DESTIN, Fla. — Folks in landlocked St. Louis love to visit beaches. And 750 miles south are some of the most beautiful sugar-sand beaches surrounded by emerald waters.
A couple of months ago I came across a deal for a new commercial airline, Vision Airlines. To promote its new services to St. Louis, the carrier was offering $39 each way deals to Destin/Fort Walton Beach. I jumped at the chance, wrote a blog about it and told everyone I knew. That included Aisha Sultan, our home and family editor, who decided this was a perfect opportunity for that long-needed getaway with her husband, and reporter Karen Deer, who was hoping for a fun weekend with her daughter. I talked my sister into a girls weekend. Each of us got our airfare for less than $100 total. That said, Vision is still working out the kinks and nearly all legs of our trip were late (most by about 30 minutes; one by three hours). But you can't beat the price — and the free cookies they hand out.
FAMILY AND ADVENTURE WITH SISTER
Why we went — My sister and I haven't had a girls weekend since we were in college. Plus, we have cousins in nearby Crestview, Fla., and one of them has a new baby girl, so we decided to combine a family visit with a little fun in the sun.
Where we stayed — We booked a room at the gorgeous Emerald Grande resort. When we got there, we were upgraded to a spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with two balconies overlooking the pool and with a 180-degree view of the ocean (except where blocked by the other tower). The best thing about the place is its location, right in the heart of the action on the Harborwalk Village, which is filled with restaurants, bars, the harbor, live music, shops and more. There is also a boat shuttle that takes you to a nearby beach (you can see it from the hotel), which is set up with free chairs and umbrellas for hotel guests. The shuttle runs about every 20 minutes. Rooms run from $420 for a four-bedroom, four-bathroom unit to $234 for a one-bedroom, two-bathroom unit (emeraldgrande.com).
What we did — Because we were there to see my cousins, we spent several hours on Saturday and Sunday with my family, but that doesn't mean we didn't have time for other things, such as lounging on the beach or at the pool, frou frou drink in hand. We also went on a two-hour dolphin cruise with the Southern Star ($29 adults; southernstardolphincruise.com). We saw dolphins leaping from the water, surfacing very near the boat in groups of as many as five. We also tried our hand at the WaveRunner, which was a great idea in theory but it didn't work out so well for us. Once we got past the no wake signs, we kicked the WaveRunner in gear and went … nowhere. Our WaveRunner wouldn't go past 6 mph. I can run faster than that. We decided to make the best of it and visit Crab Island, a sandbar on the north side of the Destin bridge where boats anchor and people walk around in water that was 2 feet deep while we were there. This is where the locals anchor to spend the day swimming, snorkeling, bouncing on a water trampoline and even playing football. When we returned the WaveRunner we told the folks at Boogie Sports about it, they pulled seaweed from the bottom (they had warned us about seaweed but said the WaveRunner would beep if there were a problem) and shrugged.
Where we ate — As moms of young kids, my sister and I rarely get a chance to go out drinking without having to worry about driving, baby-sitters, kids waking up in the middle of the night. So, with so many restaurant choices on the boardwalk next to our hotel, we took full advantage. Our favorites were Harry T's, a fun restaurant with bar food, seafood and the biggest desserts you've ever seen and AJ's, which had great views, great seafood (I especially loved the blackened grouper) and great live music (I swear that guy sounded just like Kenny Chesney). My cousins introduced us to Another Broken Egg. It's a Destin institution with four locations. We tried two of them and loved our decadent breakfasts. First, I tried a smoked salmon on English muffin with egg and cream cheese. The next day, it was the bananas foster waffle; I'm still having dreams about it.
Next time — My sister and I are both very early risers. The pool doesn't open until 8 a.m., and the shuttles to the beach don't start until 9 a.m. However, there are several cruises and excursions that head out as early as 7 a.m. So instead of wasting time lounging around the hotel room, I would have booked something earlier in the day (and avoided the crowds).
FUN WEEKEND WITH DAUGHTER
Why we went — My daughter, Megan, and I don't get to see each other often with our busy schedules. I work full time, and she's a full-time college student, plus she works two part-time jobs. We both love the outdoors, so a weekend trip to Destin was the perfect setting for mom-daughter bonding, dining and beachy watersports.
Where we stayed — We booked a room at the Inn on Destin Harbor, a waterfront boutique hotel (innondestinharbor.com). We arrived Friday evening during a heavy downpour, making it difficult to even find the hotel. Once we sloshed our way into our room, my daughter looked at me and smiled. We had the Admiral Suite with spacious adjoining rooms: a bedroom and a family room. The bedroom had a king-size comfy bed, microwave, loveseat, dining table with two chairs, TV and a small bathroom. The adjoining room looked like my family room: a couch, TV, two side chairs and gorgeous tall planters plus another small bathroom ($225 to $250 a night). This hotel offers pet-friendly rooms. We're pet lovers, so when a few canines passed us in the lobby, we had to stop and play. We spent our first rainy day at the small and private waterfront pool. Ten lounge chairs lined the pool, but a comfy outdoor cabana highlighted the spacious deck. We used it for cover from the everlasting rain. The only thing missing at our hotel was a poolside bar, or any bar.
