The end of May is approaching and for our family that means one thing: our annual summer beach trip is coming up VERY SOON! Before we know it, we will be headed to our favorite family vacation destination: the beaches of South Walton, Florida.
I’m sure a vacation to this locale isn’t unique to just our family; in fact, I know it isn’t. Every year, as we sit on the beach and breathe in that delicious salty air, we always seem to find fellow Louisianians among those enjoying the pristine white sand and emerald toned water. How do we find them? It seems like we all gravitate toward each other. Plus, it’s kind of obvious when you see the beach dotted with purple, black and gold tents adorned with our favorite team emblems.
That being said, there is no doubt that Florida’s Emerald Coast is a family favorite summer vacation destination for those of us in the New Orleans area, and there are many reasons why!
Northwest Florida is Accessible and Affordable
A short four hour drive from New Orleans, the beaches of Northwest Florida are an easily accessible and affordable vacation choice. The close proximity makes it workable for a quick weekend visit, the amount of inexpensive vacation rentals is unrivaled, and the fact that the actual beach is free makes it doable for any budget.
There is no denying that the beaches of Florida are a prime destination. Within a four hour drive, you have access to sand as soft as cotton and water that pretty much mimics parts of the Caribbean. In fact, a few years ago, some friends of mine from up north saw my pictures and thought we had gone on vacation in the Riviera Maya. Because the emerald coast beaches stretch over nearly 100 miles, you can stay as close as Pensacola Beach, a little further in downtown Destin, or go even further down Highway 98 and take a right onto Highway 30A, home to beautiful beach side towns like WaterColor, Seaside and Rosemary Beach. There are vacation rentals available all along the coast for as little as three nights or even for an entire week’s stay!
Where to Stay?
One thing is for sure: there is no shortage of places to stay along the Northwest Florida coast. Whether you like high rise condominiums, hotel resorts or luxury beach houses, there is something for every family and their kids (including those of the furry variety!) Scott and I have been going on a yearly trip to South Walton for over four years now. Every year, we stay at the same location on Scenic Highway 98, a hop, skip and jump from the outlet mall, grocery stores and within walking distance to several great eateries, one of which is on the beach! We love this particular location because it is also a small 30 unit complex with a very family friendly vibe. Because we have stayed at this particular place for four years, we’ve gotten to know many of the same families that vacation there every summer. It’s like our own little beach community. We have stayed in other areas, too, but we always come back here because no matter who you meet, everyone is in a permanent good mood! You can’t beat that. We often stay in Miramar Beach, which is east of Destin and has a much slower, laid back vibe that we prefer. Other areas we like include all of the beaches of 30A, especially Seaside, WaterColor and Rosemary Beach.
We found our little gem through a magical online resource called VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner). This site is a great place to search for your vacation accommodations. You can narrow down your choices by size, location, date, and even how many bathrooms it includes. Almost every listing has a direct email and phone number to the owner(s) and details and photographs of all of their amenities. If you have a specific area in mind, you can pick it from the map, scroll through the different complexes, and select one that meets your needs. We always like to bring Maggie with us, and we are also able to narrow down our destinations by those that are pet friendly. Nightly rental fees are as low as $125/night for one bedroom condominiums for prime summer season! For our upcoming trip, we are staying for a week for under $1000. That’s a win in my book, considering flight costs for most destinations, per person, are averaging over $300 each. If you have a larger family or group, you can even rent a beautiful beach house that can sleep up to 20 people for as little as $4000 for the week, depending on your destination. Split between families, that costs is pretty reasonable, if you ask me!
Because we stay in a fully equipped condiminium, we rarely go out to eat when on a beach vacation. We usually will reserve one or two nights on our vacation for a special dinner out (usually the first and last night in town), but overall, when we arrive, we stop over at Publix or Winn Dixie, make a plan and grocery shop for the week’s meals. If you want to make it even more effortless, you can take advantage of a personal shopper service like Be My Shopper.com who will do all of your grocery shopping and have it waiting at your rental when you arrive for a nominal fee. Then you can go straight to the beach when you arrive!
