“What time did you set the alarm for?” She groaned incredulously. “3:00 AM! Just like last time,” I replied with firmness, staring her down. I decided to sleep with one eye open.
According to Google and Magellan’s RoadMate app on my iPhone, Destin sat about five and a half hours from Amelia Island. And we all know what happened last time I listened to those to “trusty” sources, don’t we? Instead of taking ten hours to get to Amelia Island, it took more than twelve hours. We blew the entire first day of our once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon trip driving.
That wouldn’t be happening a second time.
If RoadMate was right, I reasoned that if we left Amelia Island at 4:00 AM, we would arrive around 10:00 AM in Destin. But experience had taught me that since my binary friend had no need for restroom breaks or food intake–unlike those she was guiding–her estimate would in fact be wildly off. I conjectured that we would actually arrive around 11:30. That would still leave us plenty of time to get to our hotel, check into our suite, grab that cute red bikini and hit the crystal clear, emerald-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
So! 3:00 AM is was. I hid in the bathroom until it was safe.
“To Infinity and Beyond!” No. Wait. That’s not right. To Destin and Beyond!
3:00 AM comes awfully early, but when the alarm rang, we jumped from our bed, sheepishly rubbed our eyes, hopped in the shower, got dressed and loaded our trusty honeymoon-mobile. Having fully packed the night before, we only had to load a few suitcases, check out and we were off like a flash.
Not liking what RoadMate was telling me, I soon pulled over and spent fifteen minutes arguing with her. It seemed to me that we were once again directed along a route that to me made absolutely no sense. But since I only had a general idea of how to get where we were going and not trusting that knowledge enough to risk challenging my inanimate navigator, I reluctantly but dutifully followed her directions. I knew that I would have the last laugh this time because I planned well ahead, ensuring that I had given us enough time to get to where we were going without wasting the entire day. Granted, we’d be so tired that we wouldn’t be able to think straight, but who needs to think on a honeymoon anyway?
The highway is a strange place at 4:00 AM. It felt as if there was a special camaraderie among our fellow drivers on the road. Those drivers all share a common truth: they are on the road at an ungodly hour. Some are there by choice, some by necessity. Some were going to work. Some were already at work. And some, like us, had a long, long way to go. But for whatever reason, each of us understood that none of us really wanted to be there at this hour (even if it was by choice).
The world is different at 4:00 AM too. It’s very quiet and, naturally, very dark, but it’s not the kind of darkness that comes when the sun goes down. It’s different. It’s a darkness that is full of the anticipation of the sun rising again. It’s a hopeful darkness.
We drove in that darkness for about two and a half hours. Then, magically, around 6:30, color began to appear on the horizon. As my wife slumbered beside me, the world changed before my very eyes as we sped along U.S. Highway 10.
Here’s a map of our route from Amelia Island, Florida to Destin, Florida. The drive wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. Thankfully, this time, Magellan kept us mostly on the highway for the majority of the trip.
Here we are at mile post 264 along U.S. Highway 10. This photograph was taken before the sun came up. The yellow color cast comes from the incandescent lights above.
We’re making progress. Here we are at mile post 194, another seventy miles along the road. No color cast here. The sun had risen.
The whole time we were in Florida, I was amazed by the trees. The palm trees I expected. The pine trees? Hardly. I had no idea that Florida had pine trees. Apparently they are abundant in northern Florida along the pan handle. In fact, on the outskirts of Destin, we drove through an area that reminded me so much of Colorado, it was eerie.
See those flowers in the background. It’s late in October!
Our drive to Destin was decidedly less eventful than our drive to Amelia Island just a few days earlier. There were no prisons, no huge political signs in small towns, heck there were no small towns at all.
And so, in an effort to chronicle our drive, I took to photographing mile marker signs at various rest stops where we, uh, stopped. My wife didn’t get it. But I reasoned, if you can’t photograph a prison or a street gang, why then, photograph rest stops!
See? My thinking was completely logical.
Breakfast in Hell
I don’t like breakfast and I rarely eat it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not need breakfast to make it a great day. Breakfast actually has no bearing whatsoever on whether I have a great day or a horrible day.
That has more to do with my attitude and with whether or not I get hit by an airplane.
Regardless, I did choose to eat breakfast with my wife on several days during our honeymoon. You see, she partakes of this meal every single day without fail. And since I had no plans of following my normal very healthy eating patterns on our honeymoon, I decided to join her.
Thus far into our trip, finding a great breakfast wasn’t a problem. On Amelia Island, we had been staying at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge where an amazing full breakfast was included every day.
But here we were on U.S. Highway 10, far, far away from Amelia Island. Where oh where would we find breakfast? My wife was hungry. A hungry wife is a dissatisfied wife. Any man who has ever been married understands how dangerous a dissatisfied wife can be. I had to act fast!
In a hopeless state, I was nearly ready to butter up the lid of our vehicle’s center console and let her start gnawing on it. But then, suddenly, I saw it: the familiar yellow blocks of a Waffle House!
Oh, you know them. We all know them. Waffle House is categorically the most awful, disgusting, reprehensible restaurant on planet Earth, yet for some reason, they are absolutely everywhere. Waffle House’s seem to be omnipresent. I can’t think of a city or state that I’ve travelled through in which I haven’t seen at least one Waffle House and in most cases, many, many Waffle Houses.
Like Cracker Barrel, they are everywhere and they are horrible. But, they had one thing that I did not have: food.
So, in an effort to satisfy my wife who was by now ingesting our honeymoon-mobile’s seat cushions, I swallowed hard, took the exit, drove the short distance off the highway and pulled into the parking lot of the dreaded Waffle House.
[Insert theme from “Halloween” here.]
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I told her as she gleefully dropped the seat fabric and hopped out of our vehicle.
