Travel story: A white Sandestin-ation
As mountain denizens, we know all too well the importance of whats on the ground. Light, fluffy snow and plenty of it can mean the difference between a fair day of skiing and a great one, and a consistent crop of powder can spell happy days for the local economy like no other factor.
But I hadnt ever really thought too much about another type of resort ground-covering: sand. Most of my shore-times as a kid were spent on the crowded beaches of Long Island, where dark, cold waters are met by fairly coarse, darker sand. A few years living in L.A. didnt change my view of beaches much, since your typical L.A. beach is similarly crowded, with water almost as cold and sand that seems to have the same sharp angles as the New York variety.It was something of a surprise for my family, then, to sink our toes into the sugary white sand in northwest Florida over spring break. Granted, after an epic minivan odyssey from Colorado through Alabama (where we visited relatives) and down into Florida, any beach would have been welcoming. But this was something a cut above, and with warm, clear-blue water coming as part of the deal, the kindergartner immediately pronounced it the greatest vacation … EVER!It didnt hurt that we were dialed into a pretty nicely put-together Intrawest-run resort, Sandestin. Located an hour or so east of Pensacola near Destin, Sandestin is a sprawling property that spans some 2,400 acres on the Emerald Coast and over 4,000 lodging units about 1,700 of which are available for rent. We were fortunate enough to stay in our own little house on the bay side of the resort a three-bedroom rental right on the golf course that was tastefully decorated and stocked with everything we needed (including, to my wifes glee, a washer and dryer as well as a vacuum which we used to suck up a box of spilled Chex mix before we were there 5 minutes).
Mention a Florida vacation with the family and the first image that usually comes to mind is Orlando. We chose Sandestin for a number of reasons, not the least of which was because, since we were piggybacking onto a trip to see relatives in Alabama, it was a lot closer than other Florida destinations. I was also curious to see how a company we know more as a mountain-resort operator (Copper, Winter Park, Whistler) did with a beach resort. (Sandestin was the first warm-weather resort acquired by Intrawest, in 1998.) The other thing was that the big theme-park vacation is exhausting, and we were looking for a little R&R. Two of our kids are old enough not to be much interested in Disney anymore, and the 6-year-old needs nothing more than a beach to keep him occupied all day long.And thats part of Sandestins appeal. Sure, theres plenty of stuff going on to do, plenty of activities for kids and adults. But its more laid-back in the sense that you can do very little and not feel like youre missing much. For a mountain family that just endured one of the snowiest, darkest winters on record, the warm breezes, white sand and striking blue water was enough a roller coaster was the last thing we needed.One thing cool about this resort is the way its laid out. A good chunk of the resort is on the beach side, but the bulk of it is on the other side of the highway, on Choctawhatchee Bay. Free trams go back and forth all day and into the evening, and most of the local inhabitants have a golf cart in the driveway for getting around. The resort also provides bicycles to ride, and there are paths everywhere. As a full-service resort, its possible to park the car and not touch it for a week after youve hit the grocery store. As their off in our own little world slogan suggests, Sandestin is as good a place to kick back under the radar or, if you wish, get out and do things.
This is a golfers paradise. With four courses and year-round play, those who love to golf but who mourn our snow-covered course half the year will find plenty to keep them busy here. Im no golfer, so I can only say that, like the rest of the Sandestin grounds and properties, the courses looked impeccably kept. With the breezes coming off the bay, the weather in April looked ideal although I was told it gets pretty darn hot there in summertime.We took a few hours for a basic sailboat lesson on the bay. Captain Barry runs the sailboats and waverunners for the resort, and his relaxed approach to instruction had my wife and I operating a trimaran in minutes (sorry, Barry, that we both rammed into the waverunners!). A chip off the old Margaritaville block, the captain took us from passenger to skipper so quickly and effortlessly it made me wonder why I hadnt tried sailing before. Its hard to think of a better place to try it than a calm day on the Choctawhatchee Bay.Also at the marina are the aforementioned waverunners for rent, as well as pontoon boats, fishing charters, parasailing and small cruise boats. Theres a full spa on the property, as well as a kids program to keep the little ones busy all day long.On the beach side, the best thing to do is rent a couple of chairs and an umbrella and watch the kids hunt sand dollars. At night, theres a variety of restaurants on the property, most of them clustered, along with a lot of shops, in Baytown Wharf. This is a fairly contrived, ultra-planned resort area thats well done for what it is. The restaurants are resort-priced, if you know what I mean, and not liable to knock your socks off. For a taste of more local fare, you need to hop in the car and check out the crab shacks and seafood joints along the Emerald Coast Parkway. Most of them are touristy as well, but so long as its a break from mountain touristy, its a fun diversion. Be sure to check out the tourist traps along the Parkway as well for T-shirts, beach shoes and other junk you cant live without.After three days at Sandestin, we reluctantly packed up and left, feeling like wed barely scratched the surface and vowing to return. If backpacking through Costa Rica is more your thing, this kind of well-manicured resort may not be for you. But if, after a long winter in the hills youre looking for some high-end R&R thats different than Disney or the typical Mexico stop, check out Floridas Emerald Coast. It may surprise you.Managing Editor Alex Miller can be reached at 748-2920, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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