Because we buy groceries no matter what, it’s a great way to save money and keep our vacation economical. We like to also use meal times as great breaks from the sunshine for naps and added relaxation. Plus, it’s a lot easier to feed a kid that’s tired from the beach a quick dinner in your condo than have to wait for a table at dinner time (and trust me, you will wait!) Not to mention, there are some pretty spectacular views from our balcony to dine alfresco! However, we do have a few favorite jaunts for our beach visits, and my friend Molly gives great reviews of many favorites along the Emerald Coast at her blog Duchess of Fork.
Our beach side favorites include Pompano Joe’s and The Crab Trap, which are both on Scenic 98 and boast beautiful views and tasty food for everyone in the family. The Crab Trap also has an awesome beach playground to keep the little ones entertained while you wait for a table (or as a bribe for behaving!). Another Broken Egg, another location of our local Mandeville favorite, is right down Highway 98 at the Baytowne Wharf which also features other restaurants along with fun for kids like the Adventure Zone, Adventure Land Playground, a carousel, and Blast Fun & Games while also offering live music on some nights.
If you are staying along 30A, there are even more delicious places to dine! Want a delicious breakfast? Charlie’s Donut Truck in Alys Beach is a popular favorite, especially for the little ones! Seaside is home to an excellent farmer’s market as well as a large collection of delicious food trucks in their city square. Our favorites include Barefoot BBQ and The Meltdown. Another great family friendly place for a great meal is George’s in Alys Beach or Old Florida Fish House in Santa Rosa Beach. For a sweet finish, you can head on over to The Sugar Shak in Rosemary Beach. If you are looking for a date night option, Ashley recommends Edward’s and Caliza for a romantic dinner for mom and dad.
Rainy Day Fun
It never fails; if on a week long trip to the beach, it will eventually rain. It’s part of the joy of living on the coast. That being said, you will not have to worry about hearing your kids say “I’m bored!” when you head to Florida’s Northwest coast. From Pensacola to Rosemary Beach, there are TONS of activities to keep your kids busy if the beach isn’t an option or if everyone is BURNT out (pun intended).
For the Kids
Florida Gulfarium Last year, the Gulfarium completed a huge renovation and has rave reviews! This aquarium/sea life center is home to many species that we can find all across the Gulf Coast. What makes the Gulfarium even more fun is that they also offer interactive animal encounters, animal feedings, and even fun shows along with additional education through its traditional aquarium. There is an admission fee, but well worth the expense to avoid hearing “I’m bored!” on a rainy day and sure to give the kids an unforgettable experience. Tip: Kids 2 and under are FREE!
Bowling What better way to pass the time on a rainy day at the beach than by going bowling? There are two bowling alleys in the Destin-Ft. Walton area that are perfect for some family time at the alley! White Sands Bowling Center in Ft. Walton is a great family friendly alley that also participates in the Kids Bowl Free Program so you could actually take the kids bowling for a minimal cost! Hurricane Lanes is right on Highway 98 in Destin and also offers family fun with everything from bowling to ping pong.
Destin Commons An outdoor strip mall, Destin Commons is another great destination for shopping and family fun if the weather isn’t cooperating. Not only is it home to over 75 specialty shops and restaurants, including Bass Pro Shop (this is a popular visit in our family), but it is also is home to the AMC 14 Cinema, which is a great place to settle in for a movie if the weather isn’t the best.
For the Grown Ups
Silver Sands Outlet Mall I don’t know about y’all, but no trip to the beach is complete without a jaunt the the outlet mall. This outlet mall in Destin is home to some of my favorites like Le Creuset, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, and Off 5th. Also, there are quite a few yummy chain places to grab a bite should you want something to snack on!
Emerald Coast Cellars Every time we go to the beach, I talk about going here but I have yet to go! I definitely plan on visiting on our upcoming visit. This is a perfect place to unwind during rainy weather for mom and dad if you have someone available to watch the kids for a bit.
There is no doubt that a family beach trip is guaranteed to be one that will create memories for a lifetime as well as provide a perfect opportunity to enjoy each other’s company. We feel so blessed that we live on the Gulf coast and have access to such a beautiful place to have a great beach trip! I know in our family, we always return from our trips refreshed, connected and happy from our time in paradise. The best part is that it is right down the road in Florida!
Do you travel to Florida’s NW Coast for yearly beach vacation? Where do you like to stay? What are some of your tips? Favorite Eateries? Things to do?