Laura Jean Hocking
The white sand squeaks beneath my feet, stretching in a broad band from east to west.
The ocean stretches out before me, emerald and infinite. The sky is a dome of flawless turquoise, flowing down to meet the sea along a horizon as perfectly straight as only a planet’s worth of gravity could create.
The white sand squeaks beneath my feet, stretching in a broad band from east to west. The waves roll in, one after the other, as they have for four billion years. The sound of water advancing and retreating in rhythm is inexplicably soothing. Like the static between stations on the radio created by microwaves originated in the Big Bang, this is perfect white noise, here before we were and continuing long after we’re gone.
Right now, the beach at Destin, Florida, is nearly empty, just my wife and I walking between the waves and the scrub pine forest of Henderson State Park. But the solitude won’t last. It’s the off season now. In a few short months, this place will be teeming with people of all descriptions — kids playing in the breakers, young lovers on their first trip together, parents smearing sunscreen on toddlers, retirees in floppy hats taking a break from taking a break, girlfriends in bikinis sipping wine, hunky guys playing volleyball, joggers streaming by. Humanity, vulnerable, tiny, and for the most part, happy.
Why do we come to the beach? It’s hot, sandy, with potentially life-threatening dangers like undertow, jellyfish, and sharks lurking in the water. And yet, we describe it as relaxing, soothing, and fun. There’s something primal about the shoreline. Standing on the beach listening to the waves is as ancient and comforting as sitting in a circle, staring into the camp fire.
And there are few beaches as perfect or beautiful as those along the shore at Destin.
Leonard Destin brought his family to live on this barrier island around 1835, sailing from New Haven, Connecticut, on a vessel called the Primrose. There was no one here at the time, but the signs of former human habitation were — pottery shards have been found here dating back more than 2,500 years. The Destin family had the place to themselves for two decades, and the reason they were here was the same as the pre-Columbian Americans: the fishing is fantastic.
Today, Destin bills itself as “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” Today, a hundred yards south of where the Primrose landed in Destin Harbor is Dewey Destin’s Harborside, a restaurant owned by Leonard Destin’s great-great grandchildren. Like pork barbecue is to Memphis, fresh seafood is to Destin. Dewey Destin’s would be The Rendezvous, the grand old standard-bearer of the local cuisine. One bite of grouper caught just off shore and prepared with minimal grilling will render eating the same meal anywhere else completely pointless, and the Harborside’s sushi chef is internationally renowned.
Odds are, if you’ve had fish fresh from the Gulf of Mexico at a Memphis fine dining restaurant, it came from Charles Morgan’s fishing fleet. “He’s a true seaman — salty and real,” says Chantelle Dedicke of the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He feels very, very strongly about the differentiation of seafood here.”
Morgan’s also a restaurateur, and his flagship Harbor Docks is another can’t-miss seafood destination. “Harbor Docks is the origination point of the Gulf-To-Table dining concept,” Dedicke says. Like the organic Farm-To-Table dining concept, Gulf-To-Table means a commitment to short supply lines, direct relationships with the food producers, and serving only the local products that are in season.
The Fish Tracks program allows you to find out exactly where the catch of the day came from. Fresh seafood comes with a QR code that you can scan with your smartphone to tell you the date of the catch, the boat and captain who caught it, and where they caught it. “This is THE place to get fish, up and down the Eastern seaboard,” Dedicke adds.
Harbor Docks is not fancy. It’s a small place with an interior made of wood, the tables packed densely. You can watch the boats go by through the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows or from the deck overlooking the harbor. Even in the off season, which stretches from October to March, this part of town seems bustling. Beginning in the spring, the tourists come in like a tide, and the population can swell to 80,000 people inhabiting the tangle of hotels and condos stretching up and down the coast.
“Destin just happened organically, because fishing happened here. It’s not a planned community. It just came to be. It definitely has personality,” says Dedicke.
Odds are, if you’ve had fish fresh from the Gulf of Mexico at a Memphis fine dining restaurant, it came from Charles Morgan’s fishing fleet.
You wake up here in the morning, and you don’t know what day it is, because every day is like you’re on vacation,” says Deborah Channell. “My doctor asked me, ‘What kind of age-defying cocktail do you have?’ This place takes years off your age. It’s a different pace of life. It takes the stress down a few notches. I just go to the beach. The minute I walk out on that sand, I start breathing.”
More than a decade ago, Channell sold her successful public relations firm and moved from Birmingham, Alabama, to Destin with her husband. She no longer works 80-hour weeks, she says, choosing instead to represent the Henderson Park Inn. “This is the place that brings you back to old Destin,” she says.
