Destin Dolphin Cruise

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Whether we like it or not, our summer is quickly coming to an end. We’re trying to make the most of the last days of freedom before school starts by spending some time at the beach with our extended family. We’d like to get out on the water in some way, but we’re still deciding exactly what we’ll do.

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Last year, our family went on a dolphin cruise out of Destin Harbor. A company called Boogies operated the glass-bottom boat, which docks directly behind the Harborwalk Village and the Emerald Grande. I didn’t think I’d enjoy this as much as I did, because it is a quintessential Destin tourist excursion. I got over my reluctance quickly though, because dolphins, sunshine and gorgeous Destin water make it impossible to have a bad attitude.

cruise in DestinWe set sail out of Destin Harbor and cruised through the turquoise waters of East Pass into the Gulf of Mexico. Dolphins followed our boat and swam alongside us for much of the trip. It was great fun. The kids loved it and we snapped a million pictures.

dolphins-swim-with-boatThe boat also cruised into the shallow waters known as Crab Island, a popular spot where boats anchor down for easy swimming and play. We had fun watching other boats, wave runners and even a few paddle boarders as we passed through the area.

DSC_0312Our boat stopped briefly to toss out a net. The crew members pulled the net up a few minutes later to see what, if anything, had been caught. I’m not sure what they were hoping for – fish? crabs? – but it seemed like mostly seaweed, shells and a few hermit crabs made it into the net. The kids loved seeing this and my children we thrilled to hold one of the hermit crabs.

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The Destin dolphin cruise cost our family of five just under $100. Similar cruises are offered in Panama City and Pensacola Beach. Occasionally, I’ve seen Groupon offers for discounted dolphin cruise tickets, so it may be worthwhile to look for deals before you go. It’s definitely something I’d do again.

Beaches to Woodlands Tour “Tees Off” Bubba-Style

Fall has always been my favorite time of year on the Gulf Coast. For starters, the weather is pleasant – still warm enough to enjoy the beaches and outdoor activities, but not so hot you have sweat running down your neck the minute you step outside. Also, the beaches tend to be less crowded, which makes for a peaceful day in the sun, and you spend less time waiting at restaurants and popular attractions. For those who travel to the Coast, better rates are typically available at hotels and rental properties after Labor Day.

What’s not to love, right?

Well, this year, I’m even more excited about fall. Why? Because of the 11th Annual Beaches to Woodlands Tour, a month-long collection of events in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Santa Rosa County includes Milton and Navarre Beach, and it’s less than an hour’s drive from Pensacola and Destin. I have had the opportunity to cover some of the events as a freelance writer helping to promote the Tour. Although I am compensated for articles I’ve written, I am not asked or paid to blog about these events. I am telling you about them because I am truly excited about Beaches to Woodlands this year. It may be because my kids are now old enough to get out and enjoy some of the family-friendly activities going on throughout the month of October.

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One of the first events on the Beaches to Woodlands Tour is actually open this weekend through November 2, with the exception of Halloween. It’s the Sweet Seasons Farms Corn Maze. It’s been generating a lot of buzz because the corn maze, viewed from above, depicts two-time Masters Champion Bubba Watson swinging a golf club. Watson is from Santa Rosa County – a little town called Bagdad, to be exact. So the corn maze is a nice tribute to him. He’s tweeted about the event a few times already. Pensacola News Journal shared this video on pnj.com that tells a little bit about the making of the maze and what you can expect if you visit this year.

If getting lost in a corn maze is not your thing, there are other Beaches to Woodlands Tour events to suit a multitude of interests, including art, history, running, biking, and marine science. Take a look at thebeachestowoodlandstour.com for more information. It’s worth checking out if you are going to be in Northwest Florida this fall. Hopefully I can share some real, live photos and updates when we head out to experience some of the fun.

Gator Bait in Destin

the-swampThis crimson-blooded Alabama native has seen enough Gators after a football weekend trip to The Swamp, in Gainesville, Fla. The raucousness of the University of Florida crowd after a triple overtime win over the University of Kentucky Wildcats looked much like the scene at another reptilian retreat I visited a few weeks ago.

The scene: Destin’s Fudpucker’s restaurant at alligator feeding time.

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Just like the diners at this popular eatery, real, live alligators come hungry. Trained staff and regular restaurant-goers alike have a chance to feed these gators, which reside in a manmade swamp just outside the front door at Fudpucker’s.

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I ate at this restaurant years ago, but I don’t think they had alligators on the premises back then. (Fudpucker’s opened in 1982.) Just as I remembered, guests can (and do) leave their autographs on the walls, tables and just about any other writeable surface inside this colorful establishment.

Fudpucker’s hadn’t been on my short list of places to go in Destin for quite a while, but it’s funny how having children leads you to all sorts of places you might not otherwise go. Surprisingly, some of them are not so bad. Fudpucker’s, in fact, may be brilliant because what I remember as an area to wait for a table is now a semi-educational attraction, thanks to the alligators.

