The Big Escape

A family-friendly resort on Florida’s Emerald Coast offers a giant helping of fun and relaxation.

“Everything’s bigger in Sandestin,” my driver tells me on our approach from the airport.

The slogan, originally applied to Texas, is true here at the Hilton Sandestin on Florida’s Miramar Beach. The massive complex is tucked away, yet it’s just down the road from an outlet mall that engulfs three city blocks. A free shuttle can take you there and several other spots nearby.

“You could get lost here,” the driver says as he deposits me at the 602-room, oceanfront resort.

I did get lost walking to Serenity by the Sea Spa.

Once I found my way, I discovered an oasis with two lounges, hair and nail salons, and a workout room that’s open 24 hours a day. In the spa’s wet lounge, a hot tub softly percolates in one alcove. A couple of women were enjoying champagne while soaking. Good idea, I thought.

My hot-stone massage, with rosemary essential oil, left me feeling noodly. I reluctantly got up from the massage table, reached for my robe—which I’d hung on the warming rack—and headed for the showers, where the water is eucalyptus-scented.

The size and scope of the Hilton Sandestin, which underwent a $30 million renovation in 2015, mean the resort can be all things to all people. Convention-goers are as at-home here as couples, families, and bachelor/bachelorette parties. Kids will appreciate the bunk beds (and their own TV) in an alcove of the junior deluxe suites. Every room has a balcony and a full or partial view of the beach.

Eat your heart out

The breakfast buffet at Sandcastles (one of six restaurants on the property) is super-sized. But it needn’t overwhelm you. A sign at the entrance informs you of low- and high-traffic times.

This over-the-top buffet has everything your Southern Grandma used to make: cheese grits, biscuits and gravy, hash browns. An omelet station (“On a slow day, we make 80 omelets,” Director of Marketing Angela Vaughn says) and fresh fruit bar are also part of the mix.

Having fortified yourself with breakfast, it’s time to get about the business of relaxing. The beach is just a few steps away. One look, and you’ll know why this area is called The Emerald Coast. The water is a tranquil green. It’s stunning.

The sand is pure white. Often described as “sugary sand,” it’s made of 99 percent quartz and has a smooth—not gritty—texture. You sink down into it when you walk. A sand volleyball court beckons, and the concierge can hook you up with boat captains for fishing charters or get you a paddle board to navigate the water.

The resort offers 15 tennis courts and bike rentals. Sandestin is also home to four championship golf courses. You’ll need more than a long weekend if you plan to play them all.

The hotel can set you up with a beach umbrella. At night, they offer a bonfire package that includes beach chair set-ups, S’mores kits, a boom box, sparklers, tiki torches, and beach games.

Sometimes you’re just too blissed out to leave your lounge chair. Planning ahead pays: reserve your spot on the beach at www.barefootsonline.com and pre-order drinks and eats. A server will bring your libations and lunch at the time of your choosing.

Don’t want to get sandy? An enormous wrap-around deck—just steps from the beach—boasts two pools. Reserve a private cabana for you and your crew. It won’t be long before a server comes by to see if you need a daiquiri. Should you tire of the sun, decamp to the indoor pool.

It would be a mistake not to dine at the area’s only four-diamond steakhouse—a vestige of a more formal era. Everything at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood—salad dressings, sauces, bread, and croutons—is made in-house. Executive Chef Dan Vargo changes the menu seasonally, but local Heureux Farms pork belly appetizer (with grits and pepper jam) is a mainstay. So is the Caesar salad, prepared tableside in an elaborate production. The filet, nearly two inches thick, comes with a mushroom/Madeira sauce that’s a labor of love, 16 hours in the making.

Other high-end steakhouses have added big TVs to their bars to accommodate sports fans. But here, a pianist provides the live entertainment. (“Ray’s played here for years,” Vaughn says.) It’s old-school elegant.

Parents traveling with little ones can deposit them at the Kids Krew and enjoy a refined date night on the property. There’s a different theme every day in this kids’ zone. Counselors might lead a crab-hunting expedition on the beach one day and make leis and play cruise ship games the next. If you’re here during sea turtle nesting season (May through October), you’re likely to see a turtle—or its tracks. The resort’s lighting minimizes any disturbance to nesting turtles.

Once I got my bearings, the Hilton Sandestin started to feel like home. Thanks to a colorful view, an ocean breeze, and sand that felt like snow, I was lost in a three-day reverie. And that’s the best possible way to be.

Learn more at www.hiltonsandestinbeach.com.