The once-sleepy Emerald Coast town finds new life and luxury.
By Derek Bagley - photography by Jack Gardner
Destin isn’t what it used to be.
That’s the first thing I think when driving into the Emerald Coast town and I notice the traffic on Highway 98, which cuts a swath straight through Destin, now lined with condo high-rises and restaurants that serve food with names like “foie gras.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that when I was little I used to come here with my family when we vacationed at the beach. We would stay at some motel with room doors on the outside, and we thought eating at a place that served fried grouper and chicken fingers was a fancy night out. A lot’s changed since then.
This town began its ascent in 1850, when Captain Leonard Destin settled in the area and dubbed it “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village,” a moniker that has stuck for a century and a half. Destin was built on the lines and
nets of fishermen the eponymous captain employed and later, by other entrepreneurs wanting to get in on the bounty the sea offered, building ships and restaurants and stores.
Destin is mostly a vacation destination now, with the prime season beginning around Spring Break—the local papers publish when the schools are out—and ending sometime in November. Vacationers flock from all over to experience the picturesque white sands and emerald waters they’ve seen on postcards and heard about from their friends.
They come for other reasons, too. They want to eat in the restaurants that serve food straight from the waters they stared at all day. They want to shop in boutique stores that exist nowhere else. But mainly, they want a taste of the good life in a town that can provide just that.
I decide it’s best to first find the necessary accommodations for my own taste of the good life, a sort of base of operations for experiencing the things to come. Sterling Shores, the area’s premier resort, is a far cry from the motels of my childhood retreats. The condominiums offer all the comforts of home, especially if your home has balconies with ocean views and large bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries. It takes me a minute to get used to the luxury, so I stand in the doorway for a moment and smile at the expanse of it all, the plush furniture, the full kitchen.
In the complex’s lobby, there’s a machine you can rent free DVDs from and a computer for free Internet access, should you not be able to leave the real world completely. There’s also a 42-seat surround-sound movie theater and a fitness center on site. Out back there’s a 4300-square-foot lagoon-style pool and a barbecue area, and it’s tempting just to hole up here for the remainder of my trip, relaxing in the lap of luxury.
In this town, chartering a fishing trip is a necessity for the full experience. This once-sleepy fishing village earned its nickname because of the topography of the ocean floor along the Emerald Coast. The 100-fathom curve, the point at which the continental shelf drops to the abyss, is within 10 miles of Destin’s shore.
“That’s especially helpful for people looking to catch billfish,” Captain Douglas Dietz of HarborWalk Charters says. “It’s great being so close. Any other place it would take you all day just to get out there.” Doug says they’ve even caught elusive blue marlins close to shore. In the Spring, Doug says, you can expect to catch plenty of amberjack and red snapper. And there’s certainly no shortage of fishing charters in Destin. HarborWalk alone has more than 25 boats, all with friendly captains who work solely on a volunteer basis to help you reel in the big one.
“We just do this to help out people who want to get out there,” Doug says.
When you’re on vacation, it’s almost mandatory that you eat well, so I go for lunch at the Beach Walk Café. It’s one the few restaurants located right on the beach, and you have the option of dining inside or beachside. It’s a beautiful day, and I sit at a table outside with a front-row view of the sparkling green water. The sky is clear and the water is smooth as glass, and there are people out on their boats fishing and swimming and just enjoying the sun.
“One of the great things about the Spring is that it’s cobia season,” says Troy Klamerus, manager of Beach Walk. “It’s great to eat fresh cobia here while you watch people catch them.”
Chef Tim Creehan, who owns Beach Walk, takes pride in offering only fresh seafood; nothing is ever frozen. That being the case, the menu changes almost weekly, often dependent on what’s in season. “The menu is based on the quality of food available,” Troy says.
I order Chef Creehan’s Signature Tuna, which is served seared rare with a black pepper crust over a bed of spinach. It’s fresh and tender, and the pepper provides just the right amount of kick. It’s clear the chef knows what he’s doing. “Back in 1991, there were five fine-dining restaurants,” Troy says, echoing my thoughts from earlier. “Now we have over 20. We get everybody back because we’re consistent.”
My wife, Beth, joins me later for dinner and we head to Cuvee Beach, another favorite in Destin for locals and travelers alike. The restaurant is designed like a Tuscan wine villa, which is appropriate since Cuvee Beach is renowned for pairing wine with food. “The cuisine we serve blends with wine,” manager Ernie Danjean says. Ernie, who says the restaurant’s concept is “casual fine dining,” explains that cuvee is a type of blended wine, and Cuvee Beach is a blend of many good things: good food, good wine, good atmosphere, and good service. Cuvee Beach has a wine bar, which Ernie says is extremely popular. Tonight, the bar is very lively, and Ernie takes the time to talk to some patrons and high-five others.
or appetizers, Beth and I have Spicy Fried Oysters, the Tangy Honey Glazed Shrimp, and the delightful Tuna Tartare Tower, which is pretty much just what it sounds like, a tower of ahi-grade tuna, Gulf shrimp, avocado, and tomato.
For entrees, we have the fresh Atlantic salmon, a very mild fish that is cooked on cedar planks to help it retain a smoky flavor. We also have the Grilled Beef Tenderloin, which is served with blue macaroni and cheese, something that is unexpected and intriguing. Both entrees are delicious, and Beth declares the tenderloin as the “best steak I’ve ever had.”
“We like to make dining here an experience,” Ernie says.
But you don’t go on vacation just to eat. There’s still much to do, so I head to The Village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin. Baytowne Wharf is the epitome of mixed-use space, a conglomeration of dining, shopping, and nightlife.
“The big message that we want to get out is that we are open to the public,” says Baytowne Commercial Property Manager Faye Fontenot, referring to the fact that the village is located in a gated community of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort with a security guard at the entrance. “Sometimes people look at that gate and turn around.”
