For many families with young children, the underrated coastal town has proven to be the perfect antidote to the typical frenetic Florida vacation. In Destin, you can avoid overpriced tickets for overcrowded tours in favor of a more relaxed environment that allows everyone—parents and kids alike—to enjoy themselves.
Where to stay in Destin, Florida
Whether you prefer to stay at a beachfront hotel or bed and breakfast, pamper yourself at a luxury resort or spread out in a vacation home or condo, Destin has lodging options to meet the needs of every family. It’s even a top destination for campers and RVers thanks to its pristine, 200-acre Henderson Beach State Park right by the water.
Bad option? Henderson Beach Resort, a charming four-story beach retreat nestled between the bay and the aforementioned nature reserve for which it gets its name. Reminiscent of a luxury seaside estate, it certainly plays on nostalgia – the hotel’s walls are dotted with black-and-white framed photographs depicting its humble beginnings and maritime history. But it’s not flashy.
From its meandering lazy river (don’t forget to request a float or bring your own!) to Sprinkling, your own ice cream shop, fun is key. During the spring and summer months, the resort offers the amenity of every parent’s dreams (especially considering the local spas!): a baby drop-off service. Poppy’s Kids Club, a kids-only creative space includes themed activities and lunch for a $75 fee. In the off season, the hotel still organizes crafternoons suitable for children. Think: sand art ornaments and tie-dyed t-shirts.
Things to do in Destin, Florida
Your first stop should be Little Adventures, an online service that connects curious families with outdoor adventures that focus on bites. Just use the site’s handy filters – you can narrow down the options by children’s age, cost or the amount of time you want to spend – and you’ll get a list of lessons or activities that work best. With several Little Adventures locations throughout Destin, there’s always a sand sculpting class or a beginner paddleboarding lesson going on somewhere.
Insider tip: Little Adventures also has a live chat feature where you can talk to real local moms in real time and ask all those deeply specific questions you know you have about your upcoming field trip: do I need to pack a snack? Do they provide children with life jackets? How good a swimmer does my preschooler need to be? Consider it free vacation planning!)
Listen, fishing isn’t for everyone, but in Destin, everyone is a fisherman. And if you’re at all curious, here it is and instead of literally testing the waters. You can show up with no gear and no experience (and even no fishing license if you decide to hop on one of Destin’s many charter boats!) and leave with a newfound appreciation for the sport.
If you’re in town any day during the month of October, you’ll experience the Destin Fishing Rodeo, an annual competition that dates back to 1948. It’s open to all ages and skill levels, but sighting is the easiest of all. Just set up shop at HarborWalk Village and watch the boats unload their catch onto the official weigh boat. Those with tight stomachs may not appreciate the fish guts and blood, but it’s hard to miss the opportunity to marvel at an amateur angler posing next to a 200-pound catch.
Save the sea turtles
There’s no better place to support your family’s love of marine life than at Destin’s Gulfarium CARE Center, which supports the rehabilitation and release of all types of stranded sea turtles. Sign up for a low-cost marine biologist-led tour and your family can learn about the program’s current list of sea turtles, do their own initial assessment of a few mock sea turtles, and learn how they can help sea turtles long after their visit. (Hint: There’s a reason why Destin’s beaches only use red and orange lights at night!)
Swim with dolphins
There’s nothing quite as magical as sailing alongside dolphins, or as Captain Pam – who runs Smile ‘N Wave Adventures – says, “dolfriends”. Although you can charter a number of different vessels to see the dolphins, a day trip aboard Pam’s new Trimaran, the Nice Tri, is particularly suitable for families. She lets the kids help her raise the smiley sails, teaches them to talk to the dolphins and, depending on the weather, also offers swimming and snorkeling opportunities.
Where to eat in Destin, Florida
Speaking of fish, Destin is known for its gulf-to-table seafood. Camille is at Crystal Beach, for example, serves seafood caught in local waters by local fishermen and landed right on the wharf at the Harbor Docks Seafood Market. (Their gumbo is a must-try.) Henderson’s own Primrose Restaurant offers creative modern takes on classic fish dishes and some of the best pan-fried sushi, and if you’re looking for fish fajitas, there’s no better place than the beachside patio. Rockin’ Tacos. And perhaps the friendliest family restaurant in all of Destin belongs Lulu’s. Founded by Lucy Buffett (yes, Jimmy Buffett’s younger sister), the spot features coastal recipes created by Lucy herself, but also has a dedicated allergy menu, whether you’re allergic to eggs, gluten, dairy or even, yes, shellfish.
Fun fact: If you want to do something good and fill your bellies in Destin, ask your server if they have any lionfish specials. Why? Codfish are an invasive species that prey on more than 30 different species of native fish, including two-thirds their size, in the Gulf of Mexico. Although they are delicious, they are not a common menu item because they are difficult to catch and their poisonous spines are laborious enough to make them prohibitively expensive. However, some organizations and restaurants such as Brotula’s Seafood House, will cook any fish you catch (including lionfish!) and team up with conservation groups to serve it up to you. Consider taking a bite out of one of these pesky yet beautiful fish on Destiny’s bucket list!
How to get to Destin, Florida
The Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport is, as you would expect, the nearest airport. Located just 10 miles away in Valparaiso. Because it’s such a small airport, direct flights outside of Florida are harder to come by – there’s a good chance you’ll need a quick layover. However, once you arrive, don’t forget to check out the lionfish aquarium on your way from the airport.
Editor’s Note: This trip was paid for by Destin-Fort Walton Beach, but all opinions are those of the writer.