100,000. First-timers are welcome to participate and you can charter a boat to get in on the action. 

Out of the water

With all the fishing going on in the area, sea turtles often get injured. If you see a turtle get hooked, don’t cut the line because it could drown in as little as three minutes. Instead, call the sea turtle hotline by dialing *FWC from your cell phone. 

The Gulfarium C.A.R.E. Center nurses injured sea turtles back to health. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

The people who take those calls work at The Gulfarium C.A.R.E. Center. This year, the nonprofit has brought in more than 100 sea turtle rehab patients and a few hatchlings. Dedicated staff nurse the sea turtles back to health with X-rays, surgery to remove swallowed fish hooks, iron injections, vitamins, and fluids. 

Learn about the sea turtles currently in the center’s care on Facebook, and follow the page for public events like sea turtle releases. 

Where To Stay

The Henderson has an adults-only pool, a family pool, and a lazy river. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

The Henderson Beach Resort and Spa is a seaside property that borders Henderson Beach State Park. Its elegant suites are spacious with balconies that overlook the neighboring 208-acre nature preserve and the Gulf of Mexico. 

The cozy lobby of The Henderson is called the living room. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

As guests at the resort, you’ll have access to a private beach, pools, a lazy river, and a schedule of free activities. Start your day with complimentary yoga, meditation, or aqua aerobics. Let the kids play lawn games and do family crafts. Try a water balloon toss or enter the cornhole tournament. Then borrow some hotel bikes and go for a ride. 

Relax at the Henderson Beach Resort spa. Photo courtesy Heidi Gollub.

Paid childcare is available seasonally at Poppy’s Kids Club. Drop your child off to make some new friends and you can head to the resort spa to relax in the Himalayan salt suite, experiential shower, and steam room. 

Where To Eat

If you’re staying at The Henderson, the resort restaurants are a treat. In the morning, order a buttermilk pancake stack from in-room dining or head down to Primrose Restaurant for a full breakfast spread. For lunch, enjoy poolside service with a chicken salad sandwich from Sea Level. Stop by Sprinkles Café for an afternoon ice cream. Then toast the day with a Destin Sunset cocktail at The Rooftop Bar before heading back to Primrose for dinner. 

Venturing off property, many more culinary delights await. Christie’s Cinnamon Toast from East Pass Coffee Co. is a hit with kids. As are the milkshakes at the waterside Brotula’s, which come in a light-up souvenir cup. For Gulf to Table eats, take any fish you “hook” to Brotula’s to cook, or try the catch of the day at Camille’s at Crystal Beach. For culinary cuisine the whole family will enjoy, head to LuLu’s. Owned by Jimmy Buffett’s sister, LuLu’s has an arcade, live music, and a beach backyard where kids can play. 

Getting There

A trip to the Florida Panhandle is convenient for Texans. There’s not even a time change. Destin-Fort Walton Beach is about a nine hour drive from Houston, or a two-hour flight from Dallas.

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Cover photo Courtesy Heidi Gollub

Heidi Gollub enjoys working remotely and already misses the days when her kids could take virtual schooling on the road. An Austin local, she is always on the lookout for easy family getaways that require little-to-no prep work.