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2018 Mar

Florida's Sparkly Coast

It’s a balmy December day. I’m fishing off the coast of Destin, Florida, with Peter, my husband, and our three sons. We’re on a head boat called America II, motoring south toward deep water. That’s where the fish hang out this time of year—all kinds of fish, we hear: from snapper to grouper, triggerfish to flounder, and even an occasional billfish.

At least that’s what Captain Mark told us back on shore during our orientation. “I guarantee three things,” he said. “One, I guarantee a clean boat. Two, I guarantee good tackle. And three, I guarantee when I stop the boat, there will be fish underneath.” Captain Mark paused. “That’s the farthest I go with the guarantees,” he concluded with a chuckle.

It’s my family’s first deep-sea fishing experience, and we couldn’t have chosen a prettier day. Clear blue sky, bright warm sun, and a cool seabreeze to remind us that it is actually winter here in Northwest Florida.

This is also our first-ever visit to this side of the state, and we’re impressed. I’ve always heard the Destin-Fort Walton Beach area has a special quality that makes it a unique family destination. Now I am beginning to understand what the hype is all about.

I can sum it up in one word: sparkling. This part of Florida sparkles. Whether it’s the stark-white sandy beaches or the azure-blue Gulf waters, a sparkling sheen seems to reflect off the surface of everything we see. We’ve only been here a day and a half, but even I’m beginning to feel all sparkly inside.

SUGARY, WHITE SAND
Destin-Fort Walton Beach lies midway between Panama City and Pensacola on the shores of Florida’s Emerald Coast. The resort area is spread across barrier islands that offer 24 miles of sugary white sand and a wide range of hotels, condominiums, and rental properties from budget-style to luxurious resorts.

Peter, the boys, and I are staying in a sparkling clean mid-size condo on Okaloosa Island called Sea Crest Condominiums. Ours is a tastefully decorated two-bedroom unit with a fully-equipped kitchen, washer and dryer, and two TVs. We’re just steps away from the beach, and our balcony offers marvelous views. The only trouble is we’ve stayed so busy since we got here, we haven’t had much time for relaxing on our balcony or strolling along the gorgeous shore.

Yesterday we visited a few local attractions. Our first stop was the Air Force Armament Museum near the West Gate of Eglin Air Force Base. Aircraft of all sizes are parked outside on the grounds as well as inside the museum, a warehouse-sized facility filled with a variety of exhibits. The boys were fascinated by the museum’s weapon collection, an extensive display of pistols, rifles, machine guns, and rocket launchers.

Another exhibit offered insight into special operations forces from WWII to the present, including Operation Farm Gate, Operation Frequent Wind, Operation Urgent Fury, Sandy Beach One, Jungle Jim Operation, Rice Bowl, Project Carpetbagger, Operation Eagle Claw—such creative names used to describe life-and-death operations. The names of the aircraft seemed poetic, too. Somehow a cute name like Puff the Magic Dragon just doesn’t seem to jibe with the stark symbols painted on the planes showing the targets (tanks, boats, and other planes) successfully bombed and destroyed during missions.

Next we explored the Indian Temple Mound Museum and Park in Fort Walton Beach. One of the largest prehistoric earthworks on the Gulf Coast, the mound rises to a height of about twenty feet above sea level. Atop the mound is a replica of the original temple, which the Native Americans used for political and religious ceremonies. Excavations have uncovered thousands of artifacts—from tools to pottery to bone fragments—which are housed in the adjoining museum. Besides the exhibits, Scott, Jasper, and Ross enjoyed the museum’s hands-on activities for kids: weaving on an Indian-style loom and using a primitive drill to hollow out a piece of wood.

Another attraction we visited yesterday, which offers even more hands-on fun, is the Emerald Coast Science Center also in Fort Walton Beach. All five of us enjoyed playing with bubbles, a wind tunnel, gyroscopes, lights and lasers, and electricity. A wall of mirrors and optical illusions kept us busy for awhile as did a display of the human body, which Ross, our youngest, seemed especially interested in. Maybe he’ll go into medicine one day! Children’s museums are such a wonderful way to teach kids in a fun-filled environment. Another reason I’ve always liked taking my kids to children’s museums is it gives me a chance to play, too! My grandfather always used to say, “Gee, I wish I were young again.” Grandpa, it’s all a state of mind!