The look of relief on her face would soon change to a look of horror on both our faces as we approached the restaurant and realized what we were in for. Heartburn, indigestion and general queasiness was in our future, all because we chose to eat at a place called the Waffle House.
Carefully we walked in. I’m pretty sure I heard somebody yell out, “Dead man walkin’!” Ya know, like they do when somebody on death row takes their final walk to the electric chair. I don’t remember much after that. I went to my “safe place.”
I do remember ordering blueberry and strawberry pancakes. I assumed that blueberry and strawberry pancakes meant that I would receive a stack of pancakes containing fresh blueberries and strawberries and possibly even blueberry and strawberry compote. You know, like at every other breakfast restaurant on the globe. But, well, gosh, nope. Silly me! You know what they say about ass-u-me-ing! Instead, I received a stack of pancakes containing teeny, tiny bits of blueberries and strawberries that were actually cooked into those pancakes. At least they told me they were blueberries and strawberries. To this day, my wife is convinced that they were actually Fruity Pebbles. No. Couldn’t be. Fruity Pebbles would have tasted better.
Ah me! To add insult to injury, I had to pay for this travesty. Apparently it wasn’t payment enough that the fake blueberries and strawberries were gurgling around in my stomach, which was actively protesting my decision to eat at this awful place.
Next time, she can have the seat cushion. I’ll be doing us both a favor.
The Difference Between Night and Day
Not long after the nightmare that was breakfast, we turned off of U.S. Highway 10 and headed south on Florida State Highway 331 all the way to the Gulf. This was the final leg of our journey to Destin and to the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. Whew! That sure is a mouthful.
As much as the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge did not have a resort feel to it, but rather, a very laid back, very peaceful atmosphere, the Hilton Sandestin did not have the country inn feel of the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge. Instead, here we were surrounded by several different in-hotel restaurants (including the AAA four-diamond rated Seagar’s steakhouse), night life, three swimming pools, two hot tubs, valet service, a concierge and a first-class spa (where my wife would soon be indulged).
And this was precisely the way I set it up. I had wanted to make the two legs of our honeymoon feel as different as day and night, and there’s no question that the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and the Hilton Sandestin were as different as different can be.
In keeping with the theme of “different,” Destin itself is about as similar to Amelia Island as Velveeta cheese is to porterhouse steak.
Whereas Amelia Island is the kind of place where you curl up under an umbrella on the beach and read a good book (if you’re into that kind of thing), Destin has that “spring break” feel to it and you’ll be sure to see lots of people showing off their beach bodies and their more-than-likely paid for tans.
(My wife had all the girls beaten, by the way. No. Seriously. She’s gorgeous.)
Amelia Island is a lover’s town. Destin is a party town.
An Inexpensive to Traverse, Unnamed Bridge Over Untroubled Waters
The closer and closer we came to the Gulf, the more pine trees we saw. This was very curious to me.
I’ve been to Orlando, Kissimmee, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In all those travels, I never saw a single pine tree. But here, in northern Florida, they are everywhere. It’s a truly surreal thing to see a pine tree right next to a palm tree.
In one particular area, if I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn to anyone who asked me that I was driving through southwest Colorado. I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture. Unfortunately the whole area was under construction and there really wasn’t a good place to pull off the road. Driving by here was like déjà vu.
But soon enough, the pine trees disappeared from view and we began driving over a sadly unnamed bridge along Highway 331. This bridge spans Choctawhatchee Bay.
Here’s the Choctawhatchee Bay bridge as shown on Google Maps.
Here’s our first view of Choctawhatchee Bay. It’s a very cool experience to suddenly see the water out of nowhere.
While we were pulled off on the side of the road here, we had the unexpected pleasure of seeing a stork, just barely off the roadway in the water. He flew off just before we were able to take a picture. I hear they’re very camera-shy.
Here we are out over open water on the unnamed bridge which spans Choctawhatchee Bay. Santa Rosa beach is just over the rise in the road ahead and beyond that, Miramar Beach and Destin.
There are only two bridges that span Choctawhatchee Bay. The unnamed bridge along Highway 331–as shown above–and the Choctawhatchee Mid-Bay Bridge.
I find the mid-bay bridge fascinating because as you approach Destin, “they” have actually erected billboards advertising this bridge. The bridge even has its own website. All of this for a bridge. It’s a bridge. But it has a website. And should you fall for all of this advertising and decide to take the Mid-Bay Bridge, you are rewarded with a one-way toll of $3.00. I’m still scratching my head.
I was quite happy to avoid the toll and the Mid-Bay Bridge and take the little unnamed bridge on Highway 331 that didn’t cost me a penny.
And I thank you for your support.
NIckeled and Dimmed at the Lovely Hilton Sandestin
After a prolonged drive of around seven and a half hours, after having crossed almost the entire length of the Florida panhandle, after surviving breakfast at Waffle House and after having crossed Choctawhatchee Bay on a sad little unnamed bridge, we finally arrived at our destination: Destin, Florida and the blindingly white sandy beaches and emerald-green waters of the absolutely beautiful Gulf of Mexico.
Wow. Can we say “run-on” sentence?
Here we are at the entrance to our hotel for the last leg of our honeymoon: The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa. The motto here is: “Don’t even think about parking for free. Or eating for free. Or sitting on a chair on the beach for free. Or about getting anything else for free if we can possibly come up with a way to charge you for it. Can we charge for your usage of the public restroom? If we can, we will!”
After turning off of Emerald Coast Parkway (the main drag through Destin) and onto South Sandestin Boulevard, we quickly arrived at a guard shack. In a nod to L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I turned to my wife and said, “I don’t think we’re on Amelia Island anymore, babe.”
No, I actually didn’t. That was a lie. I’m a dirty liar! But I should have. It would have been terribly funny.
