By Anne Braly
A trip to the beach is more than a vacation. It’s a state of mind that lets you escape from the busyness of life and sets the stage for an ocean of memories. It means different things to different people, though. Some want a fun family vacation with kids while others prefer a more laid-back, relaxing experience or a romantic experience just for the two of you.
South Walton County has several beach communities, among them, Sandestin is a standout. It’s an easy drive from Nashville or a direct flight on Southwest from BNA to the Destin- Fort Walton airport, making a weekend getaway very possible to answer whatever your mind and body demand.
Along this stretch of the Florida Panhandle, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico sparkle like diamonds, rippling against pearl-white sand beaches to make picture-postcard photos a daily experience. And warm temps make it ideal for the beach three seasons of the year, and oftentimes, four seasons – if Mother Nature blesses us with a mild winter.
A Little History Lesson
Ground was broken for the first resort in Sandestin 50 years ago this year. At one time, the owners of Indianapolis Speedway wanted to buy the property to make a seaside race track. Hallelujah, those plans fell through.
Within a few years, more condominiums, homes and hotels, such as Hilton Sandestin Golf Resort and Spa, appeared along the shore and inland as an extension of nearby Destin. Today, Sandestin comprises numerous resorts, restaurants and shops. It’s a place where vacation dreams become reality.
In 1984, the Emerald Tower at Hilton Sandestin came to life as a full-service hotel with king or queen doubles in each room, along with a large sitting area with sofa beds and balconies with varying views of the ocean and sugary sand beaches. Tucked behind a wall are the bathroom and a hidey hole area with bunk beds and a small TV for the kids, making Emerald Tower rooms an excellent choice for a family with ample space.
In 1998, The Spa Tower, a third pool, kiddie pool and whirlpool were added, followed by the addition of a magnificent, 14,000-square-foot spa offering every amenity you’d expect for a resort of this caliber.
Through the years, updates have been made to the hotel, including the last major facelift 10 years ago. After a decade of wear, it was in need of yet another round, so renovations have been happening over the past year, including a complete head-to-toe overhaul of all guest rooms in both the Emerald and Spa towers. The three swimming pools will also be updated, as will the main restaurant, Sandcastles, which will also feature a pizza bar with hand-crafted pies made to order in a wood-fired pizza oven. Renovations are expected to be complete by winter 2024, just in time for spring vacation. Until then, at least one pool, all restaurants/bars, and enough rooms to get through the off-season will be open.
Things To Do
The hotel touts itself as a golf resort, so bring your clubs along and take a swing at any of the nearby golf courses, such as The Links on Choctawhatchee Bay, Baytowne Golf Club and Burnt Pine Golf Club.
If you want to shop while the kids play, take the shuttle to Baytowne Wharf. It’s a charming, small village with restaurants, shops and over-the-top fun for kids with a zip line, carousel, ropes course and more to keep them busy.
And there’s always a festival or some other event in the works in Baytowne, such as a farmer’s market every weekend, the Sparkling Wine and Holiday Lights on November 18, and the Sandestin Wine Festival scheduled for April 11-14. Go to baytownewharf.com for a rundown of what’s happening.
Baytowne Wharf is reminiscent of a bygone era and is easily reached from all points of Sandestin via a free shuttle that runs throughout the day and into the evening every 30 minutes. I hopped aboard at the back door of the Hilton.
A Day at the Spa
If your ideal vacation is indulging in some mental repose, the spa may be no better place to spend some time. It offers a chance to get out from the sand and sun and focus on yourself.
Serenity By the Sea Spa at Hilton Sandestin, the only seaside spa in Sandestin, encompasses a world-class space of sheer relaxation. From its sauna to the whirlpool bath, nail salon, hair salon, yoga room and massage therapy, guests are in for an experience that treats the body, mind and soul.
There are separate facilities for men and women with dressing rooms, robes, showers and hair dryers. Reservations, which include in-and-out access to the spa amenities for a full day, can be made in advance or at the front desk once you’ve arrived.
On the Beach
Sandestin is located in Miramar Beach, a three-mile stretch of sand and fun in South Walton County. The beach is open to the public, though chair rental is for guests of the Hilton where beach chairs are coveted by guests, especially during high season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Word to the wise: Reserve your seat on the beach when you make your hotel reservations. Beach chairs at Hilton Sandestin run from $15-$45 per day, depending on your setup. At night, make arrangements with the hotel for a campfire on the beach, along with a s’mores package if you wish. They’ll get it all set up for you so all you have to do is take a seat and enjoy the sunset with the waves lapping around you.
There are no fishing outfitters in Sandestin, but bring your own tackle and make sure to get a saltwater fishing license at wildlifelicense.com before you go or stop at a bait-and-tackle shop in nearby Destin. Fishing is prime when the ocean isn’t filled with human activity – early in the morning or as the sun sets over the Gulf.
While much of Miramar’s beachfront is dotted with high-rise hotels, condos and private homes, there is a section with nothing at all – just pure white sand, gentle waves, seagrass and endless views of nature. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is open year-round and features 15 miles of paths for hiking and a bike path to the beach or Campbell Lake with bike rentals available at the park store. The store also offers paddleboard, kayak and canoe rentals.
The preserve is also a favorite of birdwatchers, so don’t forget to pack your binoculars. There’s glamping, as well as hookups for RVs and there are tent sites, too.
Dining in Sandestin
The only AAA four-diamond steakhouse in north Florida can be found at the Hilton Sandestin. Seagars and Chef Fleetwood Covington III put new meaning to the word “steakhouse” with artistic expression that turns dinner into a gastronomic experience with tableside preparation of many of its dishes, such as a classic Caesar salad, Bananas Foster and Cherries Jubilee, and an impressive, 600-bottle wine list. Try the rib-eye of a filet and you’ll discover what a good steak is all about.
Other eateries at Hilton Sandestin include Hadashi Sushi Bar; the Coffee Shop with, yes, coffee, but also tempting pastries; Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill; and Sandcastles Restaurant and Lounge which has a huge breakfast buffet and the soon-to-be pizza bar.
Baytowne Wharf is a feeding frenzy of food choices. Just walk around the village and you’ll find food for every palate, from brunch at Ruby Slipper to burgers at the new Landshark. Or order some bubbly and slurp down an order of oysters at Slick Lips.
And then there are restaurants out of the Sandestin village limits, but still in South Walton County, like The Bay on the shores of Choctawhatchee Bay with a sandy beach and lots of outdoor dining – all covered. It’s one of those restaurants where you want to dress down and make sure there are plenty of napkins on the table.
The menu is primarily seafood with daily fish choices, but there are choices for landlubbers, too – steaks, burgers, sandwiches and the like. Wear your stretchy pants so you can order a homemade dessert after a filling meal. You don’t want to miss out on the peanut butter pie or mile-high key lime pie.