Recently, we loaded up our family of four and headed south for a fall break trip to Florida. My daughters are young — three and five — and this is by far the greatest distance they have traveled from home. Mostly because vacationing with little kids is hard. Not “hard” like passing the bar exam or having incurable diseases, but hard in the sense that it’s not totally a vacation because, um, small kids.
Or so I thought, until we rolled into Ft. Walton Beach on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
The sun was shining, the breeze was warm, and my daughters could hardly contain their excitement as the Gulf came into view. It was their first time at the coast — poor landlocked Indiana kids — and as they ran through the sand toward the water mere minutes after we arrived, we knew the 12-hour journey was worth it.
Here's our review on why we love the Emerald Coast in the Fall!
We had to practically drag them out of the water so we could check in to our condo, The Breakers of Ft. Walton Beach, and get them into their suits. The Gulf was still warm and welcoming, even though it was technically fall according to the calendar. Most days of our vacation were spent in the water and on the sand building sandcastles or burying each other. The water was perfect, not just for my kids who would probably swim in ice cubes, but for their mom, who is a giant baby that doesn’t like cold water at all. So after I got in for the obligatory 15 minutes, I spent the rest of my days basking in the sun, reading a book, and handing out snacks as needed. It might have been October, but it felt like the middle of summer.
There were a few days of cooler temperatures (meaning low 70s, which isn’t really “cool” in my book) or some drizzling rain, but those times were the perfect excuse to take a nap with the windows open, check out a 3D movie, or do some shopping. Or just take a long lunch or early dinner. I’m pretty sure we could have spent our whole trip trying delicious local eateries. Our rule on vacation is to only eat at places unique to our destination, so we avoid chain restaurants when we’re in a new town. We tried it all: breweries, seafood restaurants, pubs, BBQ joints, and greasy hamburger joints, each time leaving satisfied and happy.
Even though my daughters would have been completely content playing in the sand all week, the area had so many fun things for them to do that we had to eventually change into real clothes and have some adventures. It was such a chore, let me tell you. Taking a dolphin cruise with Southern Star Dolphin Cruises was amazing. We were hopeful we'd get a glimpse of a dolphin or two. But what we got was tons of dolphins, multiple sighting throughout our two-hour cruise, and the most beautiful sunset on the water I've ever seen. If you go, take the late cruise so you can experience it. I don't have words to explain how awesome it is. Another day we set sail on the Buccaneer Pirate Cruise, and I would say this was by far the best two hours of entertainment my girls have had in a while. I'm a schoolteacher and know that it takes special people to keep kids entertained and happy for two hours, but our pirates were amazing. I felt like they authentically enjoyed their jobs and the kids on the boat. The girls were able to sword fight, swab the deck, get their faces painted and find treasure lost at sea. There was also crazy pirate dancing that my children are still doing now that we're home. So thanks, Buccaneer Pirates, for teaching my kids Gangnam Style. There is nothing more precious than a three year old deciding that's her new favorite dance.
We also got to spend a morning at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park. My children were excited to see the penguins, and they loved the hands-on area where they could touch sea creatures. The dolphin show was a big hit because, as my five year old said, “we got to watch dolphins walk backward.” It was easy to spend a few hours there getting lost in the exhibits and shows. And it's located right next to the Gulf so you can see an amazing animal and then just turn around and know that the water you're staring at is full of them. It was pretty surreal.
Each night the girls collapsed into bed due to sheer exhaustion (parenting win!), and my husband and I got to relax on our amazing 4th floor Gulf-view balcony as the waves crashed below us. Spending the evenings reading books, having a movie night, or just listening to the water were perfect endings to our busy days of getting in all the sights and sounds of the Emerald Coast.
This trip was truly a vacation, which is hard to do with small kids. We came home from our fall trip to the Florida coast tired in the best possible way, with sand still in our toes and salt still in our hair. We might have only been there a week, but the Emerald Coast will stay with us forever.