There were two possible lanes of traffic which passed by the guard shack and wouldn’t you know it, I chose the wrong one. This forced the guard to walk over to our honeymoon-mobile, which was probably good for him. He needed sun. He asked me what I needed and I said something akin to, “Umm, you tell me!” And then he asked if we were checking in to which I said something or other that he understood to be an affirmative reply. We then received a small placard which we were instructed to leave in our window. He explained that the next time we drove in, we would be able to just drive on through.
Once through security, we continued along South Sandestin Boulevard. This road through the resort has its own speed limit, set at twenty-three miles per hour and is apparently policed by the resort itself. Though I am still trying to figure this one out, they claim that their security can pull you over and ticket you for speeding. Part of me wanted to test that theory, but I decided to let it go after a look of annoyance on my wife’s face.
There are actually several different resorts in this gargantuan complex and taken as a whole, they make up the Sandestin Golf and Beach resort. Finding the Hilton was, at first, a challenge. Once we managed to find our hotel, finding the road to the lobby was another challenge which I failed at least once, requiring me to turn around illegally. I made sure to look for rent-a-cops in the area first. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend the day in the Hilton’s Big House.
We finally made it to the lobby and a well dressed valet quickly approached our car. He asked if we were checking in and when I said yes, asked if we wanted our bags delivered to our room. Wanting the full experience, we told him that we would and that we would like the valet parking option. He quickly and professionally went right to work asking if there were any bags that we preferred to take ourselves (for example, those containing anything very valuable). Once our bags were out of our car, he told us that he would meet us at our room and sped away to park.
Walking into the lobby, I was surprised by its size. It wasn’t huge like I expected it to be. It was big, don’t misunderstand me, but nothing like a Las Vegas hotel or the Opryland. Asking my better half to sit and wait for me, I proceeded to the front desk and announced our arrival with much pomp and circumstance.
When I made the reservation, the Hilton included a disclaimer stating that we would only get the room type that I requested if they had availability of that room upon arrival. That made absolutely no sense to me at all. What’s the point of making a reservation if they can give that room type to anyone who requests it at check-in? But not wanting my wife to hear that I had reserved a suite and possibly finding out that one was not available, I asked her to wait while I checked us in. I didn’t want her to be let down if Hilton had let me down.
They didn’t and check-in was basically painless.
Proceeding to our room, we were met by an apparently very bored maid who had little to do except talk to us. And boy did she want to “share.” Among other things, she informed us that we had the entire fourth floor to ourselves, at least until Friday when more people checked in. I wanted to carry my wife over the threshold, but the talkative maid delayed us and our bags were quickly rolling up behind us. Not wanting to embarrass myself should I accidentally drop my wife on her head, I waited until the bellman delivered everything. Handing him a tip and shoving him out the door, I took my bride back outside the room, propped the door open, picked her up and carried her over the threshold (oh yes I did!). Old fashioned, I know, but you only get to do this once. Or should, anyway.
The Hilton Sandestin is a beautiful hotel with impeccable service, particularly at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood Restaurant. No one can argue that point. It is an older hotel and is showing its age in some ways, but they’ve done a great job renovating their rooms and admittedly they are beautiful and welcoming. We stayed in an “Ambassador Parlor” suite and it was amazing.
However, this is not an inexpensive hotel by just about anybody’s standard. When you stay here, you pay for it. That part I can grasp. If I had wanted a room for thirty dollars a night, I would have booked a Motel 6 (though I suspect my wife might have injured me for that). I wanted her to have an amazing place to stay both on Amelia Island and in Destin. I had judiciously saved my pennies and was willing to pay for it.
But unlike the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge (back on Amelia Island) which is essentially an all-inclusive, the Hilton Sandestin is about as all-non-inclusive as you can get. I knew that ahead of time and was ready for it, but it was annoying all the same.
When you stay here, you’ll need to plan on spending ten dollars a day for self-parking or twenty dollars if you want someone else to park your car. You’ll need to plan on paying forty dollars a day to reserve two lounge chairs and an umbrella on the beach. If you only want them for a half-day, you’ll spend twenty-five. But a half-day rental is a gamble because if you don’t reserve them for a full-day and they are all reserved by 1:00, you’re out of luck on a half-day rental. You’ll also be spending another ten dollars a day for Internet access.
The list of incidentals goes on and on.
Don’t even think about going to the gift shop for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s unless you feel like spending ten dollars for ice cream that’s already too expensive in a grocery store.
Every bit of this was free and included at the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge (except the ice cream). But this isn’t the Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and Destin isn’t Amelia Island. So, in keeping with my concept of having a completely different experience in Destin, I suppose I must take the good with the bad. I just wish they charged more nickels and fewer dimes.
Here’s the good. I’ll take it.
Talk about a breathtaking view! This is what we were treated to from our bedroom balcony. The balcony wrapped all the way around our suite, connected to the living room and gave us an incredible sweeping view of the Gulf.
And here’s the view from our living room. That water is so clear that you can see the fish coming up to check you out while you’re wading in it.
I’m not entirely sure what architects were trying to convey when they included this odd round window. It looks a lot like a porthole on a cruise ship.
Here’s the living room. The warm colors were very relaxing. That’s the wrap around balcony beyond the screen door.
Like on Amelia Island, I’m pretty sure that somebody told us that there is a TV in that armoire, but we never looked to find out. We literally never turned the TV on for a week straight. It was a wonderful escape from a useless time waster.
Here’s another view of that odd porthole window and a writing desk. We wrote postcards to our parents at this very desk.
Beyond the french doors is the bedroom and the bathroom complete with a spa tub.
Here’s a view of the bedroom and sitting area and the bathroom beyond. Those shutters do close for privacy, but if you’re so inclined, you can sit in a hot jacuzzi bath and watch the sun go down over the Gulf.
