So you want to arrange a romantic beach getaway for you and your partner. Thanks to its pristine beaches and convenient proximity to the Memphis metro area (if you call a seven-hour drive “convenient”), the Florida Gulf Coast seems like a good destination. But is it romantic?
I decided to find out. When I travel for Memphis magazine, I often do so with my wife, Laura Jean Hocking (aka LJ), who is, among her other talents, a great photographer. We planned a three-night getaway to Destin, Florida, with forays to other nearby beach communities, to test the area’s romantic potential.
But what do we mean by “romantic?” The Oxford English Dictionary’s most relevant definition, “conducive to or characterized by the expression of love” doesn’t seem to go far enough for our purposes. We needed a Theory of Romance — a rubric for ruling on the romantic potential of various locations and activities.
After much discussion, we decided the overarching goal of a romantic vacation is to make time to be present with your partner. “It needs to be something that relaxes you enough to feel amorous,” says LJ. “Going to New York City is not necessarily a romantic trip unless you specifically try to make it one, because there’s just so much to do. You’re going to run around all the time.”
Our inquiry is important, because an attempt at romantic vacationing can make or break a couple. Early in our relationship, LJ and I traveled to Navarre Beach, a few miles down U.S. Highway 98 from Destin, and it proved to be a bonding experience we remember fondly to this day. But a botched romantic trip can have the opposite effect. Some friends of ours who had been dating for a while recently went on a “romantic” beach vacation — and broke up soon after they returned. We’re here to help you avoid any such negative amorous outcomes.
Staying at the Henderson Park Inn
The Henderson Park Inn has a great reputation for romance. In 2018 it was the only hotel in North America included on the popular travel website TripAdvisor’s list of the Top 25 Most Romantic Hotels in the World. Since it’s located next to Henderson Beach State Park, the inn seems more secluded than it is. When you look out the window of one of the inn’s 31 rooms, you see rolling dunes, with the towers of Destin Harbor in the distance.
“I really liked it,” says LJ. “They had real [room] keys. You didn’t have to use your phone for everything. I think part of romance is being able to switch off — especially now — contact with the world. … A nostalgic element could be romantic because you could remind yourself of when things were not so complicated.”
When we arrived, it was immediately obvious why the New England-style beach B&B was so highly rated in the romance department. The staff had spelled out “LOVE” in rose petals on the bed. A bottle of champagne was chilling in an ice bucket, and a tray of chocolates was arranged for us.
“Chocolate? Champagne? Flowers? Extremely romantic,” says LJ. “I took a picture of the rose petals on the bed and sent them to my friend, Sarah. When she showed them to her daughter, Mati Lou, she said, ‘Are those pepperoni?’”
Strewing a bed with the most popular pizza ingredient would not be a romantic gesture — unless your partner is unusually fond of cured meat. “We’re not really endorsing the idea that the Henderson Park Inn use anything but rose petals — but it would be funny!” says LJ.
A lot of restaurants in Destin offer good views of the Gulf, but it’s pretty hard to beat the Beach Walk Cafe. On the balcony, diners can snack on the smoked local fish dip with the white noise of waves in the background. Destin’s long reputation as a lucky fishing village means the pecan-encrusted Grouper Vince is the star of the menu.
“The service is great, and the food’s really, really good,” says LJ. “They have awesome Brussels sprouts, and cruciferous vegetables are good for your heart. If your heart is healthy, then you can be romantic.”
Morning Walks on the Beach
The sun is on the upswing, there’s a breeze coming off the Gulf, and the first footprints in the morning sand are from you and your boo. “The tiny little crabs in the sand make you feel like a giant,” says LJ.
Beach walks can be exceptionally romantic, especially if you find a relatively secluded stretch like Henderson Beach State Park. Hiking trails wind throughout the 30-foot dunes of the park. If you’re a biking couple, a pair of rented beach cruisers can provide the ticket to a leisurely day of exploration.
“You feel very secluded from all of the development,” says LJ. “Or at least you can pretend you’re secluded, because you can’t see very much [development].”
Lunch at Jackacuda’s
If you’ve traveled to a place where the fish is fresh, you definitely need sushi. Since my first date with LJ took place at a sushi restaurant, Jackacuda’s Seafood + Sushi counts as romantic for us. The Kami Ka Zee roll — tuna and jalapeño with mango, cream cheese, avocado, and “crunchies,” topped with slices of yellowtail, green onion, and a spicy mayo — really showed off the daily catch. But the mind-blower is the Poke Nachos: marinated raw tuna served over wonton chips with some added magic.
“I don’t know if that’s the most romantic ambiance,” says LJ. “Maybe at night it would feel different, but it was darn good.”
Watching the Sun or Moon Set Over the Water
If there’s one thing Destin does exceptionally well, it’s sunsets. Watching for the green flash as the sun drops below the far horizon from a pair of beach chairs is top-tier romance. But if you’re there at the right time of year, the moonsets are equally spectacular.
“It’s very peaceful and reverent, when you get to see the edge of the Earth, the horizon, and realize that we’re floating around in this giant space,” says LJ. “And you can see so many stars! It’s the true sense of the word ‘awesome.’ You’re full of awe.”
