Day Trips along the Emerald Coast
Five Places You Should Go
Stunning sugar-white sand. Check. Emerald water and balmy breezes. Check. A fun, family vacation destination that won’t break the bank. Check, check, check.
There are plenty of reasons millions of visitors flock to this area year after year. As the official lifestyle magazine for the Emerald Coast, we felt it it only appropriate to point out a few. With so many entertaining things to do all along the coast, you can start vacation season just steps from your home. Why not? Frommer’s, one of the world’s most respected travel guides, put it on its list of Top 10 Destinations in the World, so who are we to argue?
Get Some (Historical) Perspective at the Heritage Park & Cultural Center
Apparently, there were “bombs bursting in air” in Fort Walton Beach in 1861.
According to museum manager Gail Meyer, though there was never really a fort there, there was a camp established by the Walton County guards, and from that the city’s name was coined.
In April of 1861, the Walton Guards moved down to the Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound East Pass, where they could react quickly to any threat to commerce in the bay. The Walton Guards pitched camp in what is now the heart of downtown Fort Walton Beach. Their main camp was located near the base of the large temple mound that can still be seen there.
The men from Camp Walton engaged in some minor skirmishing with sailors from a Union blockade vessel stationed offshore, an action that prompted retaliation on April 1, 1862, by Capt. Henry W. Closson of the 1st U.S. Artillery.
Gen. Braxton Bragg sent an 18-pound carronade (a short-barreled naval cannon) from Pensacola to help the men at Camp Walton defend against future attacks.
The cannon is on display at the entrance to the Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park & Cultural Center in the downtown historic district. The park is also home to the three other historic attractions: the Indian Temple Mound Museum, the Camp Walton School House Museum and the Garnier Post Office Museum.
The Cultural Center is open Monday through Saturday from noon to 4:30 p.m. The entrance fee includes admission to all of the attractions. Adults are $5; military and seniors pay $4.50, children ages 4 to 17 are $3; kids under 4 are free. The easiest access to the park is from the back, off of Eglin Parkway. For more information, visit fwb.org/museum.
Pier into Greatness
The longest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico juts out from the pristine sugar-white sands of lovely Navarre. As of June 2010, the newly renovated Navarre Beach Fishing Pier was open for business.
The 1,500-foot pier that stands about 30 feet above the water welcomes serious or recreational anglers and sightseers looking to take in the amazing view. Being one of the longest piers on the Gulf gives this one a clear advantage — spotting bottle-nosed dolphin, stingrays and sea turtles swimming by is a common occurrence.
Interpretive signs posted along the pier providing fish identification and facts about local wildlife are a nice touch.
With luck, you can lure the likes of cobia, mackerel, snapper, flounder and pompano. A recent decision to expand the pier deck means even more fish species may be easier to reel in soon. Plans are also in the works to enlarge the restaurant on the pier.
An online photo album posted by the Florida Park Service, which oversees the pier, shows dozens of smiling anglers boasting of bragging rights to their awesome catch of the day (navarrepier.com).
Brother and sister Everett Ratliff and Dorothy Slye of Navarre, who say they were pier rats in the ’60s and ’70s, manage the pier, which is open daily from 5 a.m. No fishing license is required. A daily fishing pass is just $7. An annual fishing pass is available for about $240. A stroll along the pier will only set you back a buck. You can purchase passes at the pier office and Sandy Bottoms gift store on Navarre Beach.
Navarre is known as one of Florida’s “best kept secrets,” but the locals know the true secret — as destinations go, Navarre is the place to reel in big fun.
The ZooGo Wild at the Gulf Breeze Zoo
The Gulf Breeze Zoo has re-opened for (monkey) business. If you’re looking for a place to go wild, here it is.
Originally opened in 1984, the 50-acre zoo, located on Highway 98 in Gulf Breeze, was home to 900 animals but then fell on tough economic times and closed its doors in August 2009. It marks one year under the new ownership of Eric Mogensen in March. Changes to the entry area and overall zoo layout have been made, and plans to add even more animals, update the signage and create more of a safari experience are underway. They even added the Kaitland, a shiny, red and black locomotive that chugs around the park.
Giraffes, big cats, monkeys, bats, birds of prey and reptiles are there, along with some new furry faces — black bear cubs, New Guinea Singing Dogs, baby Golden Lion Tamarins, llamas, kangaroos, wallabies and water buffalo calves.
