Affordable Family Beach Getaway: Tips for Visiting Destin, Florida
Spring break in Florida: It’s not just for college co-eds. Really. The Sunshine State's contribution to this time-honored spring tradition isn't limited to spots like Daytona Beach. Florida holds boundless opportunities for families to enjoy warm days, brilliant sunsets and memorable adventures -- all at affordable prices. And Destin, Florida, offers an almost ideal assortment of family-friendly activities.
Situated on Florida’s Emerald Coast, in a northwest corner facing the Gulf of Mexico, Destin is popular with anglers and water sports enthusiasts. You’ll also find family-friendly parks, attractions and restaurants, as well as the laid-back white-sand beaches that grace this part of the state.
What to Do: Destin’s Beaches and Beyond
The Emerald Coast, with its soft white sand and turquoise water, is the biggest draw here. Public beaches are supervised by lifeguards, but before you go, visit the Emerald Coast website and familiarize yourself with the flag warning system, designed to inform the public about safe swimming conditions.
The longest beach in Destin lies within Henderson Beach State Park ($2 walk-ins, $4-6/vehicle), offering 6,000 feet of sandy shoreline. The park includes campsites, boardwalks for wildlife viewing, picnic pavilions and playgrounds.
At the east end of Destin, James Lee Park, has a boardwalk, picnic areas, a playground, paved parking and restrooms with changing tables. Enter near the Crab Trap restaurant, a popular spot to grab lunch or a drink.
There’s also beach access at East Pass and Norriego Point. Entrance to the former is behind the Welcome to Destin sign you’ll see en route from Fort Walton Beach. There are two beaches here, on either side of a jetty; the east side is a peaceful place to swim. The west side is popular for fishing.
Norriego Point is at the end of Gulf Shore Drive on Holiday Isle. This area has been undergoing improvements to recreation areas. Work was scheduled to end in spring 2019, so make sure it’s open before heading over there.
To get farther out on the water, join a guided boat cruise to watch bottlenose dolphins ($25 adults, $15 under 13, $1–2 under 3) or go sport fishing ($200/hour 1–6 people). Or treat your kids to the novelty of watching sea life through a glass-bottom boat ($30 adults, $15 kids 4–14, free 3 and under) or from the bow of a “real-life” pirate ship ($36 adults, $32 seniors, $22 ages 4–14, $1 3 and under).
Thrill seekers (aged 6 and up to ride, 14 to drive) can take off on WaveRunners ($80/hour, price break for longer rentals), tooling around with or without a guide. For a relaxed pace, rent kayaks or standup paddle-boards ($40/hour, breaks for longer rentals). Large families might like to rent a pontoon with hang-out space for all (four hours $275 to $325, depending on season).
Try a three-hour snorkeling tour ($40 adults, $30 kids 4–12). Or go deeper on a guided SNUBA trip ($90 adults, $70 children 8–12). You’ll dive 20 feet below the surface, breathing through an air hose connected to a raft-mounted tank, and see deep-water sea life without needing certification or heavy gear.
To help your kids get the most from their sea exploration, visit the interactive Emerald Coast Science Center ($10 adults, $8 kids and seniors) in Fort Walton Beach. ECSC’s engaging exhibits include one on the Emerald Coast Ecosystem. There’s a good chance your kids’ favorite spot will be Big Kahuna’s waterpark ($30–$45 per day), offering waterslides, rides, pools and rivers (lazy and not) to fill a day or more. Get online before your trip to find discounts for advance booking, military families, kids and seniors.
Mealtime choices in Destin range from beach shacks to special-occasion restaurants. Destin Commons Shopping Center has a strong concentration of kid-centric establishments, including Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl and Grill, an underwater-themed restaurant, where families can dine and bowl a few frames. For dessert or sweet souvenirs, Kilwins offers 24 ice cream flavors, hand-dipped chocolates and fresh fudge.
Getting to Destin
One source of Destin’s appeal is a convenient location. It's a popular driving destination (no avoiding that pun) for beachgoers from Georgia to Texas, as well as for Floridians.
Travelers coming from farther afield may rather fly into Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS), 16.5 miles (a 30-minute drive) from town. Allegiant and American Airlines offer the most nonstop flights to the Destin area. (If you plan to fly American, look into using your British Airways Avios points on those flights; you could spend less than if you use American AAdvantage miles due to BA's distance-based award chart.) Delta flies to VPS from Atlanta (ATL), and United runs one flight from Houston (IAH).
Air travelers can also use Pensacola International Airport, about 50 miles from Destin. Look for flights there on American, United or Southwest. (If you just got your Southwest Companion Pass, use it to get you and your companion to Destin!) Or take advantage of Frontier’s Kids Fly Free offer for flights from Chicago O’Hare or Denver.
Where to Stay
If you want to use points to stay in Destin proper, there is the Fairfield Inn and Suites available for 35k Marriott points per night and the Hampton Inn & Suites Destin as well as the Home2 Suites by Hilton for 60,000 Hilton points per night.
If you can't find a place to stay on points in Destin, you can commute in a bit. Roughly 9 miles away, in Sandestin, you'll find the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa that offers family-sized rooms on Miramar Beach (from 48,000 to 70,000 points per night, season dependent, plus $30 resort fee). Hilton’s Embassy Suites has a Sandestin property with a pool and included breakfast (from 35k to 60k points). Embassy Suites is one of our favorite hotel chains for families since properties serve free hot breakfast for all, offer complimentary evening appetizers/drinks and suites are the standard room option.
Courtyard by Marriott’s Sandestin hotel at Grand Boulevard (Category 4, from 25,000 points) has full-sized and children’s pools, and fitness facilities. Hyatt Place Sandestin includes breakfast for World of Hyatt members who book direct, as well as a gym and heated outdoor pool (from 12,000 points).
Beach-loving families emerging from a hard winter might find their bliss in Destin. The Emerald Coast is proof you don't have to fly over an ocean to find an inviting beach with pretty and inviting water. There's affordable beach fun waiting for families on the Emerald Coast.
Are you planning a spring break getaway for your family? Here are some more ideas:
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