Here’s a second television that never got used and the french doors back out to the living room. Those are bottles of water in that opening and yep, you guessed it, they cost three dollars a piece. There’s also an honor bar behind the doors. Since I don’t drink, I never opened the doors to check the prices, but I’m gonna bet they weren’t cheap.
Here’s the jacuzzi tub, separate shower and a beautiful black counter top in the bathroom. Rich, warm colors made this entire suite very relaxing.
With the shutters open, an amazing view of the setting sun can be had from right here in the jacuzzi tub. Now that’s a bathtub with a view!
Red Bikini and White Sand, Emerald Water and Silver Fishies: Day Four
Completely in the name of science, I was filled with a natural and completely understandable interest in how my wife’s red bikini would blend with the emerald-green water and white sandy beach four floors below our room. So I suggested that we go down to the beach and find out how we go about renting a beach setup (“cha-ching!”).
As we learned from the attractive tan man standing in the tiki hut, it would cost us forty dollars for a full day’s rental and twenty-five dollars for a half day. For this absolutely reasonable price, we would be given usage of two lounge chairs and an umbrella mere steps from the water. Since it was about noon and the half-day prices started at one o’clock, it made little sense to spend forty dollars, especially since it was Thursday and they weren’t busy. We thanked him and said we’d be back at one.
Having changed into swimwear, we returned to the pool deck. I suddenly realized that sugar-white sand has an annoying side effect: that of rendering the poor sap who didn’t have eye protection almost completely blind. I decided that I would need to get a pair of sunglasses. I sighed heavily because here I was in a swimsuit knowing that I had two options: pay double what I should and buy a pair here or go through the hassle of changing again, getting my car from the valet, going out on the town to find a pair and then coming back and changing yet again. I opted to be gouged.
There were only two places that sold sunglasses. The first had a selection that I wouldn’t be caught dead in. The second had about six men’s pairs and I found one that I liked for the low, low price of nineteen dollars. They were worth maybe five dollars on a good day. “Good with the bad, good with the bad,” I told myself. I slapped the sunglasses down to pay and asked the girl behind the counter to bill it to my room. She looked confused (similar to how my dog Buckley often looks) and said, “Do you have your resort card?”
Uh. No. What’s a resort card and why do I need one?
“We can’t bill anything to your room. You need to go to the lobby and ask for a resort card. That way you don’t have to carry a credit card everywhere you go.”
I was…agitated now.
So now I had to put my sweats and sandals back on (because Heaven forbid someone would see me in a swimsuit at a beach resort!) and go back to the lobby to get a “resort card.” Having made my way back, I explained that I needed a resort card and yet I didn’t know why, nor did I have any idea what this all-access pass actually was. The lady was very nice and told me that she had asked me when we checked in if I wanted one. I had apparently declined without knowing that I was declining. No problem. In just about two minutes, they charged several hundred dollars to a credit card and handed me a flimsy card that gave me the ability to pay for anything in the resort without having to carry my credit card around. Nope. Instead, I would be carrying my resort card!
Never mind the fact that they don’t ask for ID when you use your resort card, and it was handled like cash, so if I dropped it, anybody, anywhere could use every dime on it. “Good with the bad, good with the bad.”
Finally I got my sunglasses and we realized that we could in fact rent the beach set up with the resort card as well.
“All’s well that ends well,” I always say. No. That’s another lie. I never say that.
“Who’s the cutest couple at the beach party? You’re the cutest couple at the beach party!” I have no clue on earth what I did to deserve this girl, but she is as beautiful on the inside as she is sexy on the outside. She makes the Gulf look positively boring.
How’s that for clear water? Look closely in front of her foot. This is Fred. He came to say hi. Him and all his friends. That’s my foot in the upper right. We played footsie in the Gulf.
As far as the eye can see, nothing but emerald water and blue sky.
This is one of the two buildings at the Hilton Sandestin Resort. The other is off to the right and out of the picture. If you look at the extreme left of the building, you will see a series of seven of those round “porthole” windows (the first being under a green awning on the first floor). Our room is through the third window up from the green awning on the fourth floor.
Ever since visiting Fort Clinch back on Amelia Island, I was fascinated by sand forts. That fascination, coupled with my occasional tendency to revert to a childlike state (usually with a lot of yelling, kicking and screaming–though not this time) led me to build my own sand fort. It was quite detailed, complete with a flag, a moat, a drawbridge and a road. Alas, I had no cannon guarding its walls.
The detail is fantastic and nearly mind-boggling! Look, there’s a piece of driftwood serving as the drawbridge over the moat. There’s even a small hole (provided courtesy of my finger) just above the drawbridge which clearly is the fort’s secure entrance.
Displayed in all its beauty, here is Fort Kir-Tar. I have submitted a copy of this photograph to the Smithsonian. I suggested that they need to add it to their collection as the best example of a sand fort in human history.
No. I actually didn’t. That was another lie. Somebody HELP ME, I’m out of control!!!
Later than night, we enjoyed dinner at Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise. We were waited on by a delightful young girl who took our picture for us. Having dinner in Florida at one of Jimmy Buffet’s restaurants seemed oddly appropriate.
Sandcastles, Sea Shells and “Ahhhhh!” Time at the Spa: Day Five
On our second day in Destin, we decided that we would start out with some shopping before hitting the beach again later that afternoon. But first–since I simply had to give my wife a better breakfast than the previous day’s experience–we decided to have breakfast at Sandcastles which is just off the lobby inside the Hilton. Each morning, they feature a massive buffet breakfast, which was amazing (even for somebody who doesn’t particularly enjoy breakfast). It was also costly (like everything else at this place), but it was worth it. They serve just about everything, from oatmeal to a build your own waffle bar.
Yummy! Real blueberry compote! No blueberries cooked into the pancakes here!
And then it was off to shop Destin.
