DESTIN, Fla. — The dolphins, silvery and serene, skimmed through the translucent Gulf of Mexico in rhythm with the fluttering sails of the catamaran. The catamaran's passengers peered at the dolphins with nothing less than absolute awe, pointing and laughing as the creatures occasionally surfaced and frolicked like small children at play. The spectacularly golden sun was just beginning its descent across the Gulf near Sandestin as the dolphins moved away into deeper water, signaling the cruise was almost at its end.
That was just over a year ago, before last April's Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated Gulf Coast tourism. Now, just as the anniversary of the spill nears, you would be hard-pressed to find a tar ball along the clean white sand beaches of Northwest Florida.
I came to the Gulf Coast to see for myself the effects of the oil spill. The dolphins and sea birds have returned as if nothing had ever been amiss, and except for the fact that you know what happened — it was on the news every day for months — life is returning to normal for beach tourism.
Here at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort on Florida's Gulf Coast — it's known around these parts as the Emerald Coast because of its crystalline green waters — the forecast is looking rosy for bookings to make up for last year's losses.
Helping push up occupancy rates is the fact that this year's record-breaking and seemingly endless snowfall across the entire United States have beach bums looking for a big, warm break.
"The amount of snowfall the rest of the country receives directly correlates to spring travel here at the beach," says John Russell, president of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort.
I'm struck that the 2,400 acres of Sandestin is just a huge palette of color. When I visited, the weather was near-perfect, complementing Punxsutawney Phil's prediction that an early spring was at hand.
The emerald water blends harmoniously with startlingly blue skies and incredibly white sand as soft as confectioner's sugar. Hot pink and crimson oleander, contrasted here and there by delicate white blooms, sets the landscape ablaze. The palms, standing as sentries over the oleander, keep cadence with the gulf breezes.
Sandestin's wealth of family-friendly prospects for entertainment makes the resort one of the most well-known and popular resorts along the entire Gulf Coast from the Florida Keys to Galveston. Even during the aftermath of the spill, guests came to stay at the resort, even if they didn't go into the water, just because there's so much to do here.
Coming from a town of fewer than 4,000 residents, I enjoy the small town atmosphere where everything is self-contained. The resort, recognized by Frommer's as one of the top 2010 destinations in the world, is a melange of 30 neighborhoods that reach from the Gulf to Choctawhatchee Bay.
Containing about 1,400 one- to five-bedroom villas, townhomes, and hotel accommodations, some with full kitchens and laundry facilities, the resort also has four championship golf courses, 15 world-class tennis courts, 19 swimming pools, a marina, a fitness center, a spa, restaurants that also number 19 (fresh seafood, anyone?) and the Village of Baytowne Wharf, a pedestrian village with about 30 shops and boutiques..
"Once you check in, you really never have to leave this resort. We can cater to any need," says Jason Draughn, director of activities at Sandestin.
The focus is on the oil-free beach (well, except for suntan oil). Want to lie around and do nothing? Check. Boogie board? Check. Take a peaceful parasail journey? Check. (It's soooo quiet when you're up there in the air by yourself.) Go shelling or swimming? Search for sea turtles and dolphins? Check, check, and checkmate.
If you like to fish, or even if you simply want to learn, try surf fishing, which still holds a certain mysticism about it and its back-to-the-basics premise of nothing more than man, water, and pole. Or if you're more adventurous and like to get really wet, jet skiing might be more of your cup of sweet tea.
"My husband and I come every year," says a petite, tanned young lady named Deenie. "We live in South Carolina, which doesn't have the white sand or green water like here, so it's prettier than our beaches. My husband fishes, and I bring tons of books to read on the beach. It's perfect for us."
Although the couple doesn't have children, there is plenty to do for couples who do, including the Club KZ (KidZone), which has fully supervised programs to include fishing, swimming, arts and crafts, field trips, and nature walks. There's even a "Kids Night Out" program with supervised activities and dinner.
For teens, there's live music and mingling at Finz Pool Deck. Other teen-friendly activities include an arcade, a zip-line and ropes course, sailing classes at the marina, miniature golf and a popular inflatable water park in the bay that was installed last year in response to the oil spill.
With effects of the oil spill now just a memory, Sandestin will celebrate this spring with a wide range of events to welcome back Gulf Coast guests, including Easter brunch. And from April 28 until May 1, the 25th annual Sandestin Wine Festival features cuisine and tastings from more than 600 domestic and international wines with representatives from 80 vineyards from around the world.
"Oil spill?" laughs South Carolinian Deenie when I asked her if Deepwater Horizon had affected her plans for coming this year. She looked out over the Gulf searching for dolphins and shook her head, "What oil spill? I don't see any oil. And let's all hope that we don't see any of that ever again."
IF YOU GO:
For more information, contact Sandestin at http://www.Sandestin.com or call toll-free at 1-888-91-BEACH. Located on Florida's Panhandle, Sandestin is served by Florida Northwest Regional Airport (VPS) and the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP). Direct flights are operated by Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and US Airways. Vision Airlines recently announced direct flights to VPS from southeastern markets like Atlanta, Louisville, Little Rock, Baton Route, and Greenville-Spartanburg. Visit http://www.visionairlines.com or call 1-877-FLY-A-JET.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times