50 Reasons We Love the Emerald Coast

50 Reasons We Love the Emerald Coast

By Amanda Finch Broadfoot, Lori Hutzler Eckert and the staff and readers of Emerald Coast Magazine 

There are a few of our favorite things … and in some cases, readers have shared their “secret” finds. In other cases, they’ve lauded some of our region’s world-renowned sources of pride – the snow-white sand, for instance, and our outstanding military families. It’s by no means a complete list, but we hope you’ll find a few you didn’t know about and quite a few with which you’ll agree.  Better yet, we hope you’ll be inspired to tell us what you love most about the Emerald Coast …


1. The Weather!
With an average annual temperature of 75 degrees and close to 340 days of sunshine per year, we don’t understand why everyone doesn’t live here … of course, we’re glad to keep it our little secret as long as we can.

2. The Sand
Our world-famous beaches are so beautifully white for a reason. The sand hasn’t been bleached by the sun, as was long believed, but instead, is comprised of Appalachian quartz that filters down to the coast from the mountains.

3. Our Men and Women in Uniform
We’ve never been prouder to be the hometown of so many heroes. Local military bases – Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field, and Duke Field – support more than 60,000 active military, civil service and military dependents. We salute you!

4. Southern Hospitality
This is the place where the “sunshine state” wears its sunny disposition most proudly. The No. 2 drive destination in Florida, we’re happy to welcome visitors from all over the country, and we’re practically a suburb of Birmingham, Atlanta and New Orleans.

5. Playing Golf
With more than two dozen fine local courses, including several designed by some of the world’s leading course architects, we’ve created quite a few “golf widows” on the Emerald Coast. Most, though, eventually decide “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” And we’ve never looked back …

6. Boating Around Crab Island
It’s like a tailgate party in waist-deep, crystal-clear, bathtub-warm water.  Grab a cooler, rent a pontoon boat and soak up the sun.

7. Free Wireless Internet Access
Laptop warriors know the secret of finding free Internet access on the Emerald Coast. Panera Bread Café and Tropical Smoothie offer free access at Destin Commons, while you can also pick up a signal at Rum Runners at Baytowne Wharf and Johnny O’Quigley’s – just ask the bar staff about the best place to sit.

8. High School Football
Of course, we’re crazy about college and professional teams, but go to a Friday night football game at any of our high school stadiums and you’ll see the real meaning of school spirit.

9. Trolleys
Right now trolley service is limited to certain areas: Okaloosa Island (during certain months); Sandestin has its own system, and even Destin Commons will save you a walk from your car to your favorite store. We just wish everybody would get on board.

10. Watching the fleet come in at Destin Harbor
The heart of Destin is its harbor, and we couldn’t be happi er to see that area getting a little TLC. Watching the fishing fleet bring home their latest catch is a reminder of how “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” got its start. It’s also a cool place to watch pelicans. 

11. Emerald Coast Parrot Head Club
Did you know that our local Emerald Coast Parrot Head club is one of the largest in the world? These Jimmy Buffet lovers “Party with a Purpose” to the benefit of many local charities, including Hurricane Katrina relief.

12. The Annual Heart Ball
Benefiting the American Heart Association, this yearly gala always has a fun theme, such as the Great Gatsby, or The Festival of Hearts, which brings out the creative side of the attendees.

13. Emerald Coast Foundation Poker Run
The Emerald Coast Foundation has invested over half a million dollars in local youth through fun fundraising events like this boating extravaganza. After all, what could be better than combining boating and poker?

14. The Snowbird Migration
Escaping the snowy winters of far northern climes, these annual visitors flock to the Emerald Coast for the same reason we all love to live here year-round.

15. Outdoor Ice Skating
Many readers commented on how much they enjoyed “Okaloosa on Ice” at Brooks Landing in Fort Walton Beach. The event lasts 46 days, beginning in mid-November and created a winter wonderland with thousands of twinkling lights, a mini train ride, and of course, a 50’x80’ outdoor skating rink.

16. “The Nutcracker”
Feel like a kid on Christmas morning by taking in this annual treat from the Northwest Florida Ballet. Performed with the Northwest Florida Symphony Orchestra at the Arts Center at Okaloosa Walton College, “The Nutcraker” is a celebration of sight and sound.

