Debbie Does Destin

Adventures Along Okaloosa Island

Shelley Grace Hesse Photograph

Rainy days at the beach have their good side and their bad side. Because I hadn’t intended to spend time on the sand anyway, that muted the bad side somewhat. The sun wasn’t on my agenda. On the good side there’s a moody beauty to a rainy beach. There was also a touch of drama. Somewhere way out there in the Gulf, Tropical Storm Debbie was kicking about. We knew we weren’t going to be hit head-on, but the outer bands created occasional gusts that only added to the mood.

Our destination that weekend had been Okaloosa Island, located between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, Fla., along U.S. Highway 98. This linear Gulf-front barrier island is part of Fort Walton Beach and is surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway and is connected to Destin and Fort Walton Beach by bridges at each end of the island. Resorts, restaurants and other places to go dot the island, but the main attraction, of course, is the pristine beach.

By sunset that Sunday the clouds had broken enough to allow splashes of orange from the west. Few fashion stylists would ever match gray and orange, but when rays break through ominous clouds the color scheme has a natural beauty.

I witnessed the sunset from the porch of the Beach Walk Café at Henderson Park Inn, a picturesque little hotel patterned after the inns of Maine. The candle on our table wasn’t there because of the tropical storm but because of the elegance of the place, which provides some of the area’s finest fine dining. A cocktail was a soothing tonic for watching waves crash on the beach.

Though she had threatened all weekend, Debbie would eventually move more to the east, leaving only drama, scattered showers, a few wind gusts and more time watching the Weather Channel than I had wanted in its wake. Still, the weekend that the sun was now setting on was complete. A day earlier we had decided to go retro and visited the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park just because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. It turned out to be a lot more fun than expected, not just because of the dolphin show but also because of the aquarium inside. There are some weird fish in this world, but the most entertaining was a herd of rock shrimp scampering sideways through the water. There was also an outside area housing tropical birds as well as turtles the size of manhole covers. Watching the excited expressions on the kids’ faces, I saw future marine biologists in the making.

Later that afternoon we had taken a dolphin cruise. HarborWalk Village, located on the Destin side of the island, has become the epicenter of area activity. There is a dock from which fishing boats take would-be anglers into the blue. That is also where the dolphin cruise boat docks. Because of the flirty weather, the boat couldn’t go out as far as it usually does that day, but there were still plenty of dolphins to be seen both in the harbor and in the bay where, according to the guide, the mammals usually congregate to spend their nights.

Our nights were spent at Waterscape, one of the many condo resorts on the island. That Sunday afternoon, with Debbie swirling somewhere out there, the pool was the main attraction. Kids splashed while the wind achieved the right velocity to be adventurous but not dangerous. Dining, of course, is always a pastime. AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar, located near the marina, is so popular that were advised to get there a little early for Saturday dinner. It is a sunset and margaritas sort of place, both of which I experienced before forking into the grouper du jour. Back at HarborWalk Village a character named Cadillac Willy was performing on the main stage defiantly singing his songs while the returning fishing boats were being secured for Debbie.    

By Monday morning the tropical storm had totally left the area but was still taking swipes closer to Panama City. Okaloosa Island even during a tropical event maintained its charm, yet for balmy days ahead, it’s a good place to want to go back to.

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