Gourmet dining and unspoiled beaches combine for a memorable stay.
Cheryl Gerber
Dusk is a great time to take a stroll down the quiet beach as the sunset paints a dramatic picture.

I came for the pristine white beach and fell in love with the candy bars. Yes, the more than a mile of beach fronting Henderson Park Inn is white, clean and uncrowded, but where can you find a refrigerator in your room stocked with free candy bars (and soft drinks and water)?

“Our guests are always commenting on the free candy bars,” says Ryan Olin, innkeeper of the 35-room bed-and-breakfast that hugs the 208-acre Henderson State Park (with its 6,000 feet of undisturbed beach) along scenic Highway 98 in Destin. “I sometimes wonder if the candy bar isn’t America’s favorite treat.”

Because each room has a bottle of wine and a bunch of grapes waiting for you, you don’t have to settle for a soft drink with your candy bar. Just open the door leading to the balcony that faces the beach, and lift the cork on the bottle of wine. Relax as you sip your wine and slowly eat your candy bar. Feel the breeze, and take in the magnificent view of the unspoiled beach. So now you have a glass of wine, a candy bar and even a bunch of grapes. Maybe you should just stay in your room!

There is much more to love at the 2.5-acre adults-only resort than free candy bars and a pristine beach. Here you don’t just get a muffin and coffee for breakfast. “We provide a free hearty breakfast,” Olin says. “There is always a chef preparing omelets to order with about 10 fresh ingredients for your selection, along with cheese grits that even your mama would love –– if she’s from the South –– and everything else you would expect to find on a first-class buffet.

“With a two-night [or longer] stay, there is also a free lunch buffet. Again, we think the selection is impressive with soups, salads, sandwiches, main-course selections and dessert.” And he didn’t even mention that beer and wine are free at the daily afternoon happy hour. “We ring a bell to signal the beginning of happy hour, and our guests don’t have any problem finding their way to the thatched-roofed Tiki Hut Bar on the deck overlooking the beach,” he says when asked for details about the unique happy hour.

Evening dining is offered in the Beach Walk Restaurant. Operated by noted chef Tim Creehan, who trained with Louisiana’s famous chef John Folse and was the executive chef at Folse’s Lafitte Landing in Donaldsonville before he moved to Florida, the kitchen serves gourmet food that would please the most cosmopolitan diner. The comfortable dining room overlooks the beach, and though breakfast and lunch are only for guests of the inn, dinner is open to the public. You have a choice of dining inside in air-conditioned comfort or outside on the porch, and if you are adventuresome, you can even ask for a table nearby in the sugary-white beach sand.

Located on a quiet cul-de-sac, Henderson Park Inn is owned by Dunavant Enterprise, the world’s largest privately held cotton merchant with offices on six continents. It may seem unlikely that an international company such as Dunavant would be interested in owning an inn in Florida. “Having visited Destin, I knew it was ideally situated in the market for an upscale resort,” says Dunavant Enterprise’s Bill Hagerman, senior vice president for real estate. “When I located Henderson Park Inn, I knew it could be the heartbeat of something much larger to come. The very fact that it is adjacent to Henderson State Park makes it a premier location.” He then proudly adds, “It’s the best beachfront land in Florida.”

How did a New England-style inn end up in Florida? “Bill and Steve Abbott, the original owners, grew up in Maine and loved the architecture of New England,” explains Deborah Channel, marketing director of the property. “The Abbott brothers wanted to bring a little Northeastern Atlantic charm to the Gulf Coast, so they built their inn to resemble the ones they remembered from their childhood.” An interesting tie to the Abbott brothers is the fact that the current innkeeper’s father, Jim Olin, was the president of Abbott Resorts, the management company of Henderson Park Inn when the inn opened in 1992.

With high-rise buildings dotting the skyline along the 24 miles of the Emerald Coast, there is definitely something charming about finding a New England-style bed-and-breakfast nestled against a 208- acre protected park and hidden from the busy highway. While there is the feeling of being secluded, you are near the action that includes fishing, golfing (with 1,080 holes available), tennis (104 courts beckon) and tubing and canoeing at Blackwater River State Forest and Eglin Reservation, not to mention the designer outlet centers for those who consider shopping a part of a successful vacation.

And don’t forget the free candy bars. They offer something sweet to end (or begin) your day of a bit of heaven on the beach.