Relax in the newly renovated, largest full-service resort on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The promotional magazine in my oceanfront hotel room boasted the fact that Florida’s Emerald Coast averages 340 days of sunshine each year. The fact that I chose two cloudy and rainy ones for my mid-fall getaway, yet still managed to have an enjoyable sojourn, is, in my opinion, a testament for a great beach town.
I was there to check out the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, which had just undergone a four month, $12.5 million renovation of its lobby and public space, several of its restaurants, guest rooms in the Spa Tower, and the spa itself. This renovation is part of a more comprehensive, multi-year transformation project totaling $30 million. The full-service resort also happens to be celebrating its thirtieth anniversary.
The sun was shining during my first afternoon and I saw a great sunset, but it stubbornly disappeared for the rest of the weekend. The third day was actually a washout. But I was still able to take a stroll on the soft-as-powder sands, dip my toes in the turquoise blue-green waters and savor the resort’s amenities. If I ever return though, I’m hopeful that the weather gods will be in my favor.
The Hilton Sandestin has 602 deluxe guest rooms and suites located in the Emerald and Spa Towers. All guest rooms include balconies with partial or full Gulf views—perfect for relaxing with a cup of coffee in the morning, or a glass of wine after a full beach day. Décor is Gulf Coast Floridian, with subtle peach walls, dark wood, and accents that make the strikingly emerald water in the backdrop pop. All rooms include a kitchenette with a mini refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker, and wireless internet. Rooms on the first floor also feature covered patios, and families will be comfortable in the junior deluxe suites, with bunk beds, one king or two double beds, and a queen sleeper sofa. During my stay, the hotel was staging a photo shoot with beach umbrellas in the sand, and I got to watch from above from the double balconies of the presidential suite in the Spa Tower. Just completed in March, these two suites located on the tower’s sixth and seventh floor up the ante on luxury with four poster beds, hardwood floors, marble baths, steam showers, and separate living rooms and dining rooms. Port-like windows provide a water view, giving guests the feeling of being on a cruise ship.
Savor and Sip
The resort has dining options for every mood and budget. The 150-seat Segar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood is the only New York-style steakhouse in the area, where executive Chef Dan Vargo offers prime steaks and local seafood in an upscale traditional steakhouse atmosphere. Start with the succulent “Emerald Coast Martini” where shockingly large chunks of lump crab are joined by equally massive sweet gulf shrimp, served chilled in a cocktail glass with pink brandy sauce. The well-flavored Caesar salad is prepared tableside in a traditional fashion, with anchovies and tons of garlic; the menu says it serves two, but it could easily be share among three or four diners. Filets, rib eyes, New York strips and other cuts can be ordered simply and perfectly seared, or with toppings like lump crab, foie gras or bleu cheese and bacon. On the surf side are dishes like pan roasted grouper, which comes with delicately melted leeks and a tomato emulsion. Sommelier Myers McDougal is on hand to guide you through the 600-bottle wine list, and he’s also well-versed in classic, well-made cocktails like the Aviation, Negroni and Manhattan.
New to the resort is the 20-seat Hadashi sushi bar, which also has lounge seating and a big screen television for games and events. I didn’t even look at the menu, but opted for an omikase style from chef Sam Sumio Miyashita, who didn’t disappoint. I washed down his ultra-fresh raw and cooked rolls with a glass or two of bubbly. I wanted to return the following evening for dinner, but discovered it wasn’t open on Sunday nights—so plan accordingly during your stay.
For a full breakfast, hit up the buffet at Sandcastle’s Restaurant, which offers all the usual suspects, including made-to-order-omelettes. For a lighter bite, try a muffin and latte at The Coffee Shop.
Of course, nothing beats dining al fresco at a beach resort. The gulf-side Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill dishes out seafood, casual dishes, frozen drinks and local beers. The Barefoot’s Sampler is meant for sharing—or in my case, not. Its four local oysters on the half shell, half pound of snow crab legs and half pound of local peel and eat shrimp are available steamed or chilled. Either way, a 30A Beach Blonde or White Dunes from local brewery Grayton is the perfect accompaniment. Yellowfin tuna is crusted with sesame seeds, seared rare and sliced thin over organic field greens in a standout salad; diced cucumber and daikon radish adds crunch to the dish, which is topped with sesame ginger dressing. Save room for the Key lime pinwheel, where Key lime custard is rolled in graham crackers, served with strawberry and coulis.
Besides the great local beers, Barefoot’s offers daiquiris and frozen drinks, rum punches and wines. A more limited beverage menu is also available at The Beach Bar, where you can sip a Margarita just steps from the surf.
The resort’s 11,000-square-foot Serenity Spa was ranked number 26 in Condé Nast’s Top 100 U.S. Resort Spas. An extensive menu of treatments is joined by men’s and women’s lounge areas with cascading waterfalls, a sauna steam room and a full-service salon. I arrived early to warm up in the Jacuzzi and relax with a magazine, some flavored water and a healthy snack.
I had booked the 50-minute Serenity Massage, before which my therapist offered a choice of coconut, mango or star fruit massage oils to get me into that tropical mood. Other beach-inspired treatments include the Paradise Glow, with exfoliating sea salt; the Seawater Pearl Facial, which boosts moisture; and the Bamboo Massage, where bamboo canes release tension and stimulate circulation. Pamper hands and feet with the Tropical Paradise Manicure or Pedicure, with scents of coconut, mango or guava. Resort guests not booking spa services can still use the facilities for a fee of $20 per day.
I had never visited the Emerald Coast before, and though I have been to beaches all over the world, this one really is stellar. Never before had I seen such powdery, smooth, white sand. The reflection of sunlight on two sandbars created by that sand is responsible for the gorgeous green and blue color variations of the water. During my stay, there was no seaweed, jellyfish or anything unpleasant—it really was just like a huge swimming pool. Shell collectors take note that even those are hard to come by, however. In late September, the Gulf’s water was warm enough to swim, even when the sun wasn’t out. You can grab a blanket or a towel, or rent chairs and an umbrella from the beach concierge. And if you have a hankering for a Pina Colada while you are engrossed in a book, beach servers will take your order and deliver it.
The resort has two heated swimming pools, a kids’ pool and a whirlpool outside, and another heated pool and whirlpool inside for those cold or rainy days. The outside whirlpool definitely came in handy on the rainy day; with a drink in my hand and a hat on my head, I could barely feel the drops fall. There were plenty of lounge chairs for this time of year, but as I looked around I couldn’t help but think it would be more of a scramble during the busy summer months.
See and Do
Resort guests have access to four award-winning, championship golf courses: Raven Golf Club, Burnt Pine Golf Club, Baytowne Golf Club and The Links Golf Clubs. Tennis fans can play on 15 HydroGrid Clay courts, hone their skills with clinics and private lessons, rent equipment and attend a singles hitting session. And nearby Baytowne Maria is one of the region’s best fishing towns, with charter fishing and boat rentals.
But if you encounter that rainy day like I did (or just want a break from the searing sun), catch a free shuttle to the Silver Sands Premium Outlets, or The Village at Baytowne Wharf. The latter was modeled after Bourbon Street, and it also reminded me of Duval Street in Key West. When the boutiques and shops close, the village comes to life, with bars and live entertainment. Next time, it’ll be where I am when the sun sets after one of those 340 days of sunshine.
For more information, visit www.hiltonsandestinbeach.com.