In my opinion, there are few finer ways to arrive anywhere than by boat.
I used to roll into London’s glitzy Canary Wharf every morning on high-speed Thames commuter boats. When working for a multinational company in Switzerland, I used to cheerily wave as the CEO arrived – dressed head to toe in black like a corporate James Bond – on his luxury speed boat from his lake-side Chateau. And, so I’ve been reliably told, stepping off a superyacht is really the only way to enter the Casino de Monte Carlo in genuine style.
Our little part of the Emerald Coast also has a number of locations where making a water entrance can turn a quick meal or round of drinks into something just that little bit more special.
After all, nobody bats an eye at the endless streams of SUVs pulling up in the car park, but to step from a motor yacht, a sailboat or even to leap from a paddleboard will secure admiring glances and nods of approval from all other patrons that afternoon or evening.
While some direct Gulf access bars and restaurants are available in Destin and Fort Walton Beach, and the larger marinas have good eating options too, this shortlist of some boat-accessible watering holes and restaurants is centered around the Choctawhatchee Bay.
By the Destin mid-Bay Bridge, behind the Whaling Wall and the Giant American Flag painted on the roof of Legendary Marine lies Lulu’s.
This restaurant is a hot favorite with the yachting community who can moor their boats next door and spend the day at this family-friendly beach and restaurant.
Lulu’s is a huge affair, with dining halls, open-air bars, a beach for the kids to run around on and shops and attractions to keep you there all afternoon and into the evening. The Lulu, who the bar is named after, is none other than Lucy Buffett, sister of legendary beach-life afficionado Jimmy. So expect the tropical vibe and southern coastal charm in everything from the décor, to the menu and cocktail list.
If you aren’t arriving by boat, fear not, because Lulu’s neighbor Destin Paddle Company who shares her beach rents out the equipment, which you can use to explore the bay while you wait for your table reservation and to practice your uber-cool beach landing when it’s your turn to dine!
And because simply arriving by boat isn’t always enough, diners at Lulu’s will often see guests arriving by air! Yes, imagine swooping down over the bridge and pulling up for dinner in a private seaplane. Although it sounds like something reserved for celebrities, it is actually something anyone can do as Rose and Ryan who run Fly The Beach operate their service from right next door. You can enjoy a sunset flight and arrive in time for dinner – just be prepared for the disappointed faces on other dinners when you step out of the plane – they were all hoping to see Jimmy Buffett of course!
If you’re on the Choctawhatchee Bay and you go down the Intracoastal Canal, right as you enter West Bay, lies Boon Docks restaurant. Occupying the 1941 Buchanan House and adjacent fish house and bait store, the restaurant offers a wide range of grilled and fried seafood.
The mooring docks are available on a first-come-first-served basis – as their tables are too – but it allows you to sail up in the early twilight, keenly looking for dolphins that inhabit these waters, but also warily keeping an eye out for alligators who slither through the undergrowth and float in the shallows, watching and waiting for stray treats and tasty morsels, which may be dropped by careless mariners collecting their dockside food deliveries.
While eating indoors may appeal, collecting a mix of fried and grilled seafood – The Big Catch provides 5 Shrimp, 5 Oysters, pieces of Grouper, 2 Devil Crabs and Clams complete with sides and hushpuppies – and dining ‘al fresco’ from the deck of your boat may be more of a memorable moment.
But don’t fret, even if you don’t own a boat or know how to successfully sail one, you can create the illusion by joining an Eco-Airboat Tour with Wild Thang or rent Kayaks from West Bay Kayak Tours both of whom are located on the dock alongside Boondocks!
On the South East corner of the 331 Bridge sits The Bay restaurant, a popular eatery, which is part of Chef Jim Shirley’s expanding portfolio of restaurants. The Choctawhatchee Bay is shallow and only slopes gently to about waist deep along much of its shore, but a wooden pontoon reaches out 50 feet into the water where boats can tie up and moor.
Between the pontoon and the foot of the bridge a sheltered cove has formed a perfect beach for diners to enjoy.
The Bay offers a large open air bar and dining area with plenty of tables offering a view of the water, as well as additional seating, a long wooden bar and sushi counter inside if the humidity is a bit too much or the weather closes in. The menu has a range of Southern classics; fried chicken, hand-cut steaks, shrimp and grits, burgers and crab cakes but also items with a gentle South-East Asian twist – Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Thai Salads, Wasabi and Edamame dips and a made-to-order selection of Sushi Rolls and Sashimi.
The perfect time to sail up to the Bay is perhaps Sunday afternoon, or Fun Day Sun Day as its known in local parlance. Here, families play in the sand, eat and drink and are serenaded by a number of local singers and musicians late into the evening.
For the more intrepid sailor, venture to the northside of the bay in Freeport.
Here, on the banks of the inlet to Basin Bayou, sits Nick’s, a popular seafood spot since 1963. The restaurant is now in the hands of Trey Nick, a Walton County Commissioner and the third generation of his family’s ownership.
Originally, diners would be served whatever the fishermen had pulled from the bay that day, with oysters, crabs and shrimp featuring highly. Today, while mullet, Blue Crab and shrimp are still available on the menu more exotic offering are available too like calamari, snow crabs, gator tails and cheese bites from Wisconsin!
Boaters need to know the water is equally shallow on this side of the bay, so it might be advisable to use a tender or dinghy and wear your shorts and carry your shoes as you wade ashore to sample fresh blue crabs from the steamer.
If you are cruising the Gulf, on your way to The Keys, or splicing the mainsail and heading due South to Cancun, you may want to moor up in a dedicated fancy harbor and enjoy the food and hospitality on offer at Baytowne’s Marina Bar and Grill.
The marina is home to a number of large boats owned by local and national celebrities and guaranteed to give you ‘yacht-envy’ if you pull alongside in an old tub.
The Marina Bar and Grill serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and caters for all, offering a range of bottled and draft beers, wines and cocktails too, and with waterside views is a favorite stopping spot for members of the Baytowne Floating Society.
And there is always a guaranteed warm welcome for visitors entering the Marina Bar and Grill, so be sure to look out for Mary Ann, the blue and yellow Macaw who calls out to friendly folks with a cheery ‘hello’.