Florida Emerald CoastThe island is an extension of the city of Fort Walton Beach. It is a popular tourist area with silver-white sand beaches, luxury condominiums, an aquarium, a boardwalk, and a fishing pier. 

Several beautiful beaches overlooking the bay and the gulf are spread out along the road connecting the island to Destin.

With all the sounds, bayous, and lakes in the area, everyone seems to own or rent a boat to enjoy the clear emerald waters. 

If you are visiting, you can join the seafaring population by renting a boat or going on a cruise. 

Where to Stay

Okaloosa Island has an abundance of hotels, resorts, and condominiums to choose from. They are usually located along the beaches on either side of the island. 

Some belong to major chains like Marriott, Whydahm, and Hyatt - and others belong to independent owners offering their homes on Airbnb.

On a recent visit, we rented an apartment via Airbnb and stayed at the El Matador resort.

El Matador Resort 

El Matador condominiumsEl Matador is a collection of condominiums owned by individuals. Some love here and others use the apartments as a vacation home.

We were lucky to find one of those apartments on Airbnb. We rented a full week and received a discount.

A week before arriving we received detailed instructions on how to check-in and use the digital entry.

When we entered the condo, we were pleasantly surprised. The place was spacious and well organized. It had a living room with a sleeper bed, a well-stocked kitchen, a dining area, a work desk, a bedroom, and a large bathroom. 

The kitchen had everything you need to prepare a meal, dinnerware and silverware, microwave, toaster, and a toaster oven.

El Matador - sunrise from the balconyThe view from the apartment is stunning. From the balcony, we had a great view of the sound separating the island from Fort Walton Beach. 

On the other side, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the white sands and the emerald, green gulf waters. 
The complex has two large pools, a clubhouse with a common area, a gym, and spa/sauna rooms.

Each floor also has laundry facilities. The cost of running a wash and a dry is reasonable. 

I would definitely come back to this place.

Things to do

The whole area of Fort Walton Beach, Okaloosa Island, and Destin is interconnected and full of things to do and places to visit. 

Here is a list of my favorites, but you can see more here.

The Boardwalk, Okaloosa Island

Okaloosa - BoardwalkThe boardwalk is a short wood planks walkway connecting to a long fishing pier – with access to a long strand of beach facing the gulf. It offers many shops, restaurants, and entertainment options.

You can have a sit-down meal at Rockin Tacos or the Crab Trap, grab a hamburger from Al's – or you can enjoy a treat at Pino Gelato.

If you prefer, you can bypass all those places, bring your own picnic, and head to the sand. 
For great views of the whole area or for fishing, head to the long pier. You pay $2 to get in and $8 for fishing. Get a hand stamp to reenter the pier throughout the day. 

During the summer months, on Wednesday nights, stick around for the fireworks show.

MAXIMUM MAGIC show

MAXIMUM MAGIC show - Noah and HeatherNoah & Heather star in this dazzling MAGIC Show at the HarborWalk Theater. The theater is located on the second floor of the Emerald Grande building in Destin.

The show performers received many awards for their entertaining magic tricks. During our visit, we enjoyed an hour and a half of magic and laughs. 

The best thing about this show is the audience participation. For every act, the magician Noah asked for an adult or a kid volunteer. Every participant loved being involved.

The theater does not serve dinner, but they do offer snacks and drinks. During a 15 minute intermission, you can watch more tricks at the magic shop counter and buy some to try at home.

Before the show, I learned that Noah became interested in magic at the young age of 7 when he watched a magician do his tricks. He got inspired, bought a few tricks, practiced, and the rest is history, 

Oak Tree Nature Preserve

Oak Tree Nature PreserveTechnically, this forested area is outside of Fort Walton Beach, at the edge of Mary Esther, but you must visit it if you are in the area.

This nature preserve is a heavily wooded nature park & preserve offering tranquil walking & hiking trails. 

The hike is about 1.5 miles for a round trip with plenty of shade and a small creek. As you walk into this forest, the highway noise starts to dissipate while the temperature drops from all dense canopy.

If you are quiet enough, you will hear bird sounds and may be lucky enough to see a few small animals. 

Dolphin Watch Jet-Ski Tour  

Dolphin Watch Jet-Ski TourI went on many dolphin watch cruises in the past, but never so thrilling an experience. I have never been on a Jet Ski and was a little apprehensive about trying it, but the folks at Destiny Water Adventures made my first experience easy and pleasant.

We started with instructions on how to operate the jet ski and some safety rules. We donned our mandatory lifejackets, and off we went. 

We started from Destiny's location in Fort Walton Beach on the Santa Rosa Sound – which separates Ft Walton from Okaloosa Island. We then headed into Choctawhatchee Bay towards Distin Harbor, then exited into the Gulf of Mexico.