I decided that I wanted to find a shell or two to remember our time here. I was always that kid who had to visit a rock shop whenever I went on a vacation, or in the case of a tropical destination, a store that sells shells (say that three times fast). This vacation was no different, and I told my wife that I wanted to buy a shell or two as a souvenir.
Because the concierge desk was always empty when we needed a question answered (a frustrating annoyance!), we decided to ask the valet where we might find shells instead. He mentioned several places and among those was a chain of stores in the area called Alvin’s Island. More on this little “gem” later.
If you’re the shopping type, you’ll enjoy what Destin has to offer. First we visited Destin Commons which is a beautiful open-air mall. Originally opened in 2003, they are currently completing a major expansion. You’ll find dining here at places like the Hard Rock Cafe (bring earplugs), Johnny Rockets and Cold Stone Creamery. You’ll find shopping at stores like American Eagle (one of my favorite stores, as well as being a great place to go for fashionable men’s underwear when you realize that you didn’t pack enough) and others like Victoria’s Secret (also one of my favorite stores, particularly now that I’m married).
For you outlet shoppers, there’s Silver Sands mall. It seems that every major city and certainly every major tourist locale has to offer an outlet mall to be legitimate and Destin isn’t any different. Personally I’ve never found the prices at outlet malls to be any better than those at regular malls, but maybe I’m missing something.
And then there’s an eclectic mix of specialty shops and destinations located throughout the city, such as Harborwalk Village.
I wish we would have discovered Harborwalk Village sooner. We came across it on our last day in Destin. We wanted to go on a Dolphin tour and booked a trip with a company that docks their boats at the marina here.
Here’s Harborwalk Village as seen from Destin Harbor.
Harborwalk Village offers dining, shopping, upscale accommodations, live entertainment, just about any type of ocean adventure you’d like to enjoy and a marina.
And then there’s Alvin’s Island. Alvin’s Island is hard to describe. If you visit Destin, you must stop here, just to tell everybody that you did. There are several of these stores in Destin and several knock-offs that are probably owned by the same people. They sell a little bit of everything, from bikinis to loud tee-shirts, from sea shells (“made” in China, of course) to postcards. Most of what they sell is basically junk (as the reviews on Yelp attest to) that will probably end up in a box in an attic and eventually in a garage sale. The rest of it is in very poor taste, from tee-shirts that are…suggestive, shall we say, to risqué postcards that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
The most memorable part of our experience at Alvin’s Island, however, was the woman behind the cash register.
Since I decided that I didn’t want to purchase imported shells, we decided to move on. But before doing so we came across a good selection of local postcards; something we had been seeking. Looking past those with nearly nude male models (sorry, mom!) we picked out a few for our parents and several for our own scrapbook (no, not the ones with nude models) and went to the front of the store to pay for our treasures.
The girl behind the counter went right to work dutifully ringing up our purchase and I pulled out my wallet to pay. All of sudden, and without any warning, she looked at us with wide eyes and exclaimed with great excitement, “YOU WAIT!!! I GIVE DISCOUNT!!!“
Say that sentence to yourself very quickly with a heavy Russian/eastern European accent, and you’ll understand why my wife and I were rolling in laughter and still do to this day.
To say that my wife and I were a bit taken off guard would be a gross understatement. This discount was clearly was not an option. We were getting a discount whether we liked it or not, and I still have no idea why. After tapping a few more keys, she gave us our total and seemed happy with herself for the three cent discount we received. I’ll take it. In a town as expensive as Destin, three cents is three cents.
The Wonderful Land of “Sp-ahhhhh!”
After shopping Destin and spending some more time relaxing on the beach, I informed my wife that she had an appointment to go enjoy herself to the maximum at the Hilton Sandestin’s Spa, Serenity by the Sea.
While I myself am not into the whole spa thing, most women seem to be, and my wife is apparently no exception. She was all giggly. I took that as a sign that I had done well.
I had wanted to get her a massage on her birthday about a month earlier, but had planned too late and was only able to get her a facial. So on our honeymoon, I decided to make up for it. All the reviews said that the spa at the Hilton was one of the finest around and that was one of the reasons that I had chosen to stay here. It’s one thing to drive her to a spa for a day of bliss, but it’s even nicer to just send her down an elevator.
Like all spas, Serenity has lots of options. Among them is everything from a quick thirty minute massage to an all day, all you can possibly stand, smorgasbord of body work. I wanted to give her an extended experience, but I didn’t want it to take up an entire day of our honeymoon.
While making sure that she got a killer massage was obvious, I wanted to do something more. Since she had just recently had a facial, I really wanted her to have something else. She had literally just had a pedicure and a manicure just days earlier for the wedding, so that was out too.
Trying to decide what to give her, I came across a procedure called a “body scrub.” The Serenity spa calls this a Body Refresher. During a body scrub, your entire body–head to toe, front and back–is scrubbed with sea salt to exfoliate your skin and remove dead skin cells. Then, after a shower to remove any traces of the sea salt, you are covered from head-to-toe in lotion, hence the term “body refresher.” This seemed like just the ticket.
So in the end, she enjoyed a thirty-minute body scrub followed by an eighty-minute Swedish massage (no deep tissue work on a honeymoon–this was supposed to feel good, not painful). I did well.
Zombie Night at the Hard Rock
Following a throughly enjoyable day of white sandy beaches, window shopping and sea salt body scrubs, what could be better than your husband having a near breakdown over where to eat dinner?
It had gotten very late and we were both very hungry. The only places that seemed to be open were places that I couldn’t possibly stand the thought of eating at; mostly seafood places and I hate seafood. The very smell is enough to make me involuntarily lose the contents of my stomach. Suffice it to say that seafood was out.
My wife wanted to stop at a bookstore back at Destin Commons and while she browsed, I took time to use my handy-dandy iPhone to search for restaurants in the area. I discovered that there was a Hard Rock Cafe just a few doors away and thought that sounded good.