What some people may be missing out on is a village that is at once quaint and exciting. The Eldon Beck-designed area resembles New Orleans’ French Quarter. It houses shops that are almost exclusively independently owned in order to keep the local flavor. There are shoe stores and clothiers and art galleries, and there’s even a store where you can buy something for your pampered pooch.
There’s no shortage of restaurants either. Baytowne boasts 20 eateries, with everything from Creole to sushi to upscale seafood. “The focus here is on the restaurants and nightlife,” Faye says.
In the evenings, the residents and visitors gather in the village’s town square to toast the sunset before immersing themselves in that nightlife. When the sun sets completely, the little village heats up, still doing its wonderful impersonation of the French Quarter. The bars and nightclubs have plenty of variety, from places where you can sway to live music to dance halls where you can party hearty. Rum Runners offers frozen drinks and they have dueling pianos so you can request your favorite song and sing along. A Baytowne favorite, The Village Door, lets you dance the night away to house music.
The party is not just limited to the bars, though. Baytowne has a special liquor license that allows you to walk through the pedestrian-only streets with alcohol, which makes for plenty of room to party. But the people never seem to get rowdy. “It’s still clean fun,” Faye says. Although parking is limited at Baytowne Wharf, there are trams that run very frequently and a water shuttle that brings you to a pier that leads straight into the village.
A relatively new development in Sandestin is Grand Boulevard, a chic shopping center with Spanish-style architecture and designer stores like Brooks Brothers, Orvis, and Victoria’s Secret. There are also many fine restaurants like P.F. Chang’s and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse. Patrons are encouraged to stroll through the open-air shopping center. After making a few key purchases, it can be relaxing to sit and watch the fountains or take a walk in the park. A brand-new addition to Grand Boulevard is Gallery NU, an eclectic art gallery with a wide variety of media available for purchase. There are acrylic paintings and bronze sculptures, even jewelry. Ingrid Moses makes fine silver jewelry, which is on display at the gallery. A pharmacist by trade, she says she got into the artwork to express herself creatively. “I needed another outlet to make things pop,” she says.
After all that, Beth and I repair to our luxurious condo to rest for the trip home. We both admit that we’re kind of sad to leave and we promise each other to return soon because there’s still much to do.
On the way out of Destin, we stop at the new resort development Emerald Grande to have a cocktail in the Grande Vista Bar. We drink chocolate martinis and reflect on the trip, swapping childhood memories of Destin and agreeing on how much it’s changed in just the last 15 or so years. In the bar there’s an old picture of Captain Leonard Destin, and beside that, a large aerial shot of his town taken a couple decades ago. The photograph shows a little strip of land with just a few buildings dotted here and there. I linger for a moment and appreciate how far Destin has come in such a short time, and I can’t help but raise my glass to toast its success and many years to come.
Wine and dine
Picked by Derek Bagley
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that he would never think of eating a meal without drinking a glass (or three) of wine to complement it. Admittedly, this was the European thing to do, and Papa spent a good deal of time in France and the surrounding area.
It’s taken a while for such a trend to catch on here in the States, and especially the South. It’s hard to peg exactly what started this new craze in America. Some say it was the “French paradox,” in which the French supposedly offset high cholesterol by drinking wine regularly. Some say it was simply the movie Sideways.
Pairing wine with a meal has recently become a new sensation, and it’s arguably as evident in Destin as it ever was in Paris. Wine bars, boutique wine shops, and restaurants renowned for their wine lists seem to stand on every corner in this beach community.
Beach Walk is one such restaurant. “Wine to us,” manager Troy Klamerus says, “is like part of the meal.” Troy explains that all the servers must participate in wine tastings to help with pairings. And there is no corkage fee at Beach Walk, so patrons are encouraged to bring their own wine.
Bistro Bijoux and its Seagrapes Wine Bar and Gifts in The Village of Baytowne Wharf is the ideal place to check out vintage wines. You can sip wine that matches perfectly with the bistro’s excellent New Orleans-style cuisine.
Wine bistros seem to have found a niche throughout Destin. Vintij Wine Boutique is a quaint place adorned in hip artwork where you’re encouraged to taste wines at your leisure before deciding which one to pair with the bistro’s coastal cuisine. You can order a flight, which is an assortment of wine samples, similar to the beer samples you get in microbreweries.
Cuvee Beach also operates under the philosophy that wine is an essential part of any meal. The restaurant has regular wine dinners and tastings and offers suggestions for pairing. To help us fully understand the beauty of pairing wine with food, manager Ernie Danjean and his staff point us in the right direction with dessert. Beth and I have rich chocolate cake with a sweet sparkling dessert wine. For the best result, Ernie says, the way to do it is sip the wine, take a bite of the cake and let it melt on your tongue, then drink.
Pairing food with wine can be a great hobby. Just remember that there’s no one right way to do it. The rule of thumb is to drink what you like and like what you drink.
lay your head
Picked by Derek Bagley
Destin has a plethora of places of stay, whether you’re looking for the quiet repose of a bed and breakfast or the immaculate luxuries of a waterfront palace.
Henderson Park Inn
The Emerald Coast’s most exquisite bed and breakfast inn is the perfect place to get in some well deserved relaxation. With sweeping Gulf views from private terraces and rustic furnishings, it’s the ideal place to call home for your stay.
Inn on Destin Harbor
The views from your room will be enough to keep you coming back. This boutique waterfront hotel boasts a secluded harbor beach and private balconies, as well as direct access to Historic Destin Harbor.
Sometimes your vacation calls for a bit more opulence. Compass Resorts can help in that regard, with Gulfside manors in exclusive communities dotted along the Emerald Coast.