Although Destin and Fort Walton Beach are both located along the sugary shoreline on The Emerald Coast, they differ in history, makeup and general ambiance. They are separated by about five miles of crystal white beach on an undeveloped part of Okaloosa Island that is part of the National Seashore.
The Destin Bridge connects to the eastern end of Okaloosa Island while the Brooks Bridge connects Fort Walton Beach to the island from the west. Okaloosa Island is actually the “beach” for Fort Walton Beach, which is on the other side of the intercoastal canal. Fort Walton was incorporated in 1941 and became Fort Walton Beach when the island was developed to attract tourism in the early 1950s. It is a military town by nature since it provides housing for nearby Hurlburt Field and giant Eglin Air Force Base. Today the unincorporated island portion that comprises the beach consists of condominiums on the glittering gulf.
Destin was settled in the 1840s by Captain Leonard Destin who discovered the burgeoning abundance of fish at its location. A flourishing fishing enterprise created Destin which became known as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” In the 1970s high rise condominiums and vacation residences started to become developed on its spectacular sugary shores. It is well established with a rich mix of single-family homes, exclusively gated resort communities and luxurious beachfront condominiums. Besides harboring the nation’s largest private fishing charter fleet with gulf angling adventures, Destin has lots of great restaurants, lively bars, specialty shops, championship golf, snorkeling, scuba diving, dolphin cruises, sunset excursions and pirate boat rides.
Many activities are at Harborwalk Village near the Destin Bridge, which offers spectacular views of the marina, bay and glorious gulf. Water recreation sports are popular with excursions to nearby Crab Island where bodacious boat parties are celebrated on a submerged sandbar almost every day in warm weather. Pontoon boats, jet skis, paddle boards and other rentals are available at La Dolce Vita where Ocean Reef Resorts guests receive reduced rates. The charming village features a wide array of restaurants, specialty boutiques, and fun bars down along the docks. Big annual festivals are celebrated here that include free live musical concerts and colorful firework displays. The biggest of these events include Mardi Gras, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, the Destin Fishing Rodeo, the Destin Seafood Festival, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Family amusement parks are popular in Destin like Big Kahuna’s where Ocean Reef Resorts guests receive special discounts. Another popular destination is at the giant retail complex at the Disneyesque Destin Commons that looks like a European style village with flag topped turrets, fountains and palm trees but includes an abundance of fine clothiers, specialty stores, restaurants, bars and a large Multi-Plex movie theater.
Although smaller and more contained, Fort Walton Beach also offers some fun attractions. The Air Force Armaments Museum is a top rated attraction with free admission and the only one of its kind in the nation. They have displays of vintage aircraft, weaponry and cockpit simulators that date from the early days of World War I 100 years ago up to modern high tech times. One highlight includes an SR-71 Blackbird which was the fastest plane ever built flanked by aircraft from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. This is located seven miles north of Fort Walton Beach on Highway 85 near Eglin Air Force Base. It is open Mondays thru Saturdays 9:30 am till 4:30 pm. Further information is available at afarmamentmuseum.com
The Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier extends out from the shore 1,262 linear foot into the open water. This almost one-quarter of a mile extension makes it one of the longest wharfs on the entire Gulf of Mexico. It is a very popular place to catch Pompano, Spanish Mackerel, Whiting, Bluefish and Redfish. Big fish include King Mackerel, Tuna, Cobia and Mahi Mahi. A King Mackerel caught here weighed over forty-two pounds, and Tarpon have been hooked weighing over 100 pounds. No fishing license is required. A bait shop can provide rod rentals, artificial lures, and time-tested natural bait. Cold beer, sodas, sandwiches, snacks and ice cream are also sold. Restroom facilities are also available. The pier is open 24/7 during most of the year except from mid-November thru mid-March with hours 5 AM until Midnight. Tickets for a full day of fishing are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for children up to 12 years old and free for kids under five. Tickets are only $2 to stroll down the pier to watch anglers and catch the panoramic views.
The Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park nearby is the world's longest-running show of its kind. The shows feature acrobatic dolphins showing off sensational skills and sea lions who clown around with beach balls. They also showcase Sea Lions, Penguins, Seals, Sea Turtles, and Stingrays. You may even choose to sit in the designated “Splash Zone” for unexpected refreshment a hot summer day! There are also sizeable tropical fish aquariums, exotic birds, a pelican sanctuary, a moat with sharks and a big gator. General Admission is $21.95 for adults, $20.95 for seniors 62+, $19.76 for military and $13.95 for children 3 to 12. Kids under 3 are free. Winter, Spring and Summer schedules vary.
A great drink and dining destination on Okaloosa Island all in one place is The Boardwalk on the beach. Restaurants and bars include Al’s Beach Club Burger Bar, Black Pearl Island Grill, Crab House, Floyd’s Shrimp House, Rock in Tacos and Pino Gelato. Some beach clothiers and specialty shops are located here as well. Seasonal events are also scheduled here, and from Memorial Day thru Labor Day they shoot off fireworks every Wednesday at 9 pm.
On the other side of Brooks Bridge from Okaloosa Island, the Indian Temple Mound and Museum sits on the north side of Hwy 98. Native Americans started living here in 800 AD and centered their community here until the 1600s. This museum shows how local natives lived, their spooky burial rites and info on the existing Temple Burial Mound. Artifacts date from up early times up until Camp Walton was established briefly at this site during the Civil War.
Wherever you choose to stay know, that Ocean Reef provides the very best vacation rentals for a fun reunion of family and friends on your next trip down to the beach.