A kaleidoscope of emerald, cobalt and turquoise explodes onto the 24 miles of white sand shores stretching off to my left and right. Thrill seekers zoom by on Jet Skis while parasailers float through the sky without a care. The Appalachian quartz sand reflects sunlight and refuses to get hot in the bright sun (I swear!). This is the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s fantastic.
The Emerald Coast of Florida, comprised of Okaloosa Island, Fort Walton Beach and the city of Destin, is making waves in the vacation industry: In 2006, Destin was voted “Best Beach Town” by Southern Living readers. Plus, the region is known for its fish. At least 20 species populate its waters, thriving in the 100 Fathom Curve —where the ocean floor drops away into the abyssal descent — and providing a huge draw for snorkelers and scuba divers.
This brief vacation from work is my chance to curl up on the beach, work on my tan and relax. And since 60 percent of the coastline is preserved from development, there are plenty of places to toss a beach towel. My only goal is to lie as still as possible. But on the Emerald Coast, the call of the water is too tantalizing to ignore.
So after a quick dip, I’m off for an afternoon on Boogie’s Glass Bottomed Boat, where I get my first experience with ocean life: Three dolphins surface at the stern of our vessel. While most of my fellow vacationers are crammed below deck peering through the glass windows and searching for signs of dolphin life, we’re watching the show above deck, where we have a great view of the dolphins racing and jumping in unison, so close we can almost touch them.
Seeing the gracefulness of the dolphins inspires me to try the newest craze, kiteboarding. You stand on a surfboard, harness yourself to a kite and cruise through the water propelled by the wind. If you’re good, which, as it turns out, I’m not, you can go for miles and miles, do flips and twists in the air and even jump off ramps.
Practicing on the beach to get acquainted with the surge of wind power, I complain until Larry, my instructor from XL Kites, finally gives me the green light to get into the water. Though my feet never touch a board, I spend the rest of the day being pulled through the water and swallowing a whole lot of it. My arms grow tired working to untangle my kite, but I am determined to keep it in the air for longer than five minutes (it never happens).
It’s a dismal performance.
Not so on my rented Wave Runner. Speeding along, sea spray cooling my face, I begin to feel a little better; this I know how to do. As my watercraft skips across the Choctawhatchee Bay, I watch yachts, speedboats and pontoons making their way to Crab Island, the hot spot in the bay where water levels range from just 3 to 10 feet. It’s a virtual house party set in the middle of the Gulf. Sailors debark their boats to mingle with drinks in hand, play volleyball or football and generally hobnob in the sun.
There’s a chance you might run into one of the many celebrities who jet to the Emerald Coast for its killer looks, laid-back attitude and paparazzi-free atmosphere — it’s rumored that stars such as Britney Spears, Burt Reynolds, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw vacation here — but it’s not about them. It’s about the glorious views and the nonstop activities.
The grand finale of my trip is a sunset cruise on the Nathaniel Bowditch, a 54-foot schooner. The sails unfurl, someone slips a drink into my hand and we cut through the water with ease. I’ve been going full force for the past three days, my body’s aching and my skin is bruised, but the calming sway of the ship and the sunset on the horizon help me realize that I’ve been relaxing the whole time — I haven’t thought about work once.