17. Snow … sort of
A reader favorite is the holiday tradition at Destin Commons of dropping snow on the Center Plaza every evening during December. It might be hot enough outside for shorts, but thanks to Destin Commons, we still get a light dusting of holiday spirit.

18. Autumn Tides
Yet another reason why fall is one of our favorite times of year on the Emerald Coast. Produced by Beaches of South Walton, this series of events – wine fests, art shows, plays, auctions and fairs – squeezes the last lovely moments out of our fine late summer/autumn weather.

19. Local wineries
Northwest Florida wineries like Chautauqua in DeFuniak Springs, Three Oaks in Vernon, and SeaBreeze in Panama City specialize in sweet muscadine wines made from the homegrown grapes that thrive in this area.

20. Annual Beaujolais Nouveau event
Every November, wine lovers around the world celebrate the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau on the same night. At Sandestin, in addition to, of course, tasting this world-famous wine, there’s also a French Country Cuisine walkabout dinner. All proceeds benefit the Covenant Hospice of Northwest Florida.

21. Swimming with the dolphins
Both the Gulfarium in Destin and Gulf World in Panama City offer the life-changing experience of meeting these amazing creatures up close and personally.

22. Bark Park
Pooches deserve a hangout where “everybody knows their name.” Bark Park, a labor of love envisioned by pet lover Spike Alfassa, is soon to be a reality. County Commissioners have given two acres of land off J.D. Miller Road near Highway 331 to the cause.

23. Going to The Zoo
There are more than 900 animals at The Zoo in Gulf Breeze, including a pair of loving hippos, a new baby camel called “Paddy,” and “Ivan,” a six-foot-long Komodo Dragon. The Zoo’s impressive man-made habitats have even been featured on Animal Planet.

24. Animal fashion shows
We love our animals. And the only thing we love more than our animals is seeing our animals in cute little outfits. “Canines on the Catwalk” at The Market Shops at Sandestin, “Doggie Red Carpet” at Destin Commons – we can’t get enough of cat-walking dogs.

25. The Multi-species Show at the Gulfarium
The Gulfarium celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005. Animals frolic together in the Multi-species Show where sea lions feed fish to dolphins, and dolphins perform breathtaking synchronized stunts.

26. Billy Bowlegs
Capt. Billy’s “invasion” of Fort Walton Beach is a spectacle anticipated each summer by the entire community. The notorious pirate travels to area schools to enlist members for his Motley Krewe, and then launches his attack on Fort Walton Landing during the annual Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival.

27. Greyhound Races in Ebro
This local track – hidden away in Southern Washington County – has hosted live races for 47 years. You can also take in televised sporting events and sit in on $2 limit poker.

28. Feeding gators at Gator Beach
Located at Fudpucker’s on U.S. Highway 98, Gator Beach is a donor to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge and home to Mellow Yellow, a rare yellow alligator. Patrons are invited to feed the animals, or even have their picture taken with them. But sorry, no swimming!

29. Weddings on the beach
Hardly a day goes by that you can’t find some happy couple taking advantage of the natural beauty of the Emerald Coast to say their “I Dos.” From small, intimate ceremonies to huge, tented galas, we love beach weddings. And just think how great the photos will look.

30. Jolee Island at Sandestin
Pack a picnic and play at Swiss Family Robinson on this hidden five-acre Jolee Island Nature Park at Sandestin. A kids’ paradise, the park hosts a pirate ship-shaped playground and look-out tower overlooking the island’s pines and magnolias. Parents can stroll the perimeter and relax on a porch swing.

31. Surf-fishing in Topsail Hill State Park
Less than a mile’s walk down the beach from Sandestin, this beautiful, deserted park is like another world. It’s easy to imagine what the landscape looked like before condos and multi-million dollar homes. Where else can you enjoy so much serenity for a mere $2?

32. Strolling the boardwalk at Turkey Creek
This Niceville nature park is a great place to relax, unwind and get up close and person with native flora and fauna. The 3⁄4 mile boardwalk winds through the swampy bayou, giving you plenty of time for quiet reflection.

33. Cruising up the Choctawhatchee River
”It is really a cruise back in time,” writes one fan of the lazy trips that run almost all the way to Dothan, Ala. The Choctawhatchee River Queen is, unfortunately, gone, but several smaller boats have reportedly taken up the tradition.