On the clear waters of the gulf, we idled for a while, enjoying Dolphins swimming around us. The dolphins seemed curious about us playfully jumping and darting around, but eventually, they got bored and swam away. 

We headed back into the bay and visited Crab Island, where we witnessed the reason for its popularity,

Many boats were moored in the shallow bay with people frolicking in the water or partying on their boats. Some pontoon boats had water slides, and others had the music blasting with people drinking and dancing. 

Riding the jet ski by itself was a fantastic experience. At top speed, around 40 km/hr, you feel like flying above the waves. If you don't hold the handlebars tightly, you can lose control and fly off the jet ski.

I did tip over once, but the ski righted itself, and I could climb back easily. The kill switch made sure the jet ski didn't take off without me. 

HydroJet Dolphin Watch Tour

HydroJet Dolphin Watch TourAnother way to enjoy the gulf and watch dolphins is on the super-fast Hydro-Jet. 

I went with HydroJet Boat Tours from Destin Harbor on a cloudy summer day. After the safety talk, we headed out of the Destin harbor and into the Gulf of Mexico. The ride started slowly around the harbor but then picked up speed. 

It is very thrilling to ride a hydro-jet. We had to straddle special seats that looked like roller-coaster seats and hold on to the handles for fear of flying off the boat. 

When you arrived at a pod of dolphins, the boat came to a complete stop to allow us a good view of playful dolphins.

Unfortunately, the boat encountered an engine problem during our tour. Nothing serious. We just couldn't get to the maximum speed. The captain issued refunds to everyone due to this mishap. 

Dining

The food scene in and around Fort Walton Beach and the Destin area is diverse, emphasizing seafood.

We visited many of those restaurants during my stays – some were excellent for the food, and others were great for the view. We rarely found a place that excelled in both. Here are some of my favorites.

Asiago's Skillet

A great place for breakfast on the island offering a large selection of American favorites. Over many visits, I tried the ham and cheese omelet, pancakes, breakfast burrito, Chorizo Omelet, and biscuits and gravy. Always with lots of coffee. 

The meals were always satisfying and the service was excellent.

AJ's on the Bayou 

AJ's on the Bayou - sunsetWe picked this place for our first dinner in Fort Walton Beach because of the location on the Cinco Bayou. The view did not disappoint. While enjoying our dinner, we admired the clear waters, boats, and jet skis buzzing by.  

The food was a bonus treat. We tried the fried fish basket and the crab cakes. They were both delicious. 

On another visit, we tried the fried shrimp basket and the Salamon. Both were tasty and filling. We had enough leftovers for our lunch the following day.

Holi Indian Cuisine

For a taste of India, you must dine at Holi. 

Holi is a famous ancient Indian festival, also known as the "Festival of Love", the "Festival of Colors," and the "Festival of Spring". All are great meanings to put us in the right mood to enjoy our authentic Indian dinner.

On our last visit, we started with two orders of their delicious Samosa. For our entrees, we tried Lamb Curry, Goat Curry, and Vegetable Tikka Masala. 

We all ordered our meals with level-1 spice, but you can order your food from 0 to 5 spicy levels.

For dessert, we tried the Gulab Jamun and the Mango Cheesecake. All were very tasty, and we had a lot of leftovers for our lunches the following day.

Soi Bistro

Soi Bistro - dessertFor the best sushi in town make sure to visit Soi Bistro. They have a nice selection of rolls and sashimi and the service is excellent.

On our most recent visit, we ordered captain crunch, rainbow, dom, mango tango, and Sake Nigiri - all were delicious. 

For dessert, we enjoyed their mango mochi and the Green Tea Tiramisu - both were very tasty.

The menu here is not limited to sushi. You can order noodles, rice bowls, and many other cooked dishes. 

La Famiglia Italian Restaurant

La Famiglia - Taste Dello ChefLa Famiglia is a hidden gem in a strip mall in Destin with delicious homemade pasta. 

We discovered this place by mistake. We were trying to get into another popular restaurant on the beach in Destin, but the wait was too long. So we looked for other options close by.

I am glad we ended up in this cozy restaurant.

We started with their complimentary bread with oil and garlic. The toasted bread and the dipping sauce were a match made in heaven.

When I visit a new place, I try to find a sampler plate to try different items. I was in luck. I ordered the "Taste Dello Chef", which included three plates of pasta. My wife and daughter ordered Rack of Lamb and Chicken Parmigiana. 

Everything was delicious. We ended our meal with a traditional tiramisu and a strawberry tiramisu.

For more dining options you can read about Fort Walton Beach here.