A family trip to Destin, Florida, will have you wondering why you never considered this pitch-perfect panhandle spot before
When people think of Florida vacations, a few obvious spots top the list: Orlando, of course, and then Miami, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. But there’s one destination that is quickly rising in popularity for in-the-know families: Destin.
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Located on Florida’s Panhandle along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s home to stunning white sand beaches, emerald green water, and a fishing community so vibrant that the beach town has come to be known as “the world’s luckiest fishing village.” But between that and its abundance of golf courses, is Destin really much of a family-friendly destination?
Turns out, for many families with young children, the underrated coastal city is the ideal antidote to the typical frenetic Florida vacation. In Destin, you can avoid overpriced admission tickets to overcrowded excursions in lieu of a more relaxed environment that lets everyone—parents and kiddos alike—actually enjoy themselves.
Where to Stay in Destin, Florida
Whether you prefer to stay in a beachfront hotel or bed-and-breakfast, feel pampered in a luxury resort, or spread out in a vacation home or condo rental, Destin has lodging options that meet the needs of all families. It’s even a prime destination for campers and RV travelers thanks to the pristine, 200-acre Henderson Beach State Park right along the water.
A can’t-go-wrong option? The Henderson Beach Resort, a gracious, four-story beach retreat nestled between the Gulf and the aforementioned nature preserve for which it gets its name. Reminiscent of a luxurious seaside manor, it certainly plays up the nostalgia—black-and-white framed photos showcasing its humble beginnings and nautical history are scattered throughout the hotel’s walls. But ostentatious, it is not.
From its meandering lazy river (be sure to request a floatie or bring your own!) to Sprinkles, its in-house ice cream shop, having fun is key. During spring and summer months, the resort offers every parent’s dream amenity (especially considering the on-site spa!): a child drop-off service. Poppy’s Kids Club, a creative space designed just for kids includes themed activities and lunch for a $75 fee. Off-season, the hotel still hosts kid-friendly crafternoons. Think: sand art ornaments and tie-dyed T-shirts.
What to Do in Destin, Florida
Your first stop should be Little Adventures, an online service that connects curious families with bite-sized outdoor adventures. Just use the site’s handy filters—you can narrow down options by kid ages, cost, or the amount of time you want to spend—to receive a hit list of classes or activities that best fit. With several Little Adventures outposts throughout Destin, there’s always a sand sculpture class or a beginner paddle boarding lesson happening somewhere.
Insider Tip: Little Adventures also has a live chat feature in which you can talk to actual local moms in real-time and ask all those deeply specific questions you know you have about an upcoming excursion: do I need to pack a snack? Will they provide life vests for babies? How good of a swimmer does my preschooler need to be? Consider it free vacation planning!
Listen, fishing isn’t for everyone, but everyone is an angler while in Destin. And if you’re at all curious, this is the place to literally test the waters. You can show up with no gear and no experience (and even no fishing license if you opt to hop on one of Destin’s many charter boats!) and walk away with a newfound appreciation for the sport.
If you’re in town any day throughout the month of October, you’ll get to experience the Destin Fishing Rodeo, an annual competition that dates back to 1948. It’s open to all ages and skill levels, but spectating is the easiest of all. Just set up shop at HarborWalk Village and watch as boats unload their catches onto the official weigh-in barge. Those with squeamish stomachs might not appreciate the fish guts and blood, but it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to marvel at an amateur fisherperson posing next to a 200-pound catch.
Save the Sea Turtles
There’s no better place to foster your family’s love of marine life than at Destin’s Gulfarium C.A.R.E. Center, which promotes the rehabilitation and release of all stranded sea turtle species. Sign up for a low-cost marine-biologist-led tour, and your family can meet the program's current roster of sea turtles, perform their own initial assessments of a few fake sea turtles, and learn ways they can help sea turtles long after their visit. (Hint: there's a reason Destin's beachfronts use only red and orange lights at night!)
Sail 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 host of different vessels to spot dolphins, a day trip aboard Pam's new Trimaran, Nice Tri, is particularly family-friendly. She lets kiddos help raise her smiley-face sail, teaches them how to talk dolphin, and, depending on the weather, offers swimming and snorkeling opportunities as well.
Where to Eat in Destin, Florida
Speaking of fish, Destin is famous for its gulf-to-table seafood. Camille’s at Crystal Beach, for instance, serves seafood caught in local waters by local fishermen and unloaded right on the dock at Harbor Docks Seafood Market. (Their gumbo is a must-try.) The Henderson's own Primrose Restaurant serves up creative contemporary takes on classic fish fare and some of the best sushi on the panhandle, and if you are looking for fish fajitas, there's no better spot than on the beachfront patio of Rockin Tacos. And perhaps the most family-friendly restaurant in all of Destin belongs to Lulu's. Founded by Lucy Buffett (yes, Jimmy Buffett's little sister), this spot features coastal recipes created by Lucy herself, but it also has dedicated allergy menus whether you are averse to eggs, gluten, dairy, or even, yes, shellfish.
Fun fact: If you want to do some good while filling your stomachs throughout Destin, ask your server if they've got any lionfish specials. Why? Lionfish are an invasive species that prey on more than 30 different types of native fish, including those two-thirds their size, in the Gulf of Mexico. Although they are delicious, they aren't a common menu item because they are hard to catch and removing their venemous spines is enough of a chore to make them too costly. However, some organizations and restaurants, like Brotula's Seafood House, will cook up whatever fish you catch (lionfish included!) and partner with conservation groups to serve it up. Consider biting into one of these pesky-yet-beautiful fish a Destin bucket list item!
How to Get to Destin, Florida
The Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport is, as you’d expect, the closest airport. It’s located just 16 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. Once you arrive, though, be sure to peep the aquarium of lionfish on your way out of the airport.
Editor’s note: This trip was paid for by Destin-Fort Walton Beach, but all opinions belong to the writer.