It’s been two weeks since we’ve returned from our one-week vacation to-and-from Florida’s Emerald Coast. A “short” 11-hour drive from our home in North Texas, the Emerald Coast is the unofficial name for the northwest coast of the Florida Panhandle.
(NOTE: A quick search on Wikipedia says that “Redneck Riviera” is also a nickname for the area. We prefer Emerald Coast, but I can see why it’d be called this as we heard a lot of southern accents as we cruised the boardwalks.)
The Emerald Coast stretches about 100 miles, and features the towns (from west to east) of Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, Fort Walton Beach, Destin and Panama City.
Guess what?! We’re going to share our favorites in a minute!
Okay, I know, I’m four paragraphs in and you’re wondering, why – in the middle of a pandemic – did we decide to hit up Florida, a state that was all over the news for it’s lackluster COVID-19 numbers? Lackluster as in, the numbers were rising faster than the tide on the Emerald Coast.
First, part of the reason I waited two weeks to write this is to make sure I didn’t hear “WE TOLD YOU SO!” because we traveled to Florida during a pandemic. We all survived, all came back with no symptoms, and the 2-3 people we’ve been in less-than-6-feet-of-contact-with showed no symptoms either so … we good, and likely weren’t just carrying it across borders.
NOTE: We may not have heard “WE TOLD YOU SO!” but a couple of people may have “jokingly” said, “Oh you’re the fools that are causing the increase.”
Maybe … but we’re also the fools that had no fear in making sure we took a mental break from keeping our kids indoors all summer, and helping them, and us, feel a bit of normalcy in what has been a stupid 2020.
Plus, our July trip to Brazil – planned in October – was cancelled for obvious reasons, so sitting at home knowing we should be with family would not have been fun, and really, we planned Vacation Plan B before Florida was dominating your favorite news outlets.
Here are five takeaways from our trip to the Emerald Coast:
1 – Have No Fear, Have Fun!
One final mention of the COVID-19 issue. During our entire trip there were maybe 3-4 instances where we were in “danger”, aka close proximity of a ton of people. We walked into a Walmart to get ice cream, 15 minutes before their 8:30 p.m. closing time and … well, let’s just say I’m positive the Coronavirus was lurking in the beer aisle. After noticing the insane lines, and amounts of people inside the store, we quickly bailed on that idea.
Actually, I’m changing my answer to that was the only time. We walked through the Okaloosa Island and Destin Boardwalks, but again, never close enough to catch anything unless both parties decided to simultaneously spit in each other’s mouths as we passed by. We also walked through a couple of beach stores for some souvenirs, but were never more than five feet from anyone. We ate at Popeye’s on the way back, but everyone was socially distanced, and most were masked up. So yah, just Wally World.
Also, all those pictures they show you on the news about how insane the Florida beaches are … uh, no. We were never closer than 10-12 feet (and often farther) from anyone, and we went to the beach four straight days. When you’re out on the water and you look down the shoreline, sure, from a distance it looked like those CNN photos, but … no.
In short…don’t fear the news. Don’t fear the unknown. Be cautious. Be prepared. Use common sense. Have fun.
2 – Fort Walton, Destin, Miramar, our winner was …
Dune Allen Beach Access in Santa Rosa Beach. After three straight days of early-rising and beaching, we decided we’d give the kids a break and take our time leaving the house. Not a smart move because by 11 a.m. every public beach access was packed, and no parking spots were in sight.
We drove 30 miles down the coast (which isn’t a bad thing because it’s the coast and the houses and condos are stunning), and were now ready to turn back around and head to Henderson State Park, where we hung out the day prior ($6 per vehicle but spacious and the same beautiful beaches).
We came across Dune Allen Beach Access, found a parking spot, scouted the area and realized we had room on the beachfront. The kids and wife agreed this was their favorite day. The water was calm, the sand was pure, the water was clear, there were fewer people, it was the perfect setting for our final day.
KEVIN’S BEST BEACHES: As you’ll learn later, and probably can tell by pictures, I don’t look like someone that loves the sun, water, and swimming in the ocean. I don’t surf, but man I love swimming in the ocean, and midway through quarantine I decided, “I need to dive into a wave in the ocean.” Goal accomplished!
I’ve lived in San Diego and Hawaii. I’ve been to multiple beaches in Brazil. I’m not even going to mention the “beaches” on the Washington coast (just did!). Call it recency bias, but after consideration I think I’m putting the Emerald Coast above all of those places. The water is warm and clear, the ocean floor is flat and full of sand, the beach is pure white and your first step in it will leave you in awe. Plus, it’s the most family-friend beach I’ve been.
3 – Go East!
We stayed in an Airbnb on Okaloosa Island, but made a note that future vacations will take us farther east, and more towards Santa Rosa Beach. The reason, the water is just more clean. Our first day we went to the beach that was about 400-yards from where our “condo” was. It was nice, but not the clear water that I was promised by all those Facebook Groups I subscribed to before we came. The three following days we drove an extra 20 minutes to experience the real reason it’s called the Emerald Coast.
In order of where we’ll be looking next time … Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Miramar Beach and Destin. (If you’d rather be closer to restaurants, the boardwalk and things to do, reverse this list.)
4 – Lotion up!
If you haven’t noticed I’m fairly fair skin. I mean I’m as white as they come! On the first day I lotioned up pre-beach, came back to the condo for lunch and lotioned up again. Smart move as I only fried the top portion of my chest that my hands don’t reach. Idiot!
The second day I lotioned up pre-beach, but never put on a second or third (or fourth?!) coat. I was as fried as the shrimp we ate Wednesday night!
Meanwhile, my Brazilian wife not-so-much. My youngest, whose hair lightens in the sun, but his skin darkens, is going to break some hearts. The other two will freckle on their face, but will also get some color (though daughter joined Dad in burning), either way … I hate them all.
Thankfully the day after I fried, a storm rolled in and we had overcast skies, and cooler weather, allowing me to not run for shade the entire day. It was the perfect complement to the prior day. Thank you Lord!
5 – Budget!
As I mentioned in my prior vacation posts, we travel on a budget. We eat out at one nice restaurant for every week we vacation (there’s five of us so it can get costly if we do that nightly). The other days the wife has prepared us an easy-to-cook dinner. We also learned a lesson this time around. Because we budget for everything else, we’re focusing most of our vacation budget on accommodations. Location, location, and cleanliness is what we’re aiming from here on out! Doesn’t mean we go luxury, but it does mean we don’t get the Airbnb special that causes the wife to do her own house cleaning, and not located near where we want to be.
Quick Hits …
Every night the wife and I made ourselves a drink and walked the beach without the kids, very important to have that time alone to just chit-chat about the day and the experience, we’re already planning retirement…we watched a lifeguard paddle miles into the sea to rescue an inflatable unicorn…storm clouds over the ocean equal amazing…always need a fun pit stop on the drive, so we visited LSU and Shaq in Baton Rouge…after more than a few I’m taking Popeye’s chicken sandwich over Chick-fil-A. Hurts me to say that cause I adore Chick-fil-A, but that bird is big and juicy!