Panhandle Paradise

Hanging Out in the Family-Friendly Panhandle

“This is the best day ever!” a tiny, be-tubed youngster crowed as he ran past us toward the glittering Gulf waters ahead. Nearby, his siblings were building one of many sandcastles dotting the beach as his parents lounged in shaded beach chairs, their heavy eyelids open just enough to keep an eye on their most adventurous son.

In every direction, there were children building core childhood memories, splashing in the chilly water or hopscotching up and down the white beach, shrieking with laughter. Here at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Miramar Beach exists a child’s paradise, an oasis of play.

Panhandle Paradise

Originally intended to be a timeshare property, the building was repurposed right before its opening in 1984 to be a hotel. As a result, every room in the main tower has bunk beds and virtually every amenity is designed for families — from the three pools (one indoor, two outdoor) to the private stretch of beach to the grab-and-go store, Picnix, which has kid-friendly food.

“We don’t close off anything to the kiddos,” says Maggie Weaver, the hotel’s marketing director.

Even the Village of Baytowne Wharf, just a short shuttle ride away from the Hilton, caters to families. By dinner time on the weekend, the Village, vaguely reminiscent of Disney’s Tom Sawyer Island with a large pond in the middle, is full of kiddos rock climbing, hopping through one of the rope courses, or soaring through the air between trampoline jumps. Meanwhile, there are plenty of options for food, including our favorite, Dude & Meatball’s, an Italian joint named after the owners’ two pups and featuring live music and an amazing tomato cream pasta sauce. On the other side of the pond is the marina and some more bayside restaurants, perfect for a romantic sunset stroll or a drink.

Back at the hotel, however, is the best option for dinner — Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood. The price tags here are on the higher side, but ultimately worth it if you prize dining on the finer side. With only a few exceptions for things like Alaskan king crab, the seafood dishes are sourced locally, about as fresh as you can get. The steaks, meanwhile, are just as good, and customizable with extra toppings like foie gras-infused butter and pan-seared diver scallops. But you would be remiss not to try the locally sourced grouper with wild mushroom risotto or the dover sole, filleted tableside and served with brown butter, capers, and lemon.

For more economical options, there’s Sandcastle’s, Hadashi, and Barefoot’s, the latter of which sits poolside overlooking the beach, a perfect spot for lunch or happy hour. Sandcastle’s and Hadashi, meanwhile, share a space inside the lobby and you can order from either, no matter where you sit. Sandcastle’s hosts breakfast in the morning with a bespoke omelet bar and buffet ($29.95 for adults and $19.25 for kids) and has the usual sandwiches and pizza for lunch and dinner. Hadashi is the on-site sushi and raw bar, offering a unique option for the area, which leans mostly toward Americanized options.

For the parents, there’s plenty of opportunity for play as well, with four golf courses on the property that hosts the hotel, all within a short distance. The Raven Golf Club has even hosted the PGA Champions Tour. And, of course — fitting the kid-friendly theme — there are mini golf courses too.

While the dads golf and the kids explore the private beach or the pools, moms can take a trip to the Serenity by the Sea Spa, which offers hair, makeup, and nails services in addition to the usual massage and facial treatments, and access to the fitness center. The best part of Serenity, however, might be the lounges, which are separated by gender and offer up healthier fare, drinks, access to the sauna, and private hot tubs.

No matter what you decide to do or who you come with, the beach at the Hilton Sandestin is the main draw, a semi-private stretch of surf and sea that would be hard not to enjoy. The waters are crystalline blue and the sand almost blindingly white. You might notice a faint squeaking sound as you walk across the beach or a dark residue on your feet — that would be the quartz deposits in the sand, which flowed down from the Appalachian Mountains thousands of years ago. Today, that soft sand is host to thousands of little feet, scampering through “the best day ever,” a memory they’ll keep well into adulthood.

Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa

4000 S. Sandestin Blvd.
Miramar Beach, FL