The Henderson Park Inn is dwarfed by the towering resort hotels that line the Emerald Coast beach from Pensacola to Panama City. In a forest of gleaming tower blocks, it looks like it just mistakenly teleported here from the Hamptons. It’s adults only, and couples preferred. In 2016, Trip Advisor readers voted it the most romantic hotel in North America.
“People come here from all over the world,” Channell says. “All sorts of couples. My parents are in their eighties, and they always want me to get them a room here.”
The Henderson Park Inn was built by Memphis’ own Dunavant Enterprises. For years it sat alone on a strip of real estate on the eastern border of Henderson State Park, a 200-acre nature preserve sold to the state by the Henderson family in 1983 with express instructions to keep it natural and open to the public. If Destin were New York City, this copse of dune rosemary bushes and scrub pine would be Central Park.
Last November, the inn got a big sister. “This was a dream about 13 years in the making,” says Zondra Wolfgram, who handles public relations for The Henderson Beach and Spa Resort.
The four-story, 170-room resort has been under construction just north of the Inn for the last two years. When we visited, the finishing touches were still being applied, with painters whitewashing the massive columns on the veranda that overlook the park’s green expanse. As they finished up, the painters, along with the guests sipping champagne and munching truffles on the comfy outdoor couches, were treated to one of, if not the most, spectacular sunsets I have ever been privileged to witness: a brilliant orange orb boiling away into the red as it sank beneath the emerald horizon.
Designed by the internationally renowned architectural firm Cooper Carry, the new hotel is a seamless mix of the old and new, inspired by the beach cottage look of the Inn nearby. The sprawling lobby, conceived by Kent Interior Design out of Atlanta, is separated into discrete conversation areas defined by the circle of couches and chairs done up in blues and greens. “It’s very easy to kick off your shoes,” says Wolfgram. “You’re still at the beach, so we don’t want it to look pretentious or anything like that.”
The Primrose restaurant, named for Leonard Destin’s ship, seats 90 and features farm- and Gulf-to-table cuisine. The locally caught red snapper — supplied, like all the fish, by Charles Morgan’s fleet —is the early emerging favorite on the menu. There’s also a sushi bar nestled up to the Primrose’s open kitchen that makes the most of the fresh catch from the gulf. After dinner, you can retire for a nightcap at the neighboring Horizons lounge, which, like everywhere else in the Inn, offers stunning views of the Gulf. Nothing will ever be built [in the Henderson State Park], and there’s the Gulf beyond. “No one else is Destin has this view,” Wolfgram says, restating the obvious.
At its heart, Destin is still a small town, and that became evident when we talked to the staff of the Henderson. Everyone was exceptionally friendly and eager to share this shiny new resort with the guests. One of our waiters had worked on the hotel as an electrician while it was being built, and decided to stay on after opening. The chef at the sushi bar had been recruited from a little restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel, and seemed to regard the shiny new kitchen like an expensive sports car he was putting through its paces.
“These are people who live here, who have families here,” says Wolfgram. “This is a very locally owned and operated area. It’s a string of small businesses; there’s no major industry. There’s Eglin Air Force Base, which is huge, and the next is tourism. You want to eat, you want to shop, you want to play, you want the arts.”
Standard beachside hotel amenities are available, but everything is done with state-of-the art flair. The two pools stretch a full city block long. The upper deck pool is adults only, with cabanas and palms straight out of Old Hollywood. Dancing water fountains line the pool, lit with adaptive LEDs. The lower pool is family friendly, with a big play area connecting to a looping lazy river where kids of all ages can float around on inner tubes.
The heart of the new Henderson is the massive, 10,000-square-foot spa, designed and operated in cooperation with Salamander Spas, one of the top spa companies in America. “One of the things that’s fantastic about the spa experience is that it’s woven through the whole report experience,” says Wolfgram. Some of the 170 rooms are “spa rooms” with claw-footed soaker tubs and other health inspired amenities, such as in-room herbal teas and a wellness crate with yoga mat and blocks, and weights for in-room workouts.
A typical spa package includes time in the “water experience area,” where you can cycle back and forth between a steam sauna, a hot jacuzzi tub, and an experiential shower that includes LED lighting and nozzles spraying from all directions. Next is a massage by one of the spa’s staff therapists who will work the knots out of you with skill and precision. Oh, then there’s champagne and the ubiquitous chocolate-covered strawberries.
The couple’s suite aims to inject a little romance into the experience with a bubble bath tub for two, a massive shower, and a private balcony. And of course, there are facials, mani-pedis, and a host of soothing balms and lotions created by Kirsten Florian. If you’re carrying any residual tension after all that, you’re probably beyond all help.