We made our way to the restaurant. My beautiful wife was dressed to kill. It turned out that this was appropriate because we learned that the Hard Rock was featuring a “Zombie Prom” party in preparation for Halloween which was just four days away. Without going into all the gory details, almost everybody there–except those poor souls like us who had no idea this was going on–was dressed in prom type clothing and, well, they all looked like death warmed over–literally.
The zombie thing, frankly, was annoying enough, but the worst part was that they had a DJ who was literally playing his music so loudly that my ears felt like they were bleeding. I’ve never actually heard music playing that loudly. The Hard Rock Cafe is always obnoxious and too loud, but on this evening, it was particularly loud and obnoxious.
Initially we decided to go elsewhere, but the only other restaurant open was Johnny Rocket’s and my wife wasn’t overly interested in that. So, though neither of us really wanted to be there, we made our way back to the Hard Rock, and asked to be seated outside where at least we could hear ourselves think as long as they didn’t open the door.
The companionship was wonderful and the food was great. But if you ever happen to be anywhere near a Hard Rock Cafe around Halloween, take it from me: go anywhere else.
Crazy Seagulls, Friendly Dolphins and the Southern Star: Day Six
I really wish we had more time on both Amelia Island and in Destin. I would have loved to have had time to do more things like taking a ride on a glass bottom boat or going sailing. But our time was limited and we focused on what was most important: time together as a newly married couple and just relaxing on the beach and recovering from life.
On our final day in Destin, the weather started to turn a bit. Up until this time we had experienced literally perfect weather. Temperatures had been in the mid-seventies with blue skies and no rain at all. Today it was quite a bit cooler and very windy.
While the weather on our final day wasn’t conducive to beaches and bikinis (though we did try) it worked for a dolphin cruise. These are very popular in Destin and this was something special that I did set out to do on this trip. So we made reservations aboard the Southern Star which was docked in the Harborwalk Marina. They were reasonably priced and they guaranteed a 99% chance of seeing dolphins. So it seemed like a good way to spend some time on our last day in Florida.
After another breakfast at Sandcastles, we made our way to Harborwalk Village. This really is a great place for tourists. It’s full of great shopping and loads of restaurants to satisfy any palate. And if it’s sea fairing adventures you’re after, you’ll find it all here: dolphin cruises (obviously), parasailing, boat and Waverunner rentals, sunset cruises, fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving and more.
Next time we’re in Destin, we’ll take the pirate cruise. Though I think I’d rather be guaranteed to see dolphins versus pirates. Pirates are mean. Dolphins are not.
After watching me struggle to take a self-portrait, a nice lady asked if we wanted her to take our picture. We readily agreed.
It’s always nice to see a business that isn’t shy about giving credit where credit is due. Take a close look under the eagle on the pilot house.
Here’s the Harborwalk Village and Marina as we headed out into Destin Bay.
The temperature dropped quite a bit on our last day in Destin and it didn’t occur to either of us that sitting outside on a dolphin cruise would be even colder because of wind chill. So like the great guy I am, I gave my coat to my wife and froze my…never mind.
Cute, isn’t she? We stepped inside the boat to warm up a bit.
Here we are headed out into Choctawhatchee Bay. The boat was being followed at this point by hundreds of dolphins.
Here’s a short 180-degree tour of Destin Harbor.
What a cute dolphin! Just kidding. It’s actually a pelican chillin’ on a buoy.
Now those are dolphins!
Apparently there was a dolphin convention in town. Or…under town. Whatever.
Like us, they can only hold their breath for so long. Unlike us, they can hold their breath for a really, really, really long time.
“Follow us to the dolphin convention!”
They guaranteed us that we would see dolphins, and we did. Lots and lots of dolphins. I’ve personally seen dolphins in aquariums like Sea World, but never in the wild like this. It was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of our trips.
And then there were the crazy seagulls.
We were told that seagulls would follow the boat during our trip because they were used to getting handouts from the passengers. And boy did they ever follow us. Tons of them. Toward the end of the trip, they told passengers that we could feed the seagulls. A bunch of people went to the back of the boat to do just that, throwing crackers and potato chips into the air or holding them up to be taken out of their fingers. Watching the birds dive in mid-flight to catch a cracker–and doing so, very successfully–was absolutely hilarious and amazing. Frankly, the birds were more entertaining that the dolphins!
Here’s a short video of our crazy seagull friends flying after the boat.
After a very enjoyable ride aboard the Southern Star dolphin cruise boat, we sailed slowly back into Destin Harbor and back into her port at the Harborwalk Marina. The price of admission was very reasonable for what we received in return. If you’re ever in Destin, I highly recommend a dolphin cruise and in particular, I recommend the Southern Star.
Finishing our cruise on the Southern Star.
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside!” or the Redneck Proposal
Having returned to the Hilton around 2:00 PM, we decided to take one last chance to avail ourselves of the Gulf before getting ready for our amazing last dinner in Destin.
We didn’t reserve a beach setup this time, because frankly with the wind, it was really very chilly and the likelihood of hanging out on the beach for any real length of time was very debatable. So we brought just our beach towels to sit on. Strangely, though the air temperature was dramatically lower today, the water temperature was dramatically higher. Try as I might though, I couldn’t get my girl to swim this time around because she feared–yes, actually feared–getting out of the water and into the cool air.
Pink Polkadots and Green Water.
A very friendly Hilton employee who was tearing down the beach setups (because nobody was renting them) agreed to take a picture of us by the water. We did this on Amelia Island using my tripod, but alas, we were sans tripod this time and needed assistance.
