A Notion of Love

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PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA JEAN HOCKING

The captivating vista from Henderson Park Inn in Destin, Florida, renowned as one of the globe’s most enchanting hotels, invites contemplation.

Are you contemplating orchestrating a romantic escapade by the seashore for yourself and your partner? The Florida Gulf Coast, with its unspoiled beaches and conveniently accessible proximity to the Memphis metropolitan area (even if a seven-hour drive can be considered “convenient”), emerges as an appealing option. Yet, does it truly exude a sense of romance?

Curious to ascertain this, I embarked on an exploration. As a frequent traveler for Memphis magazine, I often embark on these journeys accompanied by my wife, Laura Jean Hocking (affectionately known as LJ), who, in addition to her other talents, is a skilled photographer. We meticulously devised a three-night retreat to Destin, Florida, with occasional excursions to neighboring beachfront communities, all in a quest to evaluate the area’s potential for kindling romance.

However, how do we precisely define “romantic?” The most pertinent interpretation from the Oxford English Dictionary, “favoring or marked by the manifestation of affection,” appears somewhat inadequate for the scope we’re considering. We found ourselves in need of a comprehensive framework for romance—a guiding principle for assessing the amorous prospects presented by different settings and experiences.

Following extensive deliberation, we arrived at a consensus that the primary objective of a romantic getaway involves creating moments of genuine togetherness with your significant other. “The experience should induce a state of relaxation that fosters feelings of affection,” LJ pointed out. “A visit to New York City might not inherently qualify as a romantic excursion unless you make a deliberate effort to shape it as such, given the abundance of activities. In such a bustling environment, you’re likely to be constantly on the move.”

Our investigation bears significance, as a venture into romantic escapades can either solidify or strain a relationship. During the initial stages of our companionship, LJ and I embarked on a journey to Navarre Beach, just a few miles along U.S. Highway 98 from Destin. This experience became a cherished memory that lingers warmly in our hearts. However, a misjudged attempt at a romantic getaway can yield contrasting outcomes. An illustrative instance involves acquaintances of ours who were in a well-established relationship; they embarked on a beach vacation that was intended to be “romantic,” yet regrettably, their relationship ended shortly after their return. Our aim is to guide you in steering clear of such unfavorable romantic consequences.

Lodging at the Henderson Park Inn
Renowned for its romantic ambiance, the Henderson Park Inn boasts an impressive reputation. In fact, it earned a distinguished accolade in 2018 as the sole hotel in North America to be featured on TripAdvisor’s esteemed compilation of the Top 25 Most Romantic Hotels in the World. Situated adjacent to Henderson Beach State Park, the inn imparts an illusion of seclusion that transcends its actual proximity. Gazing out from the window of any of the inn’s 31 accommodations, one is greeted by the sight of undulating sand dunes, while the spires of Destin Harbor stand elegantly in the distance.

“I found it quite appealing,” LJ commented. “The fact that they provided actual keys for the rooms was a charming touch. You weren’t constantly reliant on your phone for every interaction. I believe part of the allure of romance involves disconnecting, especially in today’s hyperconnected world. … There’s a certain romanticism in embracing nostalgia, as it allows you to revisit a time when things were less complex.”

Upon our arrival, the reasons behind the New England-inspired beach bed and breakfast’s distinguished reputation for romance became instantly apparent. The staff had thoughtfully arranged rose petals on the bed to spell out “LOVE.” A bottle of champagne lay nestled in an ice bucket, while an array of chocolates was thoughtfully positioned on a tray, waiting to delight us.

“Chocolate? Champagne? Flowers? Incredibly romantic,” LJ exclaimed. “I snapped a photo of the rose petals meticulously arranged on the bed and shared it with my friend, Sarah. When she showed it to her daughter, Mati Lou, she amusingly asked, ‘Are those pepperoni?'”

Adorning a bed with the favored topping of pizza wouldn’t exactly constitute a romantic gesture—unless, of course, your partner happens to have an unusual affinity for cured meats. “Let me clarify that we’re not suggesting the Henderson Park Inn incorporate anything other than rose petals—it’s all in good humor!” LJ remarked.

While numerous eateries in Destin offer picturesque Gulf views, few can rival the allure of Beach Walk Cafe. Diners on the balcony can savor the smoked local fish dip while the soothing sound of waves provides a gentle backdrop. With Destin’s storied reputation as a prosperous fishing village, the standout dish on the menu is undoubtedly the pecan-encrusted Grouper Vince.

“The service is exceptional, and the cuisine is truly outstanding,” LJ affirmed. “Their Brussels sprouts are phenomenal, and these cruciferous vegetables are known to benefit heart health. After all, a healthy heart paves the way for romance.”

