GETAWAY: New Florida Destination

Leaning on the balcony rail of the hotel suite overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, I watch a pair of dolphins swim along the harbour as the sun sets on the day. They playfully wind their way along the shore, the sparkling white sands of the Emerald Coast just beyond.

I have arrived in the town of Destin, Florida; a small seaside fishing village, and one I had previously never heard of. Destin lies in what is known as the Emerald Coast of Florida. The most spectacular feature of the area has to be the unbelievable white sand beaches that stretch 24-miles along emerald green waters. The area includes the towns of Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island.

If you are familiar with more typical Florida holiday destinations, stepping off the plane in the upper Gulf Coast is more like arriving in the Deep South. Locals greet us warmly with a sweet southern drawl, and the place appears more Dixieland than Miami Vice.

What leaves the most lasting impression though is the sand. Of course we've all seen different types of sand. The beaches from place to place vary greatly in colour and texture depending on the part of the world.

The beaches of the Emerald Coast are quite simply the sweetest I have ever seen. They literally look like the shores are awash with white sugar. The colour is dreamy white, and the texture is unlike any I've dug my toes into before. It reminds me of the feel of pinching that very expensive gourmet sea salt from its vessel on my kitchen counter. The sand is actually finely ground quartz crystal, carried by the Apalachicola River in the Appalachians to the Gulf of Mexico.

And the appearance of the sand is not the only unique feature of the beaches. Exploring the Emerald Coast sands is a joy with their pristine appearance, rolling dunes and grasses swaying in the breeze. More than 60 per cent of the area's beaches will be preserved forever. Protecting this incredible coastline are pockets of seaside parks with pavilions, gazebos and boardwalks providing an opportunity to explore the gentle rise of sand dunes and sparsely scattered sea oats.

The 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park, Wayside (Boardwalk) County Park and James Lee County Park, a new salt-air bazaar with 300 feet of waterfront, are three of the five parks and 12 beach accessways along Destin and Fort Walton Beach. Aside from relaxing in the sand, there are a number of activities to keep even the most overactive visitor happy. The area boasts 1,080 challenging holes of golf designed by names like Finger, Dye and Fazio; fishing from Florida's largest charter boat fleet for a real fishin' tale to tell your pals back home and more than 104 tennis courts dot the area.

Two wilderness preserves: Blackwater River State Forest and Eglin Reservation, offer tubing and canoeing, camping and hiking. Amusement parks are also on offer with dune buggy races, bumper boats, water parks and slides and putt-putt golf.

Getting There
Getting to this part of Florida has recently become a great deal easier for those of us travelling from in and around the GTA. Vision Airlines recently introduced the route with direct flights from Niagara Falls International Airport (IAG) to Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS). If you are living west of the city, it's an easy drive into a tiny airport in New York State (that even featured free parking at the time of my journey) and arrival in Florida at a small airport within a few hours.

Where to Stay
According to the Emerald Coast visitors bureau there are more than 14,000 “Gulf-edged” rooms available for visitors. For the ultimate coast experiance though, check into the Emerald Grande, offering the perfect combination of location and luxury amenities.

Perched right on the harbour overlooking sea and sand, the Emerald Grande features condominium style suites with all the luxury amenties of a five star resort. Two- and three-bedroom suites are perfect for family or group travel with all the comforts of home at your fingertips, but the restaurants, bars and activities of a resort just a moment away.

The Emerald Grande has the added distinction of being at the centre of Harbourwalk Village in the heart of Destin. Harbourwalk Village is a pretty little shopping and entertainment district catering to travellers and locals alike. Restaurants, bars and shops share waterfront real estate with boat charters and local tours, as well as the hotel's own boat shuttle to the private stretch of sand you will come to know as your own while a guest at the hotel.

The Emerald Grande boasts its own fine dining restaurant with a menu of expected fare, alongside southern specialties. There are also lots of casual dining options at Harbourwalk Village offering the menu selections you'd expect from a seaside locale. Just pop down the walk to the Village for to explore, or take some friendly local advice about the happening spot while you're in town.

Did You Know?
“¢ Destin Harbor is the largest and most elaborately equipped in Florida with more than 200 charter boats.
“¢ More than 60 per cent of the famous 24 miles (38 km) of sugary sands stretching along the Destin/Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island coast will be preserved in a sweeping, natural state ““ forever.
“¢ Attracting anglers world-over, the area sports the speediest deep-water access on the Gulf ““ up to 100-foot (30 m) depths within 10 miles (16 km).
“¢ The tiny sea town of Destin boasts nine saltwater fishing world records, which is why it is called the “World's Luckiest Fishing Village.”

More info
Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau

Emerald Grande at Harborwalk Village

Vision Airlines