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Lay of the Land

Sitting on a round harbor off East Pass, which lets broad and beautiful Choctawhatchee Bay flow into the Gulf of Mexico, Destin, along with Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island, is Northwest Florida's fastest-growing and most upscale vacation destination.

Although Fort Walton Beach has its own strip of white sand on Okaloosa Island, the city's economy is supported less by tourism than by the sprawling Eglin Air Force Base. Covering more than 700 square miles, Eglin is the world's largest air base and is home to the U.S. Air Force's Armament Museum and the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing, the "Top Guns" of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

To the east of Destin and south of I-10 along the Emerald Coast Parkway are the spectacular sugar-white-sand beaches of South Walton County. In fact, it's the only destination in the entire country to have all 26 miles of coastline certified as "Blue Wave" beaches by the Clean Beaches Council. While there is some development in the area (in the form of the new urbanist beach town of Alys Beach), this picturesque area has mostly cottages nestled among rolling sand dunes covered with sea oats. As you drive along the scenic highway 30A, you will discover quirky, cozy, and quaint communities each with distinct personalities. Here you'll find Grayton Beach State Park, which sports one of America's finest beaches, and the quaint, albeit Stepford-esque planned village of Seaside, which served as the set for Jim Carrey's movie The Truman Show. Seaside was built on a lovely stretch of beach in the 1980s, but with Victorian architecture that makes it look a century older. Seaside also has meandering white-picket-fenced footpaths; waterfront dining; 26-miles of white-sand beaches and architecturally unique beach pavilions; the alfresco Seaside Repertory Theatre; interesting shops and galleries; a stamp-size, Greek Revival-style post office; and a resident population of artists, writers, and other creative folks, who permit only their own cars in their relatively expensive little enclave. Don't worry, there are parking spaces for tourists on the one main road through Seaside. Seaside is the filling of a multilayered gourmet sandwich of several more Kodak-worthy communities. WaterColor is located in Santa Rosa Beach and boasts 140 vacation homes, a stellar hotel, and nature trails. Also nearby is a sister community called WaterSound Beach, featuring vacation residences and a mile-long beach with pedestrian bridges, footpaths, and dunes.

The aforementioned Alys Beach is a stunning, Antiguan/Bermudan/Guatemalan/Mediterranean-style, environmentally friendly beach community of three- to five-bedroom homes, all with their own courtyards and most with private pools. It's on 30A, near Rosemary Beach, another fabulous, neo-traditional planned beach town, whose design is a compelling fusion of St. Augustine, the West Indies, New Orleans, and Charleston.

Time

The area is in the Central Time zone, 1 hour behind Miami, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

How to Find a Street Address

Don't worry about getting lost, as most of what you'll want to see and do in Destin and Fort Walton Beach is either on, or a few blocks from, U.S. 98, the area's main east-west drag. Finding a street address is another matter, because even many local residents don't fully comprehend the bizarre naming and numbering system along U.S. 98.

In Fort Walton Beach, U.S. 98 is known as "Miracle Strip Parkway," with "southwest" and "southeast" addresses on the mainland and "east" addresses on Okaloosa Island.

In Destin, U.S. 98 is known as "Highway 98 East" from the Destin Bridge east to Airport Road, and street numbers get higher as you head east from the bridge. East of Airport Road, however, the post office calls U.S. 98 the "Emerald Coast Parkway" -- although locals still say a place is on "98 East." The highway is also known as the Emerald Coast Parkway in Walton County, but the street-numbering system changes completely once you pass the county line.

Adding to the confusion in Destin, "Old Highway 98 East" is a short spur from Airport Road to the western side of Henderson Beach State Park, and "Scenic Highway 98 East" parallels the real U.S. 98 along the beach from the eastern side of Henderson Beach to Sandestin.

In other words, call and ask for directions if you're not sure how to find a place.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.