Destin, Fla.: Don't Call It the Redneck Riviera

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2001

If you're in the mood for a calm and easygoing Florida vacation this fall, Destin might be your destiny. The coastline of the state's panhandle is a laid-back land. With sugarlike sands and azure waters, Destin and the surrounding beaches have long been known as part of the Redneck Riviera. But if you go looking for signs of the stereotypical South, you're liable to be surprised.

You know the South I'm talking about. Beaches littered with Confederate flag boogie boards, "Hell No We Ain't Forgit!" beer cozies and great-bellied, raspy-voiced guys sporting Kappa Alpha tattoos.

Oh sure, the Oldie Moldy South might rise again here and there, but it's pretty much gone with the wind. Actually, the wind remains -- mostly as delightful breezes. And there is a soothing, salving, much-sought-after simplicity here.

We recently rediscovered Destin -- the updated version -- on an extended family vacation. (The family was extended, not the trip.) During our week there, we found wine shops with vast selections, a first-class Barnes & Noble bookstore and restaurants that served terrific grilled fish and boiled shrimp and crab-and-spinach dip. We saw ads for a microbrewery and a karaoke bar, but nary a mention of blue tick hound dogs or mayonnaise sandwiches.

We sensed that the area had changed when we landed in Niceville, just east of Fort Walton Beach. The Okaloosa Regional Airport, part of an Air Force base, is quietly efficient. While waiting for the luggage, we saw signs at the coffee shop for cappuccino and espresso -- not EXpressos.

To accommodate the whole family, we rented an oceanfront condominium and a poolside cottage at Hidden Dunes, a low-key beach and tennis resort on the east side of Destin. From the sliding-door windows of the seventh-floor condo, the Gulf of Mexico looked like a Turner watercolor.

The cottage was tucked back among trees and shaded walkways and man-made canals with occasional fountains. Each morning, I spent quiet time reading on a second-story screen porch. Under a ceiling fan, shaded by a big old magnolia tree, I stayed way cool in the morning. Songbirds sang; mourning doves cooed; thunder rumbled in the distance as squalls moved along the horizon. We had a couple of short-lived showers, but they were as gentle and misty as sea spray.

There was time for small mysteries -- like investigating the strange clicking sound in the magnolia tree. It sounded as if it were raining toothpicks. Craning to look around a post, I saw a half-dozen bees at work inside one of the tree's magnificent flowers. As they scraped their wings on the thick satiny petals, they pushed the tiny matchstick-size stamens off the edge to fall noisily among the strong, stiff green leaves below.

Being a beach, Destin -- and its environs -- is dizzy with diversion. Water trampolines, parasailing rigs, goofy golf courses, Go-Kart tracks, bungee-jumping towers and bumper-boat arcades abound. But the main attraction is the blindingly ivory sand. Though Lido-like chair-and-umbrella concessions have taken over portions of the beach, there are still miles and miles of wonderful spots where families can flop on towels or plop into chaise longues. The land slopes gradually into the gulf, so the waves are gentler than on most Atlantic beaches. There is not much surfing here, only boogie- and skim-boarding.

On our many walks along the beach, we were struck by the new architecture of the Gulf Coast. There were, of course, the "Truman Show" dwellings: red and blue and yellow and cute beyond repair. Homes suffering from nouveau reach. Seaside, the frou-frou community (and filming site of "The Truman Show") created by Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, is near Pensacola. Near Destin, we saw some lovely new Mediterranean-style beach homes with mustard stucco exteriors and rust-colored mansard roofs. And plenty of graciously designed and delightfully understated cottages.

We were also aware of the glorious diversity of the vacationers -- various ages and races and nationalities and, yes, stages of undress.

People come to Destin from all over. We met a young man who teaches advanced-placement history in a Dallas high school. He and his family had driven 12 hours, past other seductive beaches, to Destin.

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