Dinosaur Mini-Golf at Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone
Coastal Florida has a thing for miniature golf. A family outing to a putting palace is a summer vacation ritual. But is the all-American mini-sport suitable for romance? We chose Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone in Fort Walton Beach, mostly because of T-Rex Island. When it comes to miniature golf courses, the more gimmicky the better. Weaving between animatronic dinosaur skeletons and having your concentration broken by rampaging aquatic dinos fit the bill.
Surprisingly, it was a hit. “I think it was very romantic, because the mild competitiveness can bring out some funny moments,” says LJ. “It’s also very nostalgic. You can take pictures with your phone, but the game is very simple, and you’re very present. It’s kind of a workout, too, since there were a lot of stairs. It makes you feel like you’ve done something — when really, you haven’t done much of anything. Then you can go back and start eating again.”
Dinner at McGuire’s Irish Pub
As I’ve been saying, the Gulf Coast is a great place to eat fish. But when every meal has been piscine for a couple of days, it’s time for a little variety. McGuire’s Irish Pub is popular with locals and tourists alike. “I was envisioning dark wood, intimate booths, and maybe a dart board,” says LJ.
But when we arrived at McGuire’s, it was packed with rowdy people watching the World Cup. “We decided that a bar full of drunk soccer fans is not romantic, no matter what,” says LJ. “It looked like a nice place, though.”
Instead we opted for …
Dinner at Louisiana Lagniappe
Located right on the harbor, Louisiana Lagniappe delivered the romantic experience we were looking for. As the boats bobbed at anchor and a heron paddled around, we started off with some of the best hushpuppies I’ve ever had. Even though we had begun the evening wanting something other than fish, LJ opted for the grouper amandine, and I went with the grouper meunière. They did not disappoint.
“It was such a romantic little marina,” says LJ. “You probably see amandine more now, but it used to be only New Orleans where you could get that classic French preparation of fish — and it was so fresh! It seemed like one of those restaurants you go to for a special occasion. It’s very date-friendly.”
Couples’ Massage at the Henderson Beach Resort Spa
The cozy Park Inn was the original hotel next to the state park. The sprawling Henderson Beach Resort behind the park is less than ten years old. Park Inn guests can use the facilities at the resort, including the 10,000-square-foot spa. Our mission of romance demanded that we try the couple’s massage.
“That was very romantic, because you’re more relaxed and present than ever,” says LJ. “My massage therapist was working out knots I didn’t know I still had.”
Brunch at Crackings
Here’s a travel-writer pro tip: Always ask a local where they like to eat. At Louisiana Lagniappe, our server Alex directed us to Crackings. The maque choux Benedict, which features poached eggs over fried green tomatoes and crab cakes, covered with the scratch-made namesake cream sauce of onion, red bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño, was outstanding. The interior has that classic, bright, Floridian beach feel, perfect for lingering conversation over coffee.
“That place was very charming,” says LJ. “It felt very friendly.”
Music plays a vital part in creating a romantic atmosphere. I thought a beach trip would be the perfect time to indulge my obsession with dub music, an offshoot of reggae that flourished in the studios of Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Unfortunately, The Revolutionaries and GG’s Allstars’ long-lost collaboration The Three Dreads From Zion did not conjure the kind of romantic vibes I was seeking. Explaining how dub is one of the cornerstones of modern electronic music only made things worse. “It’s very repetitive,” says LJ. “But it’s kind of laid back, so that’s good.”
Since the late Tom Petty was a Floridian, his newly released Live at the Fillmore seemed appropriate. “I don’t know if it was romantic, but I do love Tom Petty,” says LJ.
If you want romance, go with Memphis, instead, and cue up some Al Green. His twin masterpieces from 1972, Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still In Love With You are sonic temples to love and all its messy consequences. “It depends on your idea of romance,” says LJ. “Metallica could be romantic for some people. But I think in general, soul and R&B are where it’s at.”
Dinner at Edwards in Rosemary Beach
One of the gems of Route 30A is Rosemary Beach, a New Urbanist community of beach houses surrounding a walkable city center. Stores and restaurants crowd the bike paths and narrow streets. “It’s like a movie set — and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” says LJ.
The New York style of outdoor dining on the sidewalks that evolved during the pandemic is especially suited to the beach town, and locals have fully embraced it. Edwards, owned by the Memphis-based Spell Restaurant Group, is Rosemary Beach’s best fine dining experience. Tucked away between two larger buildings, the courtyard is practically designed for romantic dinners. The chef keeps the cuisine uncomplicated, emphasizing the quality of the ingredients. The pan-seared redfish over succotash had a Low Country feel, and the orange butter lent a citrus tang to the fresh fish.
“That was my favorite grouper of the trip. And it was the most simply prepared,” says LJ. “It was even called Simply Grilled Grouper on the menu.”
After dinner, we walked hand in hand across the brick sidewalks, as the ocean swished behind us. We had put our theory of romance to the test, and it held up. If you want a romantic beach trip, take the time to find the perfect hotel. Don’t over-plan. Order the grouper. Be present with each other. And finally, remember the most important ingredient: A good partner.