Whirlybirding the Emerald Coast

Tourists in Our Own Town

Two redheads, a blonde, and a salt-and-pepper walk into a… helicopter? That’s right! This weekend a couple of friends and I decided to be tourists in our own town, via a tour with Timberview Helicopters. Between traffic and tourists, keeping away from things like this is usually high on the priority list, but I’m here to report it was well worth the time and the price, which by the way was fantastic with the help of Groupon.

We were scheduled to go up at 1045 am, and our pilot Reuben (the second redhead in the equation above) promptly shook our hands and walked us out onto the tarmac, cracking jokes from the get-go. This was going to be my first time in a chopper… well, my first time in one that left the ground, anyway.

I buckled into the copilot seat of the tiny black ball, my friends fastened themselves into the back, and we all donned headsets with mics so we could talk to each other. I asked Reuben how long he’d been doing this. “Twice,” he replied with a straight face. (See, us redheads are funny.)

Woop-woop-woop-woop, up we went. Immediately, we saw the turquoise coastline in front of us, and in 15 seconds we were high above it looking down. The bird SWOOPed over onto its right side and we all shrieked. Well, not Reuben, which I suppose was a good thing. He pitched left and squeals rang out over the headsets as we peered straight down into the Gulf of Mexico. Nimble and light, the aircraft’s every movement emphasized the feeling that we were but a speck in the wide blue sky.

Aqua, emerald, lime, cobalt, amber, turquoise, sky-blue, mint, denim-blue… stripes and smudges and wavy drifts of color drew our eyes. The condos and high-rises and restaurants were dwarfed by the broader geography up here, a pleasant change from the usual claustrophobia of being stuck in seasonal traffic anywhere along Highway 98. Tiny colorful boats dotted the dimpled surface of the water below us, or left criss-crossing wake lines as they zipped around the bay. I saw the bayou my sister used to live on, two shapes which were probably sharks suspended in the current, the patterns of underwater sand drifts and ridges, the beer-drinkers beginning to gather on Crab Island (which is not an island at all, but a sandbar and popular watery hangout). I saw the deep teal of the channel leading from Choctawhatchee Bay, underneath the Marler Bridge (commonly called the Destin Bridge), out the East Pass between the jetties, and into the Gulf. I saw the stark white edges where the land meets the water, and granite from melting glaciers had been deposited in ages past, leaving us with the sugar-sand beaches Emerald Coasters struggle to find a way to share today.*

The East Pass, looking into Choctawhatchee Bay

I looked back and saw the excitement on my face was matched by that on my friends’, who were pointing at the boats and bridges and landmarks on the horizon. After a few more high-pitched shrieks had been induced, our pilot circled us back over Crab Island and across the bay, along a wooded bayou edged with homes and docks, where we could see the rest of the coastline disappearing off in the other direction. Then he whisked us into the airport’s landing strip and sat us back down in our parking spot.

Crab Island
Yes, that’s water!

Thanking him for the fun, we tipped him well and decided lunch was in order. Since we were so close and the food is always so good, not to mention it’s an original locals’ spot with unique views, we made the two-minute drive to Dewey Destin’s. For those of you who have never been, go. For those of you who have, you know what I mean. Dewey’s has two locations, the original on the dock and the newer location on the Destin harbor. I’ve always preferred dockside, and that’s where we went.

Turning into the hard-to-find gravel drive, you pass a hodgepodge broken-down-looking building with no signs, which seems to be where the catch is hauled to for cleaning, given the gang of heron milling about. Today they stood unyielding in the driveway, ankle-deep in a puddle pulling on fishy unmentionables, atop a stack of wooden crates, and on the tin roof, casting territorial stares at their comrades below. Nudging past the long legs and wild, feathery plumes, we scrunched into a parking spot and walked out onto the dock, ducking into the doorway of the wooden shack. I ordered grilled grouper with hushpuppies and a cold beer. My friends ordered blackened mahi and the grouper sandwich with sweet tea. We picked out a picnic table on the sandy beach, and when our food arrived we dug in. Yum, just like always – fresh, perfectly cooked, and hot. The only thing I’ve ever had here that I DON’T like is the corn on the cob, which I find to be mushy. But do try the smoked tuna dip.

The dock at Dewey’s (in the background)

Afterwards, we walked out to the end of the dock to look across at Crab Island and the bay. We watched gulls perched on the dock pilings and chatted with a boater as he worked to turn his boat towards the bay. It was a beautiful day and we’re lucky to be in such a beautiful place.