By Rebecca Fending
As Floridians, the Emerald Coast is not a new term for us. In fact, it’s one that contributes to Florida’s famously high tourism rate with around 4.5 million visitors each year. This stretch of Florida coast is popular among out-of-state visitors like Midwesterners as it’s the easiest and most beautiful span of sand and ocean you can get to by doing a multi-hour road trip. However, it makes a great road trip any time of year for even those who reside in the Southwest portion of the state. From pristine beaches to classic festivals, the Emerald Coast never gets old.
1. Fort Walton Beach
Of course, we couldn’t talk about the Emerald Coast without first bringing up at least one beach. Fort Walton is a small beach town that prides itself on being a slice of relaxation among a busy tourist-rich coast, making it a perfect stop for any Florida natives that are looking for a quiet change of scenery. This year-round fishing city holds an array of different entertainment sources from the Gulfarium, one of Fort Walton’s best tourism attractions, to a unique shopping experience at Downtown Fort Walton. Dip your toes in the Emerald water and treat yourself to a stay at one of the many beach resorts.
2. Protected Sea Turtles
Not only is Fort Walton Beach one of the Emerald Coast beaches that attract tourists, but it’s also home to nesting sea turtles (loggerheads and greens) during the months of May through October. Fort Walton offers a Nighttime Educational Beach Walk to learn more about these precious turtles and the positive (and necessary) effects they have on the local ecosystem. These educational walks are free to the public Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm, June through October.
As these turtles are endangered, be sure to educate yourself on how best to help them thrive before visiting the Emerald Coast. When in doubt, admire and snap a few pictures from afar!
3. Destin Seafood Festival
Named and known as the Florida panhandles oldest festival, Destin Seafood Festival is an event you just can’t miss. According to the event’s website, “The event was started in 1978 by the Destin Charter Boat Association Women’s Auxiliary. While the festival has grown into its new home on the Destin Harbor Boardwalk, the Destin Seafood Festival remains the primary fundraiser for the Destin Charter Boat Association.”
The festival is comprised of great food from a number of different vendors, both near and far, paired with live music and local talented artists. There’s something there for everyone, even if it’s a quick stop for lunch before hitting up Destin’s beach.
The Destin Seafood Festival is scheduled for October 2 through 4, and admission is free. According to their website, event planners are expecting a projected 60,000 guests, so be sure to plan accordingly for your personal safety.
4. Barrier Islands
Finding an island getaway may be easier than you think with the Emerald Coast’s three barrier islands. Created as sand gathers on existing sandbars, barrier islands make up over 700 miles of Florida’s coast according to White Sands Beach Resort.
St. George Island is known for containing the most pristine 22 mile beach in the state. The island’s remarkably clear water and beautiful, fine sand is perfect for a peaceful afternoon by or on the water. Kayak, paddle board or just wade in the Gulf off of St. George.
Slightly longer than St. George, Santa Rosa Island spans over 26 miles and has several entrances to Point Washington State Forest. Santa Rosa follows suit in the general theme of “serene” with luxury dining and an artist colony by the name of Gulf Place.
Just a 10 minute drive from Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island holds a number of unique attractions for the whole family. From their aforementioned Gulfarium to their weekly fireworks show each Wednesday night at 9 pm, Okaloosa Island is incapable of disappointing its guests.
5. Camp Helen State Park
Located in Panama City Beach and open each and every day from sun up to sun down, Camp Helen State Park is your destination no matter the time of year. Admission is $4 per vehicle, a steal for a calming day on the sand or in the water. With a beautifully clear beach that abides by the Emerald Coast’s sugary sands, this state park is great for swimming, beach relaxing or even fishing in both fresh and saltwater. The park holds a number of events and tours, from kayaking to a lesson in the history that backs Camp Helen.