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For $3, you can purchase a bag of alligator food. Your four pellets of food are presented to you with a fishing pole-like contraption that you use to lower the bait down to the surface of the water below. Then, watch the gators swarm and CHOMP!

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The pellet snacks are an appetizer to the raw chicken pieces a staff member feeds them during a narrated demonstration. “The alligators here are young gators,” he explains. “Once they reach five or six feet in length, they are moved to other habitats as they’d become too aggressive for this environment.”

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A rare albino alligator named Pearl also resides at Fudpucker’s. She is older and has her own tank that is shielded from the sun to protect her skin.

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My children loved seeing Pearl, feeding the other alligators and asking questions about them. It was certainly a unique experience, and it would be an easy way to pass the time with young children if you in fact were waiting for a table.

On this visit, we didn’t have to wait. We were having a late lunch on Labor Day, when most of the summer vacationers had packed up and gone home. Service was good and the food was better than I expected at a big, popular tourist stop.

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Our entrees were around $10-12 each. The fish sandwich I ordered was seasoned well. My mom enjoyed a fresh salad with chicken, fruit and nuts. The kids’ menu included the usual fare and portions were good.

If you don’t go to Fudpucker’s for the food, go for the gators (even if, like me, you don’t usually “go for” Gators).

 

Fudpucker’s has locations in Destin and Ft. Walton Beach. Somewhere on the restaraunt’s walls is written “Roll Tide Roll!”

An Old Destin Favorite: Harry T’s

One of Destin’s oldest restaurants, Harry T’s relocated to HarborWalk Village a few years ago. I was happy to see this colorful restaurant back on the scene after it closed its doors at the Destin Yacht Club. The old Harry T’s was a favorite of mine as a child. The food was pretty good and the T-shirts sold there were a coveted souvenir.

My Harry T’s T-shirt was yellow with a giraffe on water skis (or something similarly imaginative; it’s been a few years!). When I wasn’t wearing it, it shared drawer space with my A.J.’s and Back Porch T-shirts. (Did I mention I spent a lot of time in Destin?) As I got older, I remembered Harry T’s for its festive atmosphere and live music.

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It seems that not a much has changed since those glory days. I’ve been back to Harry T’s a couple of times since its reopening. Now occupying prime real estate overlooking Destin Harbor and East Pass, it has one of the best views in Destin. You can choose outdoor seating directly adjacent to the marina to take in the emerald waters and passing boats. If you dine inside, you’ll eat amongst the circus-themed memorabilia the restaurant has long been known for displaying. You’ll find TVs, too, if there is a big game you want to see during your visit.

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Harry T’s menu offers a variety of seafood dishes, sandwiches, burgers and other American fare. Our most recent visit was for a weekday lunch. We walked into Harry T’s after an unwelcoming experience at another popular restaurant we’d planned to try just down the boardwalk. The greeting and service we received at Harry T’s was outstanding. Our waitress was attentive and even brought stickers to our daughters at the end of the meal.

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The food was good. It’s not fine dining, but the kind of food you expect at a large restaurant in a resort town, and Harry T’s does it well. Our party enjoyed a variety of dishes, including a fish po’boy, fish tacos, a quesadilla and the Lighthouse Seafood Salad. The portions were substantial. Children’s menu items are served in a Harry T’s frisbee the kids can take home with them.

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We did not pick up any additional souvenirs during our visit, but the restaurant’s gift shop still offers the famous T-shirts in abundance alongside caps, keychains and koozies bearing the Harry T’s name. Maybe next time!

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What are your favorite Gulf Coast restaurants? Have you taken your family to any of the restaurants you enjoyed as a child? Leave a reply with your comments.

6 Things to Look for When You Rent a Beach House

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Before I lived in Florida, going on vacation to the beach meant packing up the kids, suitcases and beach gear, hopping in the car to drive several hours until (finally!) we arrived at our coastal destination of choice. The sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its white sandy beaches are never more inviting than after you’ve been glued to your seat, staring at the highway in front of you, and forced to listen to countless renditions of “Let it Go” from the wanna-be Elsa in the backseat. The last thing you want to happen upon arrival is to discover the beach house you’ve rented — your home away from home for the week — is not what you expected.

Chances are, if you’re renting a beach house, you’re vacationing with others. Most beach houses for rent are designed to accommodate extended families or groups of friends who want to enjoy their stay together. Often the best houses are booked as much as six months to a year in advance so it pays to plan ahead. When you begin your search for a beach house, here are six things to look for:

1. Sleeping accommodations – This is probably a no-brainer but unless you plan to bring air mattresses or sleeping bags for the youngsters, you should start by narrowing your search to those homes that provide a place for everyone to lay their head.

2. Shared spaces – Consider how you plan to use the space in your rental home. My family loves to cook so we look for a well stocked kitchen with seating for everyone to dine in the same room. If you prefer to only eat at restaurants during your vacation, this may not matter to you. Do you watch movies with the whole gang? Look for living areas large enough to accommodate this. If your week at the beach begins to seem like too much family togetherness (and we’ve all been there), having two separate living areas can be a plus.

