Northern Exposure

Year after year, from May through October, sea turtles slink onto the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort & Spa’s stretch of shoreline each evening. The lady reptiles traverse the sand, dig foot-plus-deep holes with their hind flippers, and fill those new nests with soft eggs before returning to the water.

The same mothers return to the Emerald Coast resort annually, and that’s not all: Turtles born here tend to lay eggs here themselves when they’re ready to reproduce.

Those sea turtles have the right idea. Families, couples and convention-goers tend to choose the Hilton Sandestin repeatedly too. For as long as 30 years, they’ve enjoyed the indoor and outdoor pools, the varied restaurants, and that spectacular beach with Caribbean-like calm and multicolored water. Now the resort has emerged from a three-year, $30 million renovation, and the entire property has a bright new feeling.

Bright dominates. The lobby is sunny, though well air-conditioned, with tempting views of the pool and beach areas plus a restaurant and a bar. Tailored mid-century modern furnishings add a retro yet au courant feel. Artwork tends to be watercolor-style, making use of fun-in-the-sun powdery hues of blue, orange, yellow and green. Even if you live in Florida and have a pool in your own backyard, at the Hilton Sandestin you’ll feel as if you’ve escaped the workaday world. You’ll diffuse.

From the minute you finish checking in, you’ll be drawn to the pool and beach area. Marigold cloth umbrellas abound, shading those guests who want a break from the sun around the two heated outdoor pools, kiddie pool, hot tub, expansive sun deck, beach and partially roofed bar and grill. If you’re looking for sheer relaxation, expect to spend entire days in this vicinity.

Get a beach set-up — two loungers and an umbrella — by the shore. Pick up oversized striped yellow-and-white towels by the pool. Then meander, at will, from sand to pool to whirlpool, stopping now and then into the restaurant for a bronzed grouper sandwich and a local brew or a fruity cocktail like the Hang Ten. You may choose to sip yours by the fire pit or have your entire meal delivered to your chaise. The beach has two volleyball nets and a kiosk that rents paddleboards and sea kayaks. A children’s club offers interactive activities for kids 5 to 12.

For a more aggressive step into unwinding, book a treatment at Serenity by the sea. The full-service spa is sizeable, with 16 treatment rooms plus a salon, a space just for manicures and pedicures, and steam rooms and saunas. Try an AromaStone massage, using heated river stones to relieve sore backs and shoulders, or maybe a Seawater Tonic Wrap to rejuvenate your skin.

One night during your Hilton Sandestin stay, splurge on dinner at Seager’s Prime Steaks and Seafood, an old-fashioned steakhouse that has earned AAA’s Four Diamond award. The steaks are prime, the seafood is fresh, and the service is doting. In a hushed space with live piano music, guests who need reading glasses are offered a selection from a tasteful wooden box. Classic dishes like Caesar Salad and Steak Diane are prepared tableside, a rare site in the new millennium. Six hundred wine labels are available.

In addition to Seager’s and the pool bar and grill, the hotel has an espresso bar, a take-out shop, a three-meals-a-day restaurant, and a lounge with a sushi bar on one end.

At Hilton Sandestin, the lodging is spacious. Basic rooms in the Spa Tower are a generous 550 square feet with a sitting area and a balcony. In the Emerald Tower, accommodations are even larger at 700 or more square feet. What’s more, every room has a semi-private area with bunk beds and a sink, giving kids and grown-ups privacy from one another.

While some guests might spend an entire week right on the premises, the surrounding area, known as South Walton Beach, has plenty to do. The Hilton is part of a community called Sandestin, which has four golf courses. Beyond Sandestin, you’ll find state parks, shopping villages and even an outlet mall. Parasailing is available nearby.

Sandestin is on the gulf coast of Florida in an area commonly known as the Panhandle, although the tourism folks tend to prefer the term Northwest Florida. It’s a six-hour drive from Orlando to the Hilton Sandestin or an 80-minute flight to any of three nearby airports.

Visit once, and you may well do like the turtles: Return again and again


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Written by Rona Gindin

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