By Michael Murillo
Destination Destin: Florida's "Fishapalooza"
There's Something Fishy About This Panhandle Place
It might be hard to find a better fishing location than Destin, and getting there is pretty easy. You won't need a GPS, or an iPhone app, or a map because there's usually a caravan of cars, trucks, and trailers to follow on I-10 headed toward Florida's Emerald Coast. You want numbers? Each year, more than 4 million visitors enjoy its beaches, fishing, and seafood.
Most will stop in Destin, and with good reason: You can access the 24 miles of sugar-sand beaches from a dozen different places, drop anchor at Crab Island, and still be about an hour from other significant cities in the panhandle. For a self-described "fishing village," Destin has more than its share of festivals, high-rise condominiums, and celebrity homeowners (Karl Rove and Emeril Lagasse, to name a few). It's no wonder the city's population more than triples during tourist season. But even if it's your first trip to Destin, you don't have to tackle it like a tourist. Shelling, snorkeling, and dolphin-watching are all accessible from several vantage points, and the area where the land and water meet is pretty special, too.A young angler thrills at the sight of a red snapper caught by mom just offshore from Destin
"The sand looks like snow here. It's really beautiful," explained Captain Victor Adams of TowBoatUS in Destin, noting that the city has won accolades for its beaches. With a 98-percent-quartz composition, the sand doesn't stick to beachgoers and also helps reflect a sharp emerald-green color across Destin's waters.
After nearly 30 years, Adams knows his way around the city's best-traveled water and land routes. After leaving his previous career as an architect (he even designed a local department store), Adams chose to retire in Destin — except he didn't stay retired. His family operates the TowBoatUS location, and regularly takes to the water for work and leisure.
Adams has seen Destin's reputation grow into a modern tourist destination over the decades, but he also explained that it's close to undeveloped areas that represent the state's past. For those who enjoy natural settings, Destin offers proximity to Florida's history. "You don't have to go more than 40 or 50 miles south of here and you run into the old-fashioned Florida — the woods and the rural areas," he said. "If you're looking for that kind of Florida, it's still here."
For all the sights and activities that appeal to Destin's visitors, it's the fishing enthusiast who will feel like they hit the vacation lottery. That shouldn't be a surprise, since the city is named after a fishing master who moved to the area more than 150 years ago. Descendants of Leonard Destin still populate the area, and their presence is noted in places like Dewey Destin's, a premier seafood restaurant, and the Destin History & Fishing Museum, which is operated by members of the founding family.
In some ways, Destin is a "perfect storm" of fishing opportunity. Just 10 miles off East Pass, the offshore shelf drops to 100-foot depths, making it the fastest deep-water access in the Gulf of Mexico. The area's famed emerald green gives way to deep blue, and that drop opens up quick opportunities for sailfish, marlin, and wahoo. Meanwhile, just a few miles inland, cobia, tarpon, and mackerel are the targets. Red snapper, grouper, and amberjack are plentiful at the bottom, and catfish and sea bass are plentiful where the bay meets the Choctawhatchee River. Whether you prefer a pier, fresh water, the deep-sea fishing, or somewhere in between, Destin is the starting point for a memorable fishing experience.
According to Nicole Scott, of the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Destin fishing experience includes some great charters and doesn't end when you reel in your catch.
"No matter what type of fishing suits a person or a family, there is something to offer for everyone. Both private charters and party boats are offered to suit every angler and every budget," Scott said. "After the boat docks, these mates will even clean the fish so all that's left is a fresh bag ready to cook. There are even restaurants within the Harbor that will take the fillets and cook them right then. It doesn't get any fresher than that!"
Captain Erik Anderson, a licensed yacht broker, agrees that a rod and a reel are almost requirements when visiting.
"Destin's enduring slogan is 'The World's Luckiest Fishing Village.' Fishing here is king," he said. "There are so many fishing events and tournaments held here, including the fifth richest marlin tournament in the world." Anderson founded a tournament himself, and his Destin Swordfish Shootout completed its third annual competition this past June.
Destin is especially friendly toward boaters, with a variety of ramps, marinas, and trailer storage spread throughout its various water access points. Ample parking accompanies the most popular drop spots, with supplies and information easy to find. Capt. Anderson suggests the deepwater public ramp at Joe's Bayou on Main Street as a good place to bring your boat, and there are plenty of options for transient dry storage throughout the city as well. (Editor's note: BoatUS members get a special fuel discount at Harborwalk Marina, located at 66 Harbor Blvd. It's at the foot of the Destin Bridge.)
Of course, there's plenty of shopping, entertainment, restaurants, galleries, and parks to keep you busy. At Harborwalk Village (where you'll find Harborwalk Marina), there are boutiques for world-class shopping, spas for relaxation, live entertainment, and a host of activities designed to maximize fun both on and off the water. In Destin, you can take a glass-bottom boat tour, visit the nearby wetlands, play golf on challenging fairways, or just stroll through the city and admire the scenery.
But Scott, who has been coming to the area since she was a child, said you can't experience Destin in pictures and words; you'll have to make the trip to Florida's famous Emerald Coast and see it for yourself. "Our pictures are not “Photoshopped” so what you see is exactly what you get," she said. "However, in order to truly believe it exists, you have to see it in person."
Destin Area Boat Ramps
- Lion's Park (Niceville) - 2 ramps, free, 30 parking spaces
N 30 30.39 W 086 28.52
-Lincoln Park (Niceville) - 2 ramps, free, 10 parking spaces
N 30 30.27 W 086 29.15
- Joe's Bayou Boat Launch (Destin) - 5 ramps, $10 fee
N 30 24.63 W 086 29.45
- Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park (Destin) 1 ramp, ramp fee, 32 parking spaces
N 30 39.06 W 086 26.14 4181
- Fort Walton Landing (Fort Walton) - 2 ramps, free, 20 parking spaces
N 30 24.07 W 086 36.24
- Ross Marler Park (Fort Walton) - 1 ramp, free, 20 parking spaces
N30 24.01 W086 35.33
- Liza Jackson Boat Ramp (Fort Walton) - 2 lanes, $7 launch fee
N30 24.20 W086 38.17
- Best place to have a beer with the locals: Adams suggests going down to the docks, where there are plenty of watering holes and friendly faces.
- Best place for seafood: Dewey Destin Seafood. Two locations: 202 Harbor Blvd. (on the harbor) and 9 Calhoun Ave. (overlooking Crab Island). The city's founding family brings a casual atmosphere and a bounty of seafood without the use of warming lamps in order to preserve the freshest experience.
- Best place to grab a burger: McGuire's Irish Pub, 33 Harbor Blvd. They serve traditional Irish fare and tasty steaks, but Adams suggests trying one of their burgers for a special experience. “They've got a burger the size of an anchor," Adams said.
- Best place to watch the sunset: Enjoy it with a burger because on land, Adams said you can't find a much better view than McGuire's. On the water, Destin Harbor, Crab Island, and inside Choctawhatchee Bay are all good choices.
- Best party spot: Crab Island wins hands down. Next to the Destin Bridge, it can attract hundreds of boats filled with people looking for fun. From a floating tiki hut to various boats selling drinks and snacks, Crab Island is known as the place to relax and visit with fellow partygoers. There are children's activities, too, but only in certain places. It's mostly a place for grown-ups to let their hair down and enjoy the atmosphere. "People go there for the whole day," Adams explained. "If you want to socialize and party on the weekend, that's definitely the place to go."
A "local" tells you where to go:
Capt. Adams knows a lot about Destin, so we asked him for some specific "best" places to visit, depending on what you want to do. Here's the inside information from a knowledgeable local: