Okaloosa County, Florida - The Magic of the Emerald Coast
7 Jan, 2015By: Peter Francesconi
Some say there’s something magical about the power of three. In our culture, combinations of three are everywhere, including in sports: three strikes and you’re out, three goals form a hat trick, the three top finishers in a race receive medals.
When it comes to sports destinations, one of the premier spots in the U.S. also is enhanced by three. The Emerald Coast in Northwest Florida uses the power of three to draw sports events, athletes and families to its sugar-white sand and emerald green waters. How? With three distinct destinations—Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island—all situated on a 24-mile ribbon of coastline in Okaloosa County, but each offering their own unique identities.
“When it comes to offering all that tournaments, athletes and families require, whether on the competitive field or off, it’s just hard to beat what we have here in Okaloosa County,” says Shantelle Dedicke, marketing manager for the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This area has long been a popular vacation destination, and now we’re growing our sporting market. So when you combine what we have with what we’re creating, it’s the perfect destination for sports events and tournaments.”
Located along the Gulf of Mexico, between Pensacola to the west and Panama City to the east, the Emerald Coast is easy to reach by air and within easy driving distance of many major metropolitan areas. “Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Okaloosa Island are the heart of the Emerald Coast,” says Dedicke. “Once you ‘get a little sand in your soul,’ you’ll understand what #emeraldcoasting is all about. And you’ll want to continue to come back. It’s all about three distinct and wonderful areas, each with so much to offer.”
Located on a peninsula separating the Gulf of Mexico from Choctawhatchee Bay, the sugar-white sand beaches help make Destin the jewel of the Emerald Coast. But its emerald green waters also are known for making this city the “world’s luckiest fishing village.” Anglers of any age or skill level will not go away disappointed.
The ultimate fishing tournament for saltwater anglers of all ages, both inshore and offshore, is the Destin Fishing Rodeo, which takes place throughout the month of October and is free to anglers fishing aboard a registered boat in the rodeo. More than 30,000 anglers compete for over $100,000 in cash and prizes, which are awarded daily, weekly and overall in a number of different divisions. Among the gamefish are king mackerel, marlin, sailfish, red snapper and grouper.
Deep-sea fishing, of course, is huge off this coastal paradise. In the early 1800s, Destin was a small fishing village, but now it claims to have the largest fishing vessel fleet in the state of Florida. Water sports of all types also are popular, including diving, snorkeling, sailing, boating, paddle-boarding and kayaking.
Three years ago, property owners along Destin Harbor created the Destin Boardwalk, which offers easy access to more than 150 fishing charter and recreational boats, great restaurants, shopping and much more. Day or night, the boardwalk has become a center of activity on the Emerald Coast.
“Destin is simply a magical place,” says Dedicke. “There is so much to do and see—or visitors can simply relax in the sun, sand and surf. Anglers aren’t the only ones who will feel lucky here.”
Fort Walton Beach
If Destin is the jewel of the Emerald Coast, Fort Walton Beach is the ‘treasure’ of the Emerald Coast—a charming little town that is a favorite for families. The quaint, historic seaside downtown is full of interesting shops, restaurants and museums (and a short drive away is the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base).
The city of Fort Walton Beach has two 18-hole championship golf courses at its Golf Club, just a few miles from the beaches of the Emerald Coast. The Pines Course is a challenging layout of more than 6,800 yards through upland pine forest, and the Oaks Course is more than 6,400 yards of narrow, oak-lined fairways and challenging water hazards.
One of the newest sports facilities on the Emerald Coast is the Fred Hedrick Athletic Complex in Fort Walton Beach. With a 30,000-square-foot multi-use facility, the complex also offers 10 athletic fields and can host soccer, baseball, softball, football and more.
Other sports venues include the City Hall Complex, which has lighted multi-purpose fields suitable for baseball, soccer and other sports, and the Softball Complex, with three regulation softball fields and pavilions. There are also the three multi-purpose fields at Oakland Heights School Athletic Fields, and a regulation baseball diamond and soccer and football fields at Jet Stadium/Covey Field. For racquet sports, the Fort Walton Beach Tennis Center offers 12 lighted championship courts with a clubhouse and pro shop, along with racquetball courts.
During Thanksgiving week, nearby Northwest Florida State College hosts the Emerald Coast Classic, an NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament televised by CBS Sports.
“There are also a number of activities that visitors of all ages will love to try,” says Dedicke, “including paddle-boarding and kayaking in protected waters of the Santa Rosa Sound, or kite-surfing, which is becoming increasingly popular in the area.”
The area also has an 18-hole, 4,682-foot disc golf course in Ferry Park with mixed trees and open ground. And of course, there are plenty of trails and routes for running and biking.
Okaloosa Island is a barrier island between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, famous for its pristine beaches, water sports and numerous family attractions. Looking for a place to hold a beach volleyball tournament? “You can’t beat the sugar-white sand beaches of Okaloosa Island,” says Dedicke.
Just steps away from the beautiful beaches is the Emerald Coast Convention Center, with its meeting rooms ranging in size up to 10,800 square feet, and a free-expanse Grand Ballroom that can be configured as large as 21,000 square feet and is suitable for all types of activities such as cheer events (the annual Varsity Spirit Athletic Championships takes place there), wresting, taekwondo, dance and more. The convention center also is home to the annual All Sports Association Banquet.
In June, the Emerald Coast Convention Center opened the expansive Bayview Plaza, which is an adjacent outdoor venue that adds another 30,000 square feet of space to the facility and is great for many outdoor events, including volleyball and cheer competitions. The convention center staff provides a roster of free amenities and support for event organizers, including complimentary wi-fi, help with finding local accommodations, on-site event coordinator and support staff, website advertising services and much more.
Another attraction is the Okaloosa Island Fishing Pier, which extends 1,262 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico and is a popular spot to land large fish, including tarpon (some weighing over 100 pounds), tuna, king mackerel, cobia, redfish, bonito, bluefish and whiting.
Other popular spots on the island include The Boardwalk, located on the Gulf, with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, entertainment and shopping—and also a popular spot for beach volleyball. Visitors also won’t want to miss the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, with animal encounter opportunities, dolphin and sea lion shows, exhibits and more. There are also nighttime beach walks to observe and be aware of sea turtle nesting season, which takes place in late spring.
With so much going on, and so much natural beauty, it’s no wonder the Emerald Coast has won raves. Good Morning America named the area one of the “Top 10 Most Beautiful Places in America.” The Travel Channel voted it the “Best Family Beach of 2013,” and Boating Magazine says the Destin/Fort Walton Beach/Okaloosa Island area is one of the “10 Best Places to Boat and Live.”
“Event and tournament organizers will love that we have so much happening here,” Dedicke says. “There are hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets, and athletes and their families will find plenty of activities, sights and attractions when not competing.”
With its three distinct areas, each with their own unique identity, the Emerald Coast truly shines. Learn more at www.EmeraldCoasting.com.