When planning a vacation, it is essential to do your research. After all, you don't want to arrive at your destination with no clue about what you want to see and do, right? For example, if you are going to Italy, you might look up iconic landmarks, famous vineyards, and art museums to add to your list of must-visit spots. Doing your research beforehand guarantees a more memorable and stress-free vacation.
A Florida vacation is no different! Before booking your flights and accommodations, you will want to pin down some of the best things to do in the sunshine state. But there is a catch. You need to know where you are going in Florida to do your research right.
While much of what Florida is known for remains unchanged across the state, the Emerald Coast in the northwest panhandle is a different story. Though located in the same state, Destin and Scenic Highway 30A seem almost a different world entirely from other areas in Florida like Orlando, Jacksonville, A1A, or the Keys. Where you decide to travel in Florida will be dependent upon what you want to enjoy on your vacation. Whether you plan to visit Destin or elsewhere in the sunshine state, you deserve a dream trip. And in order to make an informed decision, you need to know what makes Florida stand out as a vacation destination and how that differs from Destin and the Emerald Coast.
Without further ado, here is a list of what Florida is known for…and why it's not actually relevant to Destin!
Oranges are the official state fruit of Florida - and for good reason. Florida grows a LOT of oranges.
In fact, Florida is responsible for nearly 75% of orange production in the United States. Visit your local grocery store, and you are bound to see some of the fruits labeled "Florida Oranges." The reason for this is that the majority of the state creates the perfect growing environment for the sweet, delicious fruit. Oranges thrive in tropical and subtropical climates, typically doing best in temperatures ranging from 55- and 100-degrees Fahrenheit.
Although oranges may be prevalent throughout the state, Destin isn't known for its orange groves.
However, Destin does boast some fantastic seafood! With its convenient location on the Gulf of Mexico, how could it not? Restaurants throughout the area offer tantalizing dishes of freshly caught seafood, each adding their own culinary twist. Pompano Joe's, Captain Dave's on the Gulf, the Crab Trap Destin, and Brotula's Seafood House & Steamer are a few crowd favorites. If you consider yourself a seafood lover, Destin is the place to go.
Florida seems to be the land of theme parks. Seriously. Disney World in Orlando alone makes up four of the most popular theme parks – Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. Add Universal Studios and Universal's Islands of Adventure, and we are already up to six. SeaWorld and Gatorland bring the count up to eight. Wowza! Okay, so maybe it seems like Orlando is the land of theme parks. Not so fast. Did you know that there are a number of well-known theme parks outside of the Orlando area? These include Legoland in Winter Haven, Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, and Silver Springs State Park – just to name a few. With over 20 theme parks across the state, travelers from around the world flock to these oversized playgrounds. Theme parks are especially attractive for families, as they provide fun for all ages.
While Destin doesn't boast any theme parks, it does offer other a variety of coastal hubs that appeal to families. The Village of Baytowne Wharf is a hotspot that combines a Disney World atmosphere with a subtle New Orleans twist. Featuring a wide variety of restaurants, bars, boutiques, outdoor entertainment, seasonal festivals, and special events, there is always something to do at the Village of Baytowne Wharf. Just down the road, you will find HarborWalk Village, another center for Destin entertainment. Kids enjoy the Kids Adventure Zone with bungee trampolines and aqua spheres. At the same time, parents are often excited about it being "5 O'Clock Somewhere" at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. At HarborWalk Village, visitors can also experience boutique shopping, live concerts, dolphin cruises, pirate ship excursions, casual dining, and more. These coastal-themed centers in Destin might not be theme parks, but they provide just as much fun and entertainment.
July 16, 1969, is a day that will forever go down in history. On this day, Apollo 11 was launched, allowing humans to explore the moon's surface. Because the spacecraft was launched from Cape Kennedy, this day was a historic one for Florida. Today, the Kennedy Space Center promotes interest in space exploration by providing unique and interactive learning opportunities. The complex welcomes visitors from all over, including large tour groups and school field trips, in an effort to share the incredible science behind cutting edge space technologies. Visitors can also view actual rocket launches and meet astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center.
No, Destin doesn't launch rockets or send astronauts into space from its harbor. Wouldn't that be neat? But alas, there can only be one Kennedy Space Center! While rocket launches are a no-go, Destin does put on some amazing fireworks shows! There is no experience quite like watching a firework display over the Gulf. Not only do the stunning colors light up the night sky, but the reflection in the smooth waves also amplifies the magic tenfold. HarborWalk Village holds seasonal fireworks shows every Thursday, in addition to special displays on the Fourth of July and New Year's Eve. Other events with fireworks occur throughout the year.
We can't talk about Florida without talking about swamps… and gators! After all, Florida does have a Gatorland that shows off the unique wetland environment and remarkable reptile species. Florida's high water table, combined with its considerable annual rainfall and flat geography, are perfect ingredients for forming swamp wetlands. Many may think of the Everglades when picturing Florida swamps, but a number of different types of swamps exist throughout the state. These include cypress domes, floodplain swamps, mangrove swamps, and more. These marshy habitats are an alligator's happy place, which is why it is important to be careful when out exploring.
Destin might not be known for its swampy environment, but it is definitely known for its beaches! Though swamps are unique environments that are fun to explore, they are don't hold a candle to Emerald Coast beaches. And Destin's beaches are certainly worth exploring. Soft, white sand squeaks beneath your feet as you stroll the coastline. Jewel-toned waves sparkle under the sun. Coastal sunrises and sunsets made up of pinks, oranges, and reds create a magical setting for vacation photos. Top that off with the rolling sand dunes and coastal dune lakes, and you will discover that true paradise does exist.
Read more: Why is the Sand in Destin so White?
Finally, Florida is known for the docile manatees that reside in the state's warm springs and Gulf waters. Efforts made by Florida wildlife organizations helped move this incredible species off the endangered list, although they are still threatened. Many areas with large manatee populations, such as Crystal River, strive to teach locals and tourists about these majestic creatures. There are fun opportunities to swim with manatees in the springs, and proceeds from activities such as these contribute to the protection of these gentle giants.
Destin is not considered a top Florida destination for manatee experiences, but it does provide other opportunities to interact with wildlife unique to the area. Dolphin cruises take passengers onto the water to spot the intelligent creatures playing in the waves. More adventurous folk may prefer to engage with our local friends up close by snorkeling or diving at one of the many SWARA artificial reefs. Others may choose to parasail over the glassy Gulf, looking for signs of dolphins, sharks, or other sea creatures. While manatees are not as common on the Emerald Coast as other areas in Florida, there is still a chance of spotting one as long as you keep your eyes open!
Read more: Your Complete Guide to South Walton Reefs
Who knew that Destin was so different from the rest of Florida? While any Florida vacation is bound to be a great one, now you have all the information you need to pick your dream destination!
If you are ready to start planning your Destin vacation, be sure to check out our selection of Ocean Reef Resorts vacation rentals. Ranging from intimate getaways to large retreats, we offer beach rentals for every vacationer. Our reservation specialists can help you plan your trip so that you get to experience all the best of the Emerald Coast.