If desperate for a break from slushy sidewalks, winter coats, scarves and mitts, and winter's ever present grayness, point your compass towards Florida's crystalline, sparkling sugar-white sand beaches of the Emerald Coast. The beaches are so white, they resemble cold winter snow, the stuff I left behind a few hours earlier in Canada!
For one glorious week, I hung out in the seaside resorts of
Fort Walton Beach on the shores of the
Gulf of Mexico. These small communities (pop. of both 35,000) are part of what's referred to as the 39 kilometre (24-mile) Emerald Coast.
This is the easy part. I boarded a Vision Airlines non-stop, two-hour flight from the
Niagara Falls International Airport in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Flights start at $79.00 (plus fees and taxes) to
Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Vision Airlines
Boeing 737-400 series planes make two flights per week, flying Friday and Sundays. Parking at the Niagara Falls airport is $7.00 per day.
When you Arrive:
I rented a Hertz car at the airport. You can expect to pay about $40.00 per day for an unlimited mileage standard vehicle. Insurance is another $28.00 per day. Don't forget to pack your GPS.
Where to Stay:
The area is blessed with myriad types of accommodations. I chose Destin's beautiful beachside Jetty East Condominium, a half-hour drive from the airport. The view from my fourth floor, large, one-bedroom condo with a fully equipped kitchen was spectacular at $100 per diem. Each evening, the Gulf of Mexico whispered outside my room, and I fell asleep listening to waves lap the shoreline. Daily parking at this gated community is free.
What to Do:
The list is long. I headed to the pool and beach to soak up some rays. At the beach I scooped up plenty of seashells that eventually found their way to my mantel at home. One day, I explored the residential areas along the beaches, in awe of the many colorful stilted homes that line these shores.
Along busy Highway US 98 which connects the two communities of
Destin and Fort Walton Beach, you'll find plenty of malls, with brand-name shops, restaurants and attractions to while away your time. Check out
Big Kahuna's Water Adventure Park and their 40 water-related activities. One afternoon, I made my way to Destin Harbor to scan the amazing fleet of charter fishing boats. Record catches have earned Destin/Fort Walton Beach the "World's Luckiest Fishing Village." You can get a Southern Star Dolphin glass-bottomed boat that cruises the Gulf of Mexico for dolphin sightings. Later that evening I strolled along the Harborwalk Village Marina Level. When I visited in mid-December I was lucky to see the colorful 24th Annual Boat Parade as they toured the harbor decked out in Christmas lights.
Where to Eat:
The top way to find the best places to eat is to ask locals who repeatedly recommended these two: Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Que on the Emerald Coast Parkway (US 98) and Destin Harbor's Lucky Snapper Grill and Bar. Jim 'N Nick's was a real find so arrive hungry for their oversized portions. Check out their classic spare ribs and monstrous onion rings. Manager, Jeff Kaufman, told me, "We get that smoky flavor by cooking our ribs for 14 hours over low-heat hickory coals." Leave some room for their homemade Coconut Cream Pie.
The Lucky Snapper Grill and Bar was a fun place to commune with the locals, laid-back and welcome to this tourist, a rustic restaurant that beguiles with charm. It featured a down-home friendly atmosphere with a young staff who genuinely liked their jobs. Manager, Joe Arnold, said, "This restaurant sits on the original piers of a restaurant built in the 1940's. It's a little bit of old style Destin." Here, I enjoyed a grilled Mahi-Mahi, washed down with a Lucky Snapper cocktail (okay, two) as I watched the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. Life couldn't get any better.
George Bailey contributes to Sun Media's 43 paid-circulation newspapers across Canada as well as numerous magazines. George has appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Canada AM, The Discovery Channel, and Live with Regis and Cathy Lee. He has published five books on Niagara Falls.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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