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With deadly Hurricane Michael tearing through the Florida panhandle and leaving much of the Panama City region in ruin, we weren’t sure what to expect when we put Orange Beach, Ala., in the rear-view mirror and headed about an hour and a half east to Florida’s Fort Walton Beach.

We knew from newscasts of Michael coming ashore as a near-Category 5, and appearing so broad at the time, that it might well swallow coastal communities as far west as Destin and Fort Walton.

So imagine the width of our smiles when we passed the city limits sign on U.S. 98 and verified this idyllic beach community seemed unaffected by what would be labeled the most powerful hurricane to strike Florida’s panhandle in 80 years.

In our attempt to find relaxation in the early October week leading up to Michael’s arrival, we felt the next three days here would be just what we needed: beach, pool, icy refreshments, seafood feasts and a nap or three.

My first stop was where it has been in visits past, the local ResortQuest by Wyndham office. They are the company that knows and manages vacation rentals across the wide expanse of the Emerald Coast better than others I’ve discovered over the decades. To their credit, they have made room in their Fort Walton and Destin properties to house many first responders to the devastation only 50 miles to the east.

And this year went smoothly as we checked into Destin West Resort condominiums on Okaloosa Island. As with the nearby resort called Waterscape, Destin West not only has plenty of beach, but a long and winding “lazy river.” Just my style of inactive watersport. Water ballet was too darn strenuous.

I’m sure valued readers who make the day’s drive from Arkansas to the Emerald Coast playground with its sugary white beaches and translucent waters don’t need reminding of what’s down here. It’s a place of memories that draws people back again and again.

These visits to tropical climes and palm trees are as much a state of mind as they are physical experiences. I associate visiting here, even for a relatively brief stay, with shutting down and, well, wolfing down a lot of seafood including sweet flaky grouper, mahi mahi, red royal shrimp, oysters and crab claws.

For those heading this way sometime, among my favorite eating spots are Old Bay Steamer and Hightide in Fort Walton and Louisiana Lagniappe in Destin. And for those craving the seafood and beach combo, The Back Porch in Destin, a locals’ favorite, has been around since 1974.

The high-rise condominiums here are always comfortable, well-appointed and supplied with everything we need for an enjoyable stay. Most have tile floors, washers, comfy beds and patios overlooking the water, which all add to the darned near-magical experience of escaping to the beach.

The community of Destin is only 6 miles down the highway from our sprawling Destin West complex. Destin West is so expansive it requires a walkway arching well above traffic along U.S. 98 from the beachside to the bayside with its lazy river.

There I go again carrying on about that lazy river. It was the first thing I headed for after we’d emptied the car parked in the covered deck near our room, and slipped on our required wristbands. There’s something about floating aimlessly in circles aboard an oversized inner tube that screams relaxation.

Well, unless shrieks of “Marco? Polo!” fill the air around us peace-seekers. Then it becomes a matter of remembering one’s own offspring at that age while trying to block it out as simply part of any swimming hole’s audio landscape.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing was going to keep this full-growed man from floating in his beloved lazy river.

This year’s stay was different in that, while we could easily watch smaller waves breaking from our patio 100 yards away, our biggest panorama was of the expansive, palm-lined courtyard that held an enormously long pool and adjacent hot tub immediately below.

And yes, as you may have surmised, from within this magnificent pool while seated on the patio sipping on icy beverages in quiet conversation, those remarkably humanlike Marco Polo birds had migrated from the lazy river to land at the shallow end of the swimming pool. Oh, what the heck, it’s their vacation too, right?

We’ve also never lacked for activities in this part of the nation. The Gulfarium is just next door, as are arcades, grocery stores, restaurants, fishing charters, shore and pier fishing, and beach shops with great post-summer bargains. Then there’s the vast Destin Commons shopping center also along U.S. 98, which reminds me of the outdoor Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers. And for bad-weather days, the Commons has a 14-screen AMC Theater.

Pensacola, with its stunning National Naval Aviation Museum and the Navy’s Blue Angels in residence, is free and only a 40-minute drive. That place alone is worth a day’s visit. Plus, the Angels frequently meet visitors and do their aerial show along the Gulf shore, which means seeing and hearing them right outside our condo.

As they always do, our few days in the mid-80s with pastel blue climes came and went in a flash. But wait just a second, now. Weren’t we just unloading this car? I’m not ready yet. Then we pointed the hood at Mobile and points north toward home and the world where tornadoes are as feared as hurricanes are down here.

Although I’ve driven the miles between our Arkansas and the beach straight through more than once, I’m more like that lazy river nowadays. I meander along at the speed limit into westernmost Mississippi and stop for the night in Vicksburg. Gotta stretch out that relaxed, getaway feeling just one more day, ya know.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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