We’re going to let you in on a little secret: some of the finest beaches in America are in Destin, Florida. A few non-Florida residents know these white sands and emerald-green waters intimately but, for the most part, the city’s natural wonders are a relative secret outside of the Deep South.
But even beyond the stunning shoreline, the town of about 13,600 residents has an active events calendar (from February’s Mardi Gras fun to October’s Destin Seafood Festival) and a flourishing culinary scene. With November 2017’s opening of The Henderson, A Salamander Beach & Spa Resort, Destin has a high-end hub for all of the hoopla, too.
We recently visited the 170-room hotel and discovered that, while the beach is exceptional, the property itself has plenty to offer over a long weekend.
If you can imagine one of New England’s grand seaside manors being relocated to Northwest Florida, you’ll have a general idea of The Henderson’s appearance. Now, take those stark-white columns, soaring wood beams and steep gable rooflines and surround them with a little humidity and a lot of Southern charm and your picture of this Emerald Coast wonder should get even clearer.
Rooms range from standard units with brilliant views of the neighboring Henderson Beach State Park to 1,200-square-foot suites big enough for a small reunion. And while the coastal-blue color palette, double-vanity sinks and wicker-blade fans are all things you’d probably associate with the Sunshine State, it’s the scenes along the walls that may be surprising.
Designers envisioned The Henderson as this livable gallery for showcasing local talent, so it chose 13 artists to create more than 400 pieces that have been displayed around the property. In your room you might see a nature shot captured by Jeff Waldorff. Walk through the main lobby and you can’t miss the lovely landscapes painted by Melody Bogle. And when you visit the phenomenal Salamander Spa, you’ll be as amazed by Mary Hong’s remarkable glass mosaics as you are by your Wild Lavender Sensory Massage.
We could dedicate an entire story to the fabulous beach near the Destin hotel — as idyllic as The Henderson is, you do have to make a five-minute walk from the property to the sand across the private street — but those gulf views can speak for themselves. We’d much rather stretch out on a lounger and have a staff member at the seasonal Beach Cantina keep taking our drink orders.
For a little more activity on the water, connect with the beach concierge, who’ll get you going on a paddleboard or kayak (both included in your resort fee). With regards to the former, YOLO Boards’ co-founder Tom Losee is an area resident, so you’ll typically find him or someone from his team leading a class or race in the nearby waters.
If keeping balance on the waves isn’t your thing, there is a host of activities in which to partake at The Henderson. There’s an adult-only pool and a family friendly one with a lazy river. Over on the lawn, you’ll find cornhole and badminton. The fitness center offers everything from the latest in treadmill technology to beachside yoga sessions. Also, there’s a rooftop cycle class every Wednesday morning. The views here are so mesmerizing that you almost forget to cringe during that last 60-second sprint.
Another pastime you’ll quickly learn to adjust to at The Henderson is eating. Chef Brendan Davey’s team makes it easy with a kitchen that flourishes with fresh catches and bountiful flavor — no matter where on property you decide to pull up a chair. Horizons is the sort of laid-back place you go to catch up with family before your day starts or meet up with friends for a drink after dinner.
But don’t let the TVs glued to ESPN and the octagon-shaped bar fool you — there’s some genuinely good grub to be had here. We devoured the grouper fish tacos one afternoon. Go with the seafood or lemon-pepper-brined wings, but be sure to wash it down with a local Grayton Beer IPA.
Primrose does lunch, too, but it’s probably its most impressive in the mornings and evenings. Should you stop by in the a.m. hours, order the berry-topped buttermilk pancakes. We’re not exactly sure what all goes into the batter, but we do know the dangerous dish should come with a surgeon general’s warning it’s so addictive.
At dinner, Primrose dims the lights, but the kitchen somehow still shines even brighter with a roster that includes proteins (18-ounce rib eye), plants (roasted garden vegetables) and the best seafood paella (Maine lobster, gulf shrimp, diver scallops and redfish) we’ve had in years.
While these two establishments stand out, they’re not your only options. Sea Level can take care of your sandwich and snack cravings while you’re playing by the pool. Sprinkles is the ’50s-inspired scoop shop for anyone with a sweet tooth. And speaking of treats, the nightly s’mores-making fun on the back lawn is a great opportunity to reflect on the day while trying a few new marshmallow flavors, such as caramel swirl and peppermint.
Because of The Henderson’s prime spot right off Highway 98, it’s never a chore getting anywhere around town. New restaurants (Emeril’s Coastal Italian), older attractions (Destin Harbor Boardwalk) and timeless views (Destin Beach Helicopter Tours) are all just a short drive from your room.
Even better, 208-acre Henderson Beach State Park sits next door to the property. Use the shuttle service to make the three-minute trip over (hotel guests receive complimentary entry) to the park, the first acquisition under the Save Our Coast land conservation program initiated by then-governor Bob Graham back in 1983.
Today, the 6,000 feet of natural coastline are the perfect place to admire dune ecosystems, point out harmless lizards and walk around trails as you think about how this underrated area is so enchanting.