By Kara Kimbrough
“Beach or mountains?” This question is often thrown about when engaging in workplace “get acquainted” sessions and other venues. For me, it’s a no-brainer. Having grown up in a state with hills, not mountains, not to mention 26 miles of beautiful manmade beaches fronting the Gulf of Mexico at our southern-most tip, I’m quite partial to the beach. “I never met a beach I didn’t like” is a statement that easily applies to me.
I feel guilty for visiting beaches other than our amazing Gulf Coast, but sometimes, I do. Here are a few highlights of a recent trip to Florida’s spectacular Emerald Coast.
A few days with friends at Miramar Beach near Destin was the perfect start to summer. If you’ve never been, it’s an area of northwest Florida known for its sugar-like sand, emerald-hued water and amazing sunsets. Unbelievably fresh, creative and delicious food finds took the trip to a new hemisphere.
Reality was left behind as we drove up the palm-tree lined drive of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa and entered the cool oasis. Ensconced within the cocoon-like complex are close to 600 spacious rooms and suites, a world-class spa, fitness center and six on-site dining options. Glass walls open onto a sprawling pool, luxurious lounge areas and newly-expanded beach deck.
A few steps away, the shimmering Emerald Coast, named for its light green color interspersed with stripes of brilliant blue, beckons like a magical oasis.
Renting a beach condo or private home is something many of my friends do every summer. However, schlepping cooking supplies into a condo and stocking the fridge is not my idea of a relaxing vacation. But check in to a luxury resort, where changing into a swimsuit and heading down to an umbrella-covered lounge chair at the pool or beach is my only job? That’s my idea of a memorable vacation.
Intermingled with fun at the resort were fresh seafood meals, delicious po’boys and sandwiches, innovative appetizers and creative desserts found in every town along the coastline.
Surrounded by unparalleled natural beauty on the beach and along peaceful palm-tree-lined streets, visiting a place called Stinky’s seemed, well, a tad sacrilegious. However, it came highly recommended by a Hattiesburg friend, so we decided to give it a try.
Located in Santa Rosa Beach on Florida’s famous Highway 30A, Stinky’s is a lively, casual-style restaurant. After sampling the mammoth wedge salad topped with crispy bacon, sliced tomatoes, onions and the restaurant’s delicious Green Goddess dressing, followed by fried shrimp, catfish and other seafood accompaniments confirmed we made the right dining decision.
Further exploration of 30A brought glimpses of pristine sand beaches, rare dune lakes, plenty of shopping and opportunities for water view dining.
Intrigued after learning Seaside’s Bud & Alley’s was named for a dog and a cat, we selected it from among a group of area restaurants and food trucks. Seated at a wooden table overlooking brilliant water, I sampled one of the best shrimp po’boys of my life.
Lightly seasoned and breaded shrimp were nestled on a bed of the tastiest cole slaw I’d ever tasted. The chef shared his secret of adding sugar, grated onion and garlic powder to what I’m assuming is a homemade mayonnaise base with perhaps a dash of Greek yogurt.
Other food highlights were giant homemade cinnamon rolls and pastries at the Hilton’s coffee shop and lobster rolls at Seaside’s Shrimp Shack.
The culinary highlight of the trip was a visit to The Vue at 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. The picturesque restaurant was named “Best Waterfront Dining” by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Postcard-worthy views of the water and in the evening, amazing sunsets, from either its glass-fronted dining areas or beachfront patios, are mesmerizing.
The arrival of dinner was the only thing that could’ve diverted my eyes from the waterfront view of a fiery sunset. I’d previously sampled lobster tails, but the chef’s crab-stuffed version was amazingly different. Two Maine lobster tails are topped with crab meat, smoked Gouda cheese, cream and panko breadcrumbs.
It was an unforgettable meal topped off with a peach and mango cobbler with a crust so light and delicate it literally melted with each bite.
The Vue has a seafood-centric menu, but there’s no scarcity of steaks. Others in our group enjoyed filet mignon topped with a red wine chorizo demi glaze and rosemary fingerling potatoes.
Waiting in line outside Destin’s famous The Donut Hole was mandatory on the last day. Pancakes, waffles, omelets and biscuits are just a few of the breakfast offerings at this old-school diner and bake shop. But it’s the 30+ flavors of homemade doughnuts that have residents and tourists lining up all day.
A box of 12 different flavors of homemade doughnuts accompanied me to my home state featuring a beach, not mountains.
Best Beach Key Lime Pie
For the graham cracker crust: (a store-bought version can be substituted, but this recipe is so good!)
2 cups graham crackers, finely crushed
1/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 - 14 oz cans sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup sour cream
Zest of 2-3 limes
3/4 cup lime juice, will take about 6 (use key limes if you can find them)
2 large egg yolks
To make crust:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter and set aside. Finely crush graham crackers in food processor, blender or crush in a Ziploc bag using a rolling pin. Add sugar and pulse a few times until blended (pour into a bowl and use a whisk if not using food processor or blender), pour in butter and stir with whisk or pulse a couple times until mixed.
Pour mixture into 9-inch-deep dish pie dish and using hands, press into bottom and along sides. Bake for 6-8 minutes until just golden, not browned. Remove from oven and cool completely on wire rack for at least 10 minutes.
To make filling:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash, dry and zest 6 limes, set zest aside. Squeeze 3/4 cup of lime juice (about 6). Pour lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, sour cream, egg yolks and zest into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on low until combined, then increase to medium-high for 2-3 minutes, scraping down sides as needed.
Pour filling into cooled graham cracker crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes until center is set, but still moves slightly. Don’t allow to brown. Remove from oven and cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
Top with whipped cream, if desired.
Kara Kimbrough is a food and travel writer from Mississippi. Email her at [email protected].