Apparently proposals, weddings and honeymoons were in the air on Destin on this particular weekend. Earlier we had seen a strange set up on the beach and we wondered if it was for a wedding. The helpful Hilton employee explained to us that indeed it was for a wedding that was to be performed in about an hour. It’s a shame that they didn’t plan do this one weekend earlier. The weather today was very testy at best. They would have had perfect temperatures just a few days earlier. I’ll bet it was a quick ceremony.
Coincidently, on the same day and on the same beach, just a few hundred feet from the wedding setup, we were told about a guy who had proposed to his wife-to-be in a rather unique way. We went to take a look at the future groom’s handiwork.
A redneck proposal in white sand.
While I am of the opinion that my proposal a mere six months earlier was far more creative, far better planned and in general just way better than this guy’s, I’ll hand it to him: his artwork in the sand was better than my sand fort. But only a little bit better.
If you look closely in the background of this photograph, you’ll see the setup for the wedding that afternoon.
Just before dinner, we ran outside (literally) to take a few sunset photographs.
The sunset was far more compelling the evening before. There were too many clouds on this, our last day in Destin, to allow the sun’s rays to hit the Gulf. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have included this photograph here. The compelling part to me, however, was our flying friend. The whole time we were out trying to catch of a bit of the sunset, a pelican was dive bombing the water looking for dinner. If you look very closely, you can see him in almost the dead center of this photograph.
A Sexy Dress, a Lucky Guy and a Seagar by the Sea!
Having had a fun-filled day watching dolphins in Destin Harbor, laughing at seagulls diving for crackers and finding the perfect frame for our perfect photo taken on Amelia Island, it was time for our final dinner in Destin, and it wouldn’t be just any old dinner.
I had decided weeks earlier to take my bride to the exquisite AAA Four Diamond Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood which is another one of the restaurants inside the Hilton.
Once or twice a year, on very special occasions, absolutely nothing compares to dining in a fine restaurant (you know, those places where you take your elbows off the table) and the final night of our honeymoon certainly qualified as a “very special occasion.”
Several months before our wedding, my wife had taken me to see the dress that her bridesmaids would be wearing in the wedding. It just happened to be a very sexy dress that works–in my opinion–even better as an evening gown than as a bridesmaids dress. I asked her to try one on in black that day. She looked absolutely stunning. I was floored, and I bought it on the spot with the intention of her having something special for these special occasions. After seeing her in this dress, I’m going to have to plan more of these special occasions.
All dressed up with somewhere to go. She makes this dress.
Dinner at Seagar’s was absolutely amazing; just as it should have been.
We were greeted quickly and warmly and escorted into one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms, where they toasted our brand new marriage. It was just the two of us, surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine. Their private dining rooms also serve as their wine storage rooms. It was wonderful to be able to focus completely on each other with only the occasional server coming in to get a bottle of wine.
The dining rooms in these kinds of restaurants are always amazing, but to be in our own private dining room made the experience over-the-top special.
A beautifully set table in front of her; wine bottles behind.
Looking dapper and just a bit mysterious without a hint of a smile.
As you can see, the room was very dimly (and romantically) lit. It was in fact so dark that the servers coming in to select a bottle of wine had to use a flashlight to read the labels.
We started with the best french onion soup that I’ve ever tasted. That was followed by a Caesar salad that was literally made from scratch at table side. This is something I have never experienced. I had no idea that Caesar dressing contains raw eggs. Watching our server create the Caesar dressing and toss it all together was quite an experience.
She had steak while I had Dover sole which was boned, again, at table side. I was a bit apprehensive about deboning a fish in such a dark room. I had an awful experience with this many years ago. But our server knew his stuff and there wasn’t a single bone left.
Along with all of this, we enjoyed an absolutely amazing white dessert wine. Dessert wine is really the only alcohol that I enjoy, but it tends to be very high in alcohol content, so dining inside the hotel was very convenient.
Dining at Seagar’s topped off our trip. It couldn’t have possibly been any better. It was the perfect end to an absolute dream honeymoon.
“The Best Bang in Town” and the Return to Reality
Now don’t worry: That headline will make sense shortly. Just go with it for now.
Waking up on Sunday was a melancholy exercise. I wasn’t ready to go home and I’m pretty sure my bride wasn’t either. If I could have, I would have spent another solid week here in Florida and would have enjoyed every second of it.
As it turns out, a surprise was waiting for me at home, and we probably could have stayed another few days had I known what was ahead of me. But that’s a story for another day.
While we didn’t want to leave, we were aware just how blessed we were to have had the incredible weather that we had during a time of year when the weather can change at a moment’s notice. We were also blessed to have been able to have stayed in the amazing and beautiful places that we stayed in. We made memories that will never die.
So now it was time to head home and I was preparing to go where I had never gone before: Alabama. I had heard a lot of stories about Alabama, and frankly, none of them were particularly positive. Once again, we would be on the back roads and byways. There really wasn’t a major route to take us from Destin to Nashville until we reached U.S. Highway 65. So I decided just to sit back and enjoy another “Route 66 experience.”
Before leaving, we enjoyed one final breakfast at Sandcastles. We needed fuel to fight our way though Alabama, and I just couldn’t get enough of that real blueberry compote. Never again will I consume Fruity Pebble-like blueberries which have been cooked into a pancake. I’m sorry, Waffle House, but you’re off my list. Like really off of it.
After breakfast, we packed up and called the bell desk to come and get our luggage. They dutifully and politely loaded our honeymoon-mobile and the valet pulled it off to the side as I requested.
I had one more thing to do before I left Florida. I wasn’t going anywhere until I got my shells. I had looked everywhere for them, and while I found a few, I hadn’t found anything that made me happy. In the end, I found just what I was looking for in the hotel’s gift shop.
And here they proudly sit on my bookshelf in my office. Two shells, a starfish and a sand dollar. They make me happy.