The petting zoo is always a big hit with little kids excited to try their hand at feeding goats, pigs, rabbits, llamas, calves and baby chicks.
The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults and $8 for kids, $11 for seniors. Feeding cups and the safari train, which runs on the half hour, are $3 each. A season pass for four is around $130 and will allow you to monkey around all year.
If you have a special day coming up, the zoo is a creative venue for a birthday party. One package option includes a private animal encounter. Now that is one wild party. For more information, visit GulfBreezeZoo.org.
The Dune Lakes An Eco Tour in Walton County Is a Natural
You’ve heard the expression, “When in Rome.” Well, when in Walton County, you cannot overlook the opportunity to get up close and personal with the stunning nature around you. With state parks, preserves and wetlands making up 40 percent of the area, “green with envy” takes on a whole new meaning. Walco Eco Tours provides hands-on eco-tours guided by owner Murray Balkcom. An avid outdoorsman, Balkcom has been paddling on the coastal dune lakes of South Walton and the Gulf of Mexico since 2002, and has been leading guided nature walks and guided kayak tours in Walton County since 2006.
Balkcom describes the coastal dune lakes as rare national treasures that are unknown even to longtime locals. He explains that this particular type of lake is found only in New Zealand, Australia and Walton County, where there are 15. “Our tours are a great way to reconnect with the outdoors, and provide a great alternative to a day at the beach,” he says.
Walco Eco Tours offers two wonderful ways to explore Walton County’s Western Lake and the surrounding animals and plant life that call it home. Opt for an excursion that combines kayaking and walking/hiking or try the new offering — a YOLO Yak. YOLO, an acronym for You Only Live Once, is a brand of stand up paddleboard birthed in Santa Rosa Beach. The YOLO Yak is a hybrid board designed with elements of a paddleboard and a kayak to facilitate better stability while paddling. This tour combines a YOLO Yak ride and walking/hiking. Both experiences are two hours long and are customized to the level and interest of the group. Tours launch from the boathouse at WaterColor, located on Scenic Highway 30A.
The kayak tour requires two people and maxes out at eight. It is open to kids ages 5 and up. Adults are $60; kids under 10 are $30. The YOLO Yak tour is $60 per person and open to kids ages 12 and up.
When you go, wear waterproof shoes, sunscreen and a hat (as long as it is secured). And don’t forget to drink plenty of water before you venture into the sun on the tour. For more information, visit WalcoEcoTours.com.
The HarborHead to HarborWalk for a ‘Grande’ Day Out
The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village would not be worth its sea salt if it didn’t have a vibrant fishing harbor. Locals and visitors alike have made HarborWalk Village the hub for year-round festive happenings in Destin. Located at the western edge of town at the foot of the William T. Marler bridge just below the Emerald Grande resort, HarborWalk Village opened on the Destin harbor in 2007 as a pedestrian village filled with shops, restaurants and dozens of fishing boats.
The boats are not just for your viewing pleasure, though they are fun to look at. The working harbor is home to dozens of local fisherman and charter captains who are experts at creating memorable experiences for millions of visitors. So why let the tourists have all the fun? Treat your family to a day of fishing or boating.
If you want to scout for dolphin, one option is the Southern Star, an impressive 76-foot glass-bottom boat. Looking to lure in big game fish? Consider HarborWalk Charters, the original deep sea fishing charter service with more than 25 years of experience. Want to get a bite on the bay? Backcountry Outfitters Bay Fishing will arrange a trip for light-tackle fishing, bay fishing or even fly fishing. Or simply sail the gorgeous Gulf on a three-hour tour aboard the National Bowditch, a 54’ traditionally-rigged steel schooner.
If you want to get out on the water, rent a pontoon boat for the day or fly over the Gulf on a parasailing adventure available through Boogie’s Watersports. With kiosks conveniently located along the dock at HarborWalk Marina (HarborWalk-destin.com), it’s easy to reserve any of these charter boat experiences while strolling around the harbor.
If you simply want to be near the water with the entire family, head to HarborWalk Village. With a full roster of special events, weekend happenings, live entertainment and weekly fireworks displays, it is a festive and fun place to spend the entire day. And with so many restaurants to choose from right on the Destin harbor, you can extend the day well into the evening.