What we did — Because our weekend consisted of so much rain, shopping and dining became the highlight of our trip. Destin's outlet mall, Silver Sands Factory Stores, is a shopper's paradise. The mall proved to be a hit with my daughter, offering more than 100 designer names, and we popped into at least 50 stores. Our favorite shopping experience happened at the Timex and Coach outlets (we won't talk about how much we spent). Alvin's Island Tropical Department stores were packed with shoppers seeking Boogie Boards, flip-flops, hair feather extensions, swimsuits and beach chairs. We picked up a few Destin tees for family and friends and grabbed a few sundresses for my daughter.
Where we ate — After hours of shopping we headed to the beach at The Back Porch Seafood and Oyster House, just west of Henderson Beach State Park. The heavy rain changed to a hard sprinkle, so we decided to rent two beach chairs ($25 a day for two). We toughed it out, covering ourselves with beach towels to soak up the raindrops, sipped tropical drinks and ate crab and spinach dip with nachos from the restaurant. You name it, the restaurant had it: soups, salads, fish, pastas and even chicken tenders and popcorn shrimp for the little ones. One evening, we pulled into Hog's Breath Saloon and Cafe for a quick drink and appetizer. After 30 minutes of sniffing the fabulous barbecue and smoked meat scent, we gave in and ordered a full rack of smoked loin back ribs. Hog's Breath was well worth a stop for a mouth-watering dinner. One evening, we ventured next door to Marina Cafe and ordered the gulf shrimp linguine and the pan seared yellowedge grouper with jumbo lump crab. Windows line the back of the restaurant, which gives the interior an open feeling, and we had a fabulous view of the Harbor, even on a rainy evening. For breakfast, we tried the free continental breakfast from our hotel and stopped at The Donut Hole for brunch another morning. I ordered the big breakfast sandwich, and Megan opted for the western omelette. The homemade doughnuts looked amazing, but we skipped the extra calories.
Next time — I'm not taking any rain chances. I will book a longer trip to Florida (five-day or more). Odds are, I'll get some sunny days for watersports. Oh, did I mention the sun came out as our plane took off?
ROMANTIC GETAWAY WITH HUSBAND
Why we went — My husband and I loved traveling before our children were born. After becoming parents, however, all our vacations centered on kid-friendly destinations our little ones would enjoy. After more than eight years without taking a trip alone, we were overdue a grown-up getaway.
Where we stayed — Our flight was delayed several hours departing from St. Louis, and the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa (sandestinbeachhilton.com) is about 24 miles from the airport, so we didn't get to our hotel room until after midnight. But waking up the next morning to the sound of crashing waves was an ideal way to start the weekend. Stepping onto the balcony with a stunning view of the Gulf was even better. The hotel is in a prime location, with a private beach for guests a short walk from the oversized guest rooms. Umbrella and two-chair beach setup costs $42.80 for the day, and we used this service both days. The resort is a magnet for families, conferences and weddings, so expect it be hopping during the peak season. Part of our room's private balcony overlooked one of the three hotel pools, which are open into the evening hours. The staff was exceptionally friendly, and there was a vibe of Southern hospitality at the hotel restaurants we visited. Self-parking a car at the hotel costs $10 a day and valet is $20. The room we stayed in, a beachfront room in the Spa Tower, had a king bed, a sofa sleeper and a parlor area. Rates start from $179 to $499, depending on season and availability.
What we did — I was living a Mastercard commercial when I was lying on sugar-white sand, under a beaming sun with emerald green water in front of us. Drink: $7. Sunscreen: $15. Being able to relax on a beach without worrying about a child possibly drowning or needing to use a bathroom every hour: Priceless. As part of the child-free weekend, we indulged in a couple's massage and facials at the Serenity by the Sea Spa, stopped by the outlet malls and visited Baytowne Village, across from the hotel property, which is a lively area around a harbor with bars, live music, boutiques and family attractions. But our favorite vacation game is playing fantasy real estate, when we drive through the most scenic parts of town and pick out the homes we would purchase if we won the lottery. Our drive took us through quaint coastal communities along 30-A, including Seaside, the picture-perfect community where "The Truman Show" was filmed.
What we ate — We had a sublime meal at the hotel's AAA, Four-Diamond restaurant, Seagar's Prime Steaks and Seafood. Be sure to save room for the bananas foster, which is prepared quite dramatically table-side. The restaurant has a private wine room, with a single table setting for two, which can be booked for free for wedding proposals. Many diamond engagement rings have been hidden inside elaborate desserts, according to the restaurant's general manager. We also enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel's Sandcastles Restaurant, which was better quality than most breakfast buffets.
Next time — My husband learned a painful lesson about the intensity of the Florida sun after our first day on the beach and in the water. He was burned lobster red because he failed to reapply the sunscreen we packed. We had to make a trip to the pharmacy for aloe vera gel, but he was still pretty uncomfortable the rest of the trip. We loved this vacation so much, we are already planning our return. And next time, we'll bring the kids.
Amy Bertrand: email@example.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times