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Emerald Coast

Courtesy Emerald CVB

With its nearly flawless white beaches and blue-green waters, Florida’s Emerald Coast has long been a favorite vacation destination for families and youth groups in the Southeast. I first discovered the area years ago on a student group trip to Destin and have been back on personal vacations numerous times.

Today, Destin, Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island and other smaller destinations along the Emerald Coast are as attractive as they’ve ever been. The area was spared any oil washup from the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 and is full of attractions for young travelers, as well as affordable accommodations and restaurants that give groups a tropical-style vacation at reasonable prices.

Spend some time with your youth group enjoying the sun, sand, surf and sights along the Emerald Coast, and chances are they’ll want to come back again, too.

Beauty at the beach
For 10 years running, the readers of Southern Living have chosen the Emerald Coast as the Best Beach in the South, and it’s no surprise — the brilliant white color and fine, powdery texture of the sand creates dramatic green tints on the ocean shoreline and is soft on the feet. The Gulf of Mexico sends just enough waves to keep a day in the water fun, without overwhelming swimmers.

Youth groups might be content to spend their days on the sand, but there are numerous other ways to enjoy the sea. Groups can take chartered deep-sea-fishing trips, dolphin-watching excursions, and diving or snorkeling expeditions. Traditional beach fare such as jet skiing, parasailing and windsurfing are also popular options.

The Big Kahuna
Borrowing its theme from Hawaii’s island culture, Big Kahuna’s water park offers 25 acres of freshwater fun in the heart of Destin. Young travelers will enjoy some 40 water attractions at the park, including slides and twisters, as well as an adventure park with miniature golf, a vertical accelerator and a go-kart racing track.

Newly introduced at Big Kahuna’s this past summer is the Honolulu Half Pipe, a ride that allows guests to surf on man-made waves. The attraction pumps out 36,000 gallons of water per minute, allowing riders to surf or body-board in place on a continuous, consistent wave. [ Sea lions, dolphins and penguins… Oh my! ] Since 1955, Florida’s Gulfarium has treated visitors to up-close encounters with some of the most amazing marine animals of the Gulf Coast and beyond.

Fourteen exhibits at the park bring visitors face to face with the likes of bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, tropical penguins, sea turtles, alligators, sharks and numerous tropical fish.

Groups visiting the park can arrange for a private “dolphin meet and greet” where they’ll get to pet and feed a dolphin on the edges of a shallow-water tank. Dolphin performances are also popular with visitors; These shows feature a number of the park’s trained dolphins playing with soccer balls, demonstrating 18-foot jumps and executing other tricks.

Hair-raising museum

For a rainy-day diversion or simply an indoor reprieve for sunburned souls, the Emerald Coast Science Center gives students hands-on demonstrations of some exciting scientific principles. In the electricity and wind area, visitors can fly a model airplane in a wind tunnel or have a hair-raising experience by placing their hands on a giant Van DeGraff generator.

The Hall of Life area comprises large-scale models and exhibits to teach biology and life sciences. In the Critters and Bubbles room, guests can pet a snake or a parakeet, or create giant bubbles with the help of an air cannon.

Gators galore
Widely known as Destin’s wild tourist restaurant, Fudpucker’s is also the home of Gator Beach, an educational stop where youngsters can learn about the alligators that inhabit Florida’s wetlands. Gator Beach has numerous wildlife exhibits, including an alligator nest, an underwater habitat and an aquarium featuring a rare yellow alligator.

Gator Beach offers visiting students special programs, during which participants can learn about alligators and snakes, including what to do when encountering these creatures in the wild. Brave visitors can even hold a young alligator whose mouth has been taped shut.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.