34. Catching the sunrise over Mid-Bay Bridge
Commuters coming into Destin from out of town are privy to a treat that makes the drive worthwhile. As one commuter put it: “The world is waking up, and the colors across the Bay are absolutely beautiful.”

35. Taking your dog to the beach
Walton County allows resident puppies to play in the waves, with the proper registration. It costs about $25 for a permit, and you need to keep Fido on a leash.

36. The jogging path along Scenic 98
Take this scenic jogging path any given morning and be prepared to meet and greet other runners, dog walkers and people watchers. For the dedicated athlete, it could be the best place along the Emerald Coast to run with a beach view.

37. Snorkeling at the jetties on Holiday Isle
Life here is better down where it’s wetter … especially in our emerald green waters.

38. Cruising on the Solaris
What better way to enjoy the natural beauty of our little corner of heaven than aboard a cruise? The Solaris, debarking from the Baytowne Marina, offers up dinner and dancing under the stars, wine and cheese at sunset, or even weddings on the top deck.

39. Thriving community theater
We challenge you to find another community anywhere close to our size with the quality of theater we enjoy. Seaside Repertory, Kaleidoscope and The Arts Center at OWC entertain us with everything from Broadway to improv.

40. Mountain Film Series at WaterColor
WaterColor brings a taste of Hollywood to the Emerald Coast each fall with the Telluride MountainFilm on Tour festival. Dancing across the big screen under the stars in the WaterColor amphitheater, films are selected to inspire people. Bring blankets and lawn chairs and catch a flick under the stars.

41. Concerts in the Park
Tunes carried on a mild summer breeze are a favorite tradition along the Emerald Coast, from symphonic sounds sponsored by the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation, to jazz in the Village at Sandestin, to the eclectic free concerts at Pier Park and McKenzie Park in Panama City. Pack a picnic and savor the sound of music.

42. Chautauqua Festival
Before the days of TV and radio programs, in the late 1800s the Chautauqua Assembly traveled the country, bringing religious, scientific and cultural programs to the masses, including a stop in DeFuniak Springs. The Chautauqua Festival still remembers and celebrates this colorful DeFuniak history every spring.

43. The architecture of the Taj Palace in Lynn Haven
Built like a tiny replica of the Taj Mahal, this funky piece of Lynn Haven architecture might be considered kitschy if the interior weren’t so elegant and the Indian menu so uniquely authentic for the area.

44. The 49-head pop fountain at Destin Commons
Children, clad in swimsuits or – to their mothers’ dismay – in their best shopping outfits, flock to this cool attraction throughout the heat of the summertime. Part playground – part water-art, this unique feature draws admirers of all ages.

45. Sunset at the Whale’s Tail
Located beachside on Old U.S. Highway 98 in South Walton, the deck of the bare-bones Whale’s Tail has a view second to none. Sometimes you’ll catch dolphins in the distance, and you’re guaranteed a great sunset.

46. Perusing the memorabilia at Magnolia Grill
This historic Fort Walton Beach restaurant is part museum, part dining establishment. The walls are covered with pieces of local history; a library of yearbooks from local high schools dates back decades. Don’t get so caught up in a blast from the past that you forget to eat!

47. “Sunset Celebration” at Angler’s Beachside Grill
Angler’s on Okaloosa Island puts a punctuation mark on the evening by firing off a cannon as the sun goes down each day. While you enjoy the view, the kids can play on the beach playground.

48. Watching TV at Beef ‘O’ Brady’s in The Market Shops
Flat screen TVs with individual controls grace almost every table in this sports lover’s paradise. In fact, it’s a paradise for any couch potato: grab a table and catch up on prime time sitcoms if you like, while your buddies are at the bar watching Monday Night Football.

49. The Destin Seafood Festival
Celebrating “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village” for 27 years, this fabulous food fest also draws great bands, local craftsmen displaying their wares and fun activities for kids like fly-fishing lessons.

50. Our resident artists
Artists thrive along the Emerald Coast, and we art lovers are the beneficiaries. From the artistic spirit of Seaside to the lasting legacy of Mattie Kelly to the non-stop performances at the Arts Center at Okaloosa-Walton, our region supports and encourages fine arts of which we can be proud.