Acclaimed for its sporting collection of great golf escapes, the area touts an incredible 1,080 holes. The courses, created by such world-renowned architects as Finger, Dye, Fazio and Cupp, utilize surrounding waters -- bay, bayou, gulf and sound -- and natural contrasts from woods and wetlands for scenic, yet challenging oppositions. To tantalize tennis tastes, 104 courts are dotted throughout the area.
Other outdoor pursuits are explored within two pristine wilderness preservations -- Blackwater State Park and Eglin Reservation -- offering tubing and canoeing down crystal-clear rivers, and camping and hiking amid acres of pine, canoeing down crystal-clear rivers, and camping and hiking amid acres of pine, hickory and maple. Horseback riding also showcases 200 acres (80ha) of lush landscape. Amusement parks are popular family fun with dune buggy races, bumper boats, batting cages, water slides and putt-putt golf.
Dining diversions spotlight some of the freshest seafood in Florida. It's a justified claim, as there are always at least 20 tasty types of fish available straight off the docks from amberjack and red snapper to yellowfin tuna. Required "dress code" is flip-flops and beach tops as more than 400 culinary characters -- cedar seafood shacks, boardwalk oyster bars, gracious ante-bellum estates and Gulf-air cafes -- shrug off sophistication and showcase local seafood celebrities with pure unbridled zest. True to its Southern heritage, popular specialties feature tastes such as Louisiana Cajun crawfish gumbo, beer-battered fried mullet and cornbread hush puppies -- with salty boiled peanuts found roadside.
Fish tales from the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village" are touted by tons (literally) of trophy catches at the Destin Fishing Museum. The Indian Temple Mound and Museum -- guarded by the largest ancient (1400 A.D.) mound by saltwater -- journeys through 10,000 years of over 20,000 ceramic artifacts from four prehistoric tribes, America's most extensive collection. For more whimsical fun, the Focus Center is a child's science fantasy, filled with interactional experiences and kids stuff enjoyable for any age.
Active adventures begin at the beach with shell searching. Although the sugary shores are swept bare, about a mile out an aquarium of treasures is discovered at your toes from sea horses to bucketful's of cockles, clams and striped cowrides. Sand Dollar City, a pure white sand bar, is rich with layers of circular "sea-money." A bit further out, a ribboning reef of limestone (the pre-Ice Age shoreline) captures thousands of beach bound, large seashells -- often up to 20 inches (51cm) in length and perfectly formed. Sunset-hued lion's paws and true tulips to queen helmet shells and Florida's signature shell -- horse conchs-- are found along the ledge.
Exceptional snorkeling and diving are possible close inshore -- a rarity -- as the 100 Fathom Curve draws closer to Destin and Fort Walton Beach Island than to any other spot on the Gulf. Reef clusters reveal immense shells, four-foot (120cm) basket sponges and purple sea whips while diving partners such as vibrant yellow angelfish, six-foot (180cm) manta rays and 350-pound (158kg) loggerhead sea turtles participate in discoveries. Timber Hole, a submerged petrified forest, brims with lobsters and sea squirts, as do sunken luxury liners, ships, railroad box cars -- even airplanes. Pontooning, parasailing, water-skiing, sailing and windsurfing are additional Gulf and Choctawhatchee Bay water escapades.
Surprisingly, Destin and Fort Walton Beach accommodations provide priceless beach vacations without the price. More than 17,000 Gulf-edged rooms are available from popular hotels and spacious condominiums to a seashore bed and breakfast inn, beach cottages and five-bedroom bungalows. Seaside savings are year-round with exceptional bargains September through February.
Nearby Pensacola Regional Airport and Okaloosa Regional Airport offer continuous service by 13 major airlines. Ground travel is easy along primary feeders: U.S. 98, Highways 331 and 85, and Interstate 10.
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