Fort Walton Beach, Florida has some of the nicest beaches you’ll find anywhere and certainly as nice as any I’ve ever visited on the Cape and the South of France. If you just want an affordable beach vacation, there is no better place. I’ve been there three times in my life. Once in 1969 just days after Hurricane Camille, again in 1976 when I missed a district little league tournament that I was supposed to play in, and for the third time in 2013. The place really hasn’t changed much, except the motels on Santa Rosa Blvd. are now all high rise resort condominiums. And like before, if you only had one night to eat out, you’d probably skip over Ft. Walton and drive a short distance across the bridge to Destin. Fort Walton Beach may have more pawn shops and tatoo parlors than restaurants.
In 1976, my family and I dined at Fisherman’s Wharf in Destin. As a 12 year old, I remember ordering a plate of Grouper Parmesan. I was never a big seafood fan growing up, unless it was fried, so this was one of my first forays into the world of grilled fish. And it was surprisingly delicious, then and equally delicious in 2013. A creature of habit, I suggested to my wife that we try Fisherman’s Wharf. It was to be a reunion of sorts for me. I wanted to know if it was as I remembered it. While they didn’t have Grouper Parmesan, they did, however, have what was called the Grouper Destin, bronzed, topped with crab meat and served with hollandaise sauce. My wife had the grilled Mahi-Mahi. We ordered both with hushpuppies, a southern delicacy my wife had never had before. Ok, maybe delicacy is a stretch. My fish was perfectly cooked and the overall dish tasty. Her Mahi-Mahi wasn’t exactly as she expected, perhaps over-seasoned for her tastes, but good nonetheless. She devoured the hushpuppies and said they were the best thing she had tasted on the trip. We shared a slice of key lime pie that was good but not as good as a North Carolina saltine crusted recipe I know. Fisherman’s Wharf was very much like I remembered it – rustic, dimly lit, great service, terrific vistas, excellent food and quite busy even at 5:00. We actually sat out on the patio, next to the actual wharf with a spectacular view of the harbor. The only downside were the seabirds that perched on poles next to our table. They squawked and flew around nervously the whole time. Patrons at a neighboring table seemed worried the birds might release poop on their heads or plates.
We stayed at the Islander, where I had stayed on my previous visits when it was a two story motel. Now it was a condo complex with 7 floors and hundreds of rooms. Our room was nicely appointed with a sliding glass door that opened to a balcony overlooking the ocean.
The beach was as a I remembered it, only maybe even cleaner and less crowded. In 1969, it was full of debris from the hurricane; in 1976, full of crabs and washed up starfish – In 2013, the sand was just as white and soft as ever like talcum powder. But here’s the thing I noticed that I guess I had never noticed before on this beach or any other: everybody was busy – runners, swimmers, walkers, sand castle builders, hole diggers, beachcombers, kite fliers, volleyball players, crab collectors, surfers and fishermen. My wife and I may have been the only two on the beach who relaxed most of the time, chilling in our lounge chairs to the din of industrious beach goers and the constant, rhythmic roar of the ocean. I asked one fishermen who had been reeling in fish, cast after cast, what kind of fish he was catching and he said in a deep southern drawl, “I haaive nooooew I dea”. I asked what kind of bait he was using and he said “shriiiiiiiimp”. The guy fished everyday all day in his Budweiser swimming trunks. I kind of wanted to do some fishing myself, but I ended up snapping photos instead, as busy as everyone else in the end. Even I couldn’t sit still and I’m the King of chill.