These shells are a constant reminder to me of the very best seven days of my life. One week earlier, I married a woman who had completely changed my world and turned it on its ear. Then I spent six days in total paradise with her and experienced her soul.
These simple shells are a reminder of what we shared together and a harbinger of the times to come. We will be back.
From Sand Dunes to Molehills: North to Nashville
And then we were on our way, shells and memories packed safely away. It would be quite some time before we reached U.S. Highway 65. Until then, it was the backroads. So we settled in, buckled up and got ready to take in a large portion of Alabama, a place that I had never before been. It would be another ten or so hour drive, regardless of what Google and Magellan’s RoadMate app told us. This time I was ready for the drive and I wanted it to last awhile.
“Vroom! Vroom!” as my wife said.
Here’s a map of our journey from the Hilton Sandestin back to Franklin, Tennessee where this whole crazy ride began just a few days before.
Driving north through Florida on State Highway 331, heading toward southern Alabama.
These are the backroads and the byways of America. These are the roads that inspired Chuck Berry’s Route 66, Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again, Lindsey Buckingham’s Dancing Across the U.S.A., and countless others.
This is the real America, full of real towns with real, honest, hardworking people. It’s here on these roads that you experience places like the M&M Cafe in Glenwood Springs, Colorado–a little restaurant that I remember so fondly from my childhood–and sweet old ladies like Yo Wooton.
You don’t find the soul of America on our nation’s interstate highway system. And you’ll never, ever find it at 35,000 feet and 500 miles per hour.
You find it here: on the backroads and byways along the great American road trip.
We made it to Alabama! I had asked my wife to look out for this sign. I wanted a picture of it. I had missed the entry sign to Georgia a few days earlier and I didn’t want to miss the one for Alabama.
Another advantage to the backroads is that had we been on a major highway, it would have been far more difficult to pull over and take this picture. Here, in the little town of Florala, Alabama, it was easy to pull over. Only a few cars passed by and none of them were likely to smash into us, a distinct possibility on a major highway.
Best bang in town!
(See? I said it would make sense!)
Sometimes, when traveling on the backroads through America’s small towns, you see something that you just absolutely must turn around for–something else that you really can’t do along an interstate highway.
God bless you, Betty! You made me laugh so hard, I’m pretty sure I coughed up a kidney. And in one photograph, you did more to prove my point about the backroads than a million of my words ever could!
This is Betty’s fireworks store in Florala, Alabama. It’s been around for more than thirty years. It’s apparently a pretty famous place; and with a tagline like “best bang in town,” is that really any surprise? Google Betty’s store and see for yourself. She even has a Facebook page.
Like Yo Wooton before her, I will never forget Betty and her raucous and wonderful sense of humor. Maybe Alabama isn’t so bad after all.
Admittedly one of the problems with traveling on backroads is that the availability of rest stops is terribly limited, if they can be found at all. Usually you have to rely on small towns and gas stations for “necessary” stops. But apparently not in Alabama.
It’s not often that a rest stop is so impressive that one actually stops to take a photograph. But this is no ordinary rest stop.
Not only did they have rest stops along the backroads, but I can honestly say that this was the nicest, cleanest and friendliest rest stop that I have ever encountered in my life. It is staffed twenty-four hours a day and at least in our case, the staffer was very polite, making sure to welcome us and to tell us to travel safely.
Yes. In Alabama. I’m not kidding. Go see for yourself. It’s worth it.
Driving on Alabama State Route 9 near Opp, Alabama, we drove by Lake Frank Jackson, a very popular destination for fly fishermen (and women, I imagine).
Soon we would leave these backroads behind us as we were closing on U.S. Highway 65. Once there, rest stops would be convenient, larger cities with monolithic truck stops and awful fast food joints would be everywhere. But for a little while longer we would travel along these two lane highways and enjoy the beautiful fall scenery.
Something that struck me as strange were the shanties and cabins that I continuously saw along these roads. Outside of the small towns like Florala and Opp, we passed through even smaller settlements and by dozens and dozens of random homes.
I am a historical and landscape photographer. Along with my love of writing, it is one of my great passions. I picked up my first camera when I was ten years old after asking my father to take me to a Colorado “ghost town”–an abandoned mining camp. I’ve been photographing one abandoned town or another, one mountain or another, one lake or another, one field of flowers or another for more than three decades.
Driving along these roads made me feel like I was back in Colorado, four-wheeling to a ghost town. Here’s the strange part: these buildings weren’t abandoned. These people were living in what I can only describe as “mining camp like” cabins. They were simple, tiny one or two room cabins just like I have photographed in hundreds of mining camps.
It was surreal and I want to return and photograph these places.
And now we come full circle and return to U.S. Highway 65 where we began our journey as we near Tennessee.
Seven days after we left Franklin, Tennessee at 4:00 AM, we arrived home on Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 7:48 PM.
In total, we would drive one thousand, five hundred thirty-eight point seven miles.
We came full circle from Franklin, Tennessee and back again.
We drove on interstate highways. We drove on backroads. We drove on byways. We drove on country roads. We drove though huge metropolises. We drove through tiny towns. We drove through rural southern America. We drove from the molehills to the sand dunes and back.
We made memories we will never forget. We met people that we have prayed for and think about to this day. We found America. We found each other.
Walking hand-in-hand along a sandy beach is as close as it gets to heaven here on this earth and I found peace and happiness along the way. I caught myself smiling for no reason at all except for her presence beside me, which is all the reason I’ll ever need.
We began writing the first chapter in our story those seven days; it is a story with an untold number of chapters yet to be written.
In the end, it wasn’t about the beautiful country lodge. It wasn’t about the fancy hotel. It wasn’t about a four-diamond restaurant. It wasn’t about emerald-green water or a white sandy beach.
It wasn’t about the destination.
No, in the end, it wasn’t about the destination. It was about the journey.