Strolls Along the Shoreline
As the sun begins its ascent, a gentle breeze sweeps in from the Gulf, and the first imprints left upon the morning sand belong to you and your loved one. “The tiny crabs scurrying in the sand make you feel like a giant,” LJ shared.

Morning walks on the beach hold an inherent romantic charm, particularly when you discover a somewhat secluded stretch akin to the serenity of Henderson Beach State Park. Meandering hiking trails snake through the park’s towering 30-foot sand dunes. For couples with a penchant for biking, a tandem set of rented beach cruisers opens the door to a leisurely day of exploration.

“You’ll sense a remarkable sense of seclusion from the bustling development,” LJ observed. “Or, at least, you can easily imagine yourself in seclusion, as the view of extensive development is quite limited.”

Dining at Jackacuda’s
When you find yourself in a locale renowned for its impeccably fresh seafood, indulging in sushi is practically a prerequisite. Given that our inaugural date was set against the backdrop of a sushi restaurant, Jackacuda’s Seafood + Sushi holds a special place in our romantic memories. The Kami Ka Zee roll—featuring a delectable combination of tuna and jalapeño mingling with mango, cream cheese, avocado, and delightful “crunchies,” crowned with succulent slices of yellowtail, green onion, and a touch of spicy mayo—truly showcased the daily seafood catch. However, the real game-changer proved to be the Poke Nachos: marinated raw tuna artfully arranged atop crisp wonton chips, accompanied by a dash of culinary enchantment.

“While I can’t vouch for the most quintessential romantic setting,” LJ mused, “perhaps it would exude a different ambiance at night. Nonetheless, the dining experience was undeniably exquisite.”

Observing the Sun or Moon Descend Over the Water
When it comes to its natural wonders, Destin possesses a remarkable prowess, particularly in the realm of sunsets. Gazing out from a pair of comfortably nestled beach chairs, one can’t help but be captivated by the search for that elusive green flash as the sun gracefully dips beneath the distant horizon—truly a pinnacle of romantic experiences. Yet, for those fortunate enough to visit during the opportune seasons, the moonsets are equally awe-inspiring.

“There’s an undeniable sense of tranquility and reverence,” LJ shared, “as you witness the Earth’s edge blend with the horizon, and you’re reminded of our existence within this vast cosmic expanse. The sight is accentuated by the multitude of stars illuminating the night sky. It’s a genuine manifestation of the word ‘awesome’—leaving you absolutely awestruck.”

Dinosaur Adventure Mini-Golf at Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone
Mini-golf seems to hold a special place along the coastal stretches of Florida. A family excursion to a miniature golf course has become somewhat of a summer vacation tradition. But can this quintessential American pastime also double as a romantic endeavor? We directed our attention to Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone in Fort Walton Beach, primarily due to the allure of T-Rex Island. In the realm of miniature golf courses, the more whimsical and gimmicky, the better. Navigating through the labyrinth of animatronic dinosaur skeletons and having your concentration playfully interrupted by the antics of rampaging aquatic dinosaurs seemed to fit the bill.

To our surprise, it was an unexpected hit. “There’s an inherent charm in the mild competitiveness that can give rise to some lighthearted moments,” LJ shared. “It also carries a certain nostalgia. You can take a break from the digital world, as the game is refreshingly straightforward, allowing you to stay fully present. It’s a bit of a physical workout too, with the numerous stairs adding an element of exertion. It makes you feel accomplished, even if you haven’t really done all that much. And then, of course, you can return to indulging in some good food.”

Dining Experience at McGuire’s Irish Pub
As previously noted, the Gulf Coast stands as a haven for savoring delectable seafood. However, after several consecutive days of seafood-centric feasting, the palate begins to yearn for a bit of diversity. McGuire’s Irish Pub, a local favorite embraced by both residents and visitors, caught our attention. “I had this image of a cozy ambiance with dark wooden accents, intimate booths, and perhaps even a dartboard,” LJ mused.

Upon arriving at McGuire’s, we were greeted by an exuberant crowd engrossed in the World Cup match. “We swiftly concluded that a pub teeming with spirited soccer fans, regardless of the setting, wasn’t exactly the epitome of romance,” LJ recounted. “It appeared to be a delightful establishment, though.”

Our choice then led us to…

Dining Experience at Louisiana Lagniappe
Situated right by the harbor, Louisiana Lagniappe succeeded in delivering the romantic setting we were seeking. Against the backdrop of gently swaying boats at anchor and a graceful heron gracefully navigating the waters, our evening commenced with a delectable selection of hushpuppies, an offering that set the tone for a memorable meal. Even though our intention had been to veer away from seafood for the evening, LJ ultimately opted for the grouper amandine, while I decided on the grouper meunière. Both choices left us thoroughly impressed.