3. Photos – It’s hard to imagine renting a beach house sight unseen (at least in photos), but look closely at rental listing photos. You can get a sense of the home’s decor, and a home that looks like a museum may not be right for a family with active children. We all know boys playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles don’t mix well with Picasso.

Photos sometimes give you clues as to the floor plan of the beach house. For example, if the only door to the pool or balcony is through a bedroom designed for children, this raises a red flag, both for the safety risks it poses and so that nap time won’t be interrupted when Uncle Chris is ready to dive in for an afternoon swim. If Grandma has a bad knee, you’ll want to be sure her room is not at the top of three flights of stairs. Floor plan is not always apparent in photos so see tip #6 below if you have concerns.

4. Amenities – Beach communities and resort neighborhoods are becoming increasingly competitive in the amenities they offer to rental guests. First, I look for convenient beach access. After all the beach is the main attraction and you don’t want to hike forever and a day to step foot in the sand. If beach access is not in your potential rental home’s immediate vicinity, is transportation available (e.g., shuttles, golf carts) to make getting to the beach easier? Pools are also an important consideration. You may pay a premium for a private pool or opt for using a community pool. Tennis courts, gyms, and concierge services are other examples of amenities you may be offered when you’re renting a beach house. Some properties have on site restaurants and spas. Decide what is most important to you and those you are traveling with, as well as what fits within your budget, and plan accordingly.

5. Reviews – Read the reviews or comments if they are included with a rental listing. You can often uncover some information that may not otherwise be apparent, such as whether or not the owner/management company is responsive if problems do occur.

6. Ask questions – Most of all, after you’ve done your research online, don’t be afraid to contact the owner/rental company to ask any questions that haven’t been answered, especially if you have any unusual requirements for your trip. Most are eager to help answer your questions and they may shed light on features of the home you hadn’t considered.

Of course all of these tips will only be useful if you’ve first narrowed down the location for your vacation. My family and friends have vacationed all over the Florida Panhandle (Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Destin, many points along County Road 30-A in South Walton County, Panama City Beach) and Southern Alabama (Gulf Shores, Orange Beach). Each community has its own strengths and unique offerings.

Vacation home rentals can be arranged directly through resort communities, independent property management companies or individual owners. My family has used Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) to search for properties online and book our stay.

Good luck with your search for a beach house and enjoy your vacation!

Destin: Kids Love The Track

the-track-destin-flThere is no shortage of things to do in Destin, Florida, but if it were up to my kids, the amusement park known as The Track would make the short list of favorites. Bumper boats, go-karts, miniature golf — what’s not to love if you’re a kid?

The activities available at The Track are largely geared toward school-age children, with the exception of an area known as Kids Kountry. Three and four-year-olds can enjoy the small rides in this area, including a carousel, ferris wheel and the classic train.

The older set, if they meet height requirements, can enjoy riding solo in the bumper cars, go-karts and bumper boats. If they are not yet tall enough, an adult should be prepared to ride with them. Such was our luck on a recent visit when the attendant found my daughter to be one inch too short for the bumper boats. So I rode along with her, trying to maneuver our boat around the large pool while dodging squirts of water from the other boats. Yes, you will get wet on the bumper boats! Be prepared. For a reason I still don’t understand, I quickly became the target of a ten-ish-year-old boy who was trigger happy each time his boat came near ours. He didn’t just spray me with water, he squirted me right in the face over and over and over again (Parents, tell your kids not to aim relentlessly at the adults who are just riding along to the delight of their children. Tell them to have a field day with other kids who are game, but show some mercy to the grown-ups. It’s just good manners).

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Each ride, as well as the miniature golf, requires points for admission and the points are purchased inside the arcade building. On our recent visit, we took advantage of an offer that The Track’s website says is available now through Labor Day: Receive double the points when you purchase between 9 a.m. and noon. These points are valid through 4 p.m. One employee told me this is the best deal, but a sign at the cash register also advertised discounts for locals, military and seniors so it’s worth inquiring about those offers at other times of day if you qualify.

Don’t forget to save some money for the arcade — you know, where your children will burn through their tokens in a matter of minutes, collect tickets and redeem them for all sorts of candy and worthless junk they don’t need. It makes them happy so count your losses, play skee ball, and have your wine chilled and ready for when you get home.

There are cold soft drinks and Icees available for sale in the arcade, which are heavenly after you’ve spent some time in the sun. It’s a good idea to bring sunscreen if you visit The Track during the day, too. go-karts-the-track-destin-fl

In all, our family of five spent about $30 for rides and arcade time during the 2-for-1 points hours. You can do as much or as little as you like when you visit so costs will vary.

Although I have not been there, The Track also has a location in Gulf Shores, Alabama, according to their website. Wherever you visit, have fun and check this off your list of kid-friendly vacation stops.