DANCING DOLPHINS
Late yesterday afternoon, we rushed to fit in one more activity: a visit to Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park on Okaloosa Island, where we caught the final performances of the day. The Gulfarium sits right beside the beach and offers a variety of shows. The main attraction is the dolphin tank, where a trio of dolphins dance, play soccer, perform tricks and flips, and jump as high as eighteen feet out of the water. In another show California sea lions play ball with each other and grunt and bark for attention. Performed behind a glass viewing window, the Living Sea Show features a scuba diver who demonstrates how scuba gear works while interacting with a fish and other sea creatures. Ross liked the long, slithery eel that swam around the scuba diver’s body, but it gave me the creeps!

After the last show ended, we stopped to admire the sunset, a brilliant display of pink and orange streaks across the western sky. Nearby the sea lions barked farewell, and we headed back to our condo, tired but happy after a busy day.

This morning an alarm woke us up at the crack of dawn. We hurriedly ate breakfast and headed over to Moody’s Charter Fishing, where we joined a throng of tourists, all hoping to catch the big one. Actually, the captain started a pool of money to be given to the person who catches the biggest fish. Jasper’s eyes lit up when he heard that. He loves to compete, especially when a prize is involved.

So here we are out on the Gulf, raring to catch a few fish. The captain has his fish-finder on, and we stand at the ready, lined up beside our fishing poles waiting for the captain’s signal to drop our lines. On hand to help bait hooks and untangle lines are a half dozen first mates, friendly fellows working for tips whose job it is to make sure we fisherfolk have a good time.

HOOOONK! The blast of the ship’s whistle signals it’s time to drop our lines. The America II’s at a standstill, and everyone jumps into action, letting our reels whir and spin furiously as the weighted hooks send the bait deep down into the sea, down to where we hope a few fat fish are swimming around looking for breakfast. Silence follows. Then “I got a nibble!” or “I think I felt something!” Next the sound of whirring reels again as we bring up the line with a pile of seaweed attached or worse yet someone else’s line. It’s a comedy of errors as the mates come and help us get untangled, and we rebait the hooks and send them down again.

Eventually, some lucky fisherpeople catch a few small fry: some are keepers, and some have to be thrown back to grow another year. My boys and I wait patiently for fish to bite our hooks, and Jasper prays for the big one, dollar signs in his eyes as he thinks about the pool of money one lucky guy or gal will get. Suddenly, we start catching a few. I get a couple white snappers and a couple red ones and learn just what Lucky Snappers are: the red ones we let go since red snapper season ended just a few days ago. We watch the happy fellows swim away. The unlucky ones flop in the bucket, gasping for air, but I’m bound and determined to catch enough for supper, so they stay put, a damp cloth covering them to ease their discomfort.

HONK-HONK. Two short blasts from the America II’s horn means it’s time to pull up our lines and move on to another fishing spot. We spend the morning chasing fish and end up with three or four white snapper. Jasper doesn’t catch the Big One, but he does pull up a puffer fish, which we decide is one of the ugliest creatures we’ve ever seen. Riding back to the marina we munch on sandwiches, inhale the fresh sea air, and savor the warm December sun. Even though we didn’t catch a prize fish, our deep sea fishing experience will linger in our memories a long time.    

COMMUNING WITH NATURE
That afternoon we finally get to walk on the beach. I’m amazed at the fine quality of the sand, its glaring whiteness unlike the golden sands we see on the East Coast. Underneath our bare feet the sand crunches and squeaks. It’s harder to walk on, we decide, and choose to stroll at the water’s edge where the sand is firmer and the Gulf water cools our toes. It’s quiet on the beach this time of year.

If you fancy a little shopping—and who doesn’t—the area offers numerous venues, including Silver Sands Premium Outlets, where we while away the better part of an afternoon. Billed as one of the nation’s largest designer outlet center, Silver Sands boasts over 100 fine-quality stores. Peter finds a leather purse to send his sister for her birthday, and I decide I want one, too. Ross discovers a play area with sand and climbing equipment, and Peter and I sit nearby on a bench underneath a palm tree and watch another gorgeous sunset, happy we discovered this corner of Florida.

That night at the condo I fry up our unlucky snappers, which the mates on board the America II kindly cleaned and fileted for us. The firm white meat is sweet with just a hint of the salty sea mixed in. Scott, Jasper, and Ross flop in front of the TV content to eat pizza, while Peter and I savor our fish dinner and talk about coming back to the Emerald Coast for a longer visit one day.

For more information:
www.emeraldcoastfl.com
www.moodysinc.com
www.seacrestcondos.com
www.gulfarium.com
www.ecscience.org
www.afarmamentmuseum.com
www.premiumoutlets.com/outlet/silver-sands
Indian Temple Mound Museum & Parkwww.fwb.org/museums/indian-temple-mound-museum

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com