“The ambiance of the marina was imbued with a distinctive romantic allure,” LJ recounted. “The classic French preparation of fish, the amandine, while perhaps more commonly encountered these days, used to be a hallmark of New Orleans cuisine. And the freshness was undeniable! It felt like one of those establishments you visit for a special occasion—unquestionably an ideal locale for a romantic evening.”

Couples’ Spa Treatment at Henderson Beach Resort Spa
While the intimate charm of Park Inn stood as the initial adjacent lodging option to the state park, the expansive Henderson Beach Resort, situated just beyond the park, boasts a more contemporary presence, having been established less than a decade ago. Notably, Park Inn patrons enjoy access to the resort’s amenities, which encompass a sprawling 10,000-square-foot spa. Aligned with our pursuit of romantic experiences, we set out to indulge in the allure of a couples’ spa treatment.

“The experience was undeniably romantic, as it created an environment of profound relaxation and heightened presence,” LJ recounted. “During the massage, I felt an unparalleled level of serenity and mindfulness. My massage therapist skillfully unraveled knots that I hadn’t even realized were still lingering.”

Indulging in Brunch at Crackings
A seasoned travel-writer’s insight: Invariably, seek out local recommendations for the finest dining experiences. Following our visit to Louisiana Lagniappe, our server Alex graciously steered us toward Crackings. The standout dish, the maque choux Benedict, showcased poached eggs atop a delectable combination of fried green tomatoes and crab cakes, draped with the establishment’s signature cream sauce infused with an array of flavors, including onion, red bell pepper, garlic, and jalapeño. The interior exuded the quintessential luminous ambiance typical of Florida’s coastal charm, creating an ideal atmosphere for unhurried conversations over cups of coffee.

“LJ aptly described the place as charming,” I remarked. “It emanated a welcoming and affable aura, rendering it an ideal spot for leisurely dining.”

Setting the Mood with Beach Music
Undoubtedly, music plays a pivotal role in crafting an atmosphere brimming with romance. With a beach escapade in mind, I believed it was an opportune moment to indulge in my penchant for dub music—an offshoot of reggae that thrived in the studios of Kingston, Jamaica during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Yet, regrettably, The Revolutionaries and GG’s Allstars’ long-lost collaboration, “The Three Dreads From Zion,” failed to conjure the specific romantic ambiance I had envisioned. My attempt to elucidate dub’s influence on contemporary electronic music only served to compound matters. “It does have a repetitive quality,” LJ observed. “But it does exude a laid-back vibe, which is a plus.”

Opting for a change of tune, we turned to the late Tom Petty, who hails from Florida. His recently released “Live at the Fillmore” seemed fitting. “While I’m not sure if it was inherently romantic, I do have a fondness for Tom Petty,” LJ remarked.

For those yearning for a dose of romance, Memphis is a better bet. Queueing up Al Green can be a surefire way to set the romantic mood. His dual masterpieces from 1972, “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still In Love With You,” serve as auditory sanctuaries dedicated to love and its intricate emotions. “Your perception of romance is subjective,” LJ mused. “For some, Metallica might hold a romantic appeal. However, I’d venture that, in general, soul and R&B are the genres that truly resonate.”

Indulging in Dinner at Edwards in Rosemary Beach
One of the alluring jewels adorning Route 30A is Rosemary Beach—a New Urbanist community where charming beach houses envelop a pedestrian-friendly city center. Stores and eateries line the bike paths and narrow thoroughfares, creating an almost cinematic ambiance. “It exudes a cinematic aura, and I intend that in a positive light,” LJ remarked.

Memphis_Mag_Destin_Hocking-29.jpg
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA JEAN HOCKING

The Simply Grilled Grouper stands out as an excellent culinary choice.

The New York-style outdoor dining concept that emerged during the pandemic has found an ideal home in this beachside haven, embraced wholeheartedly by the locals. Edwards, a culinary venture under the ownership of the Memphis-based Spell Restaurant Group, epitomizes Rosemary Beach’s finest in upscale dining. Nestled between two larger structures, the courtyard is seemingly tailor-made for intimate, romantic dining experiences. The chef’s approach keeps the cuisine unpretentious, accentuating the exceptional quality of the ingredients. The pan-seared redfish served over succotash emanated a Low Country essence, while the infusion of orange butter imparted a zesty citrus note to the delectable fish.

LJ expressed her delight, saying, “Among all the grouper dishes during our trip, this one was my favorite, and its preparation was refreshingly straightforward. The menu aptly referred to it as ‘Simply Grilled Grouper.'”

Post-dinner, we strolled hand in hand along brick-laid pathways, serenaded by the gentle rhythm of the ocean. We had subjected our theory of romance to a real-world test, and it gracefully withstood the trial. For those yearning for a romantic beach retreat, the recipe is simple: choose the perfect hotel, embrace spontaneity, savor the grouper, be fully present with your partner, and always remember the paramount ingredient—a wonderful companion.

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