Skip To Content

What to Look for in Waterfront Homes Destin, Fort Walton Beach, and Santa Rosa Beach

By Matt McGee, Broker

Waterfront is, certainly, not created equally. As you embark on your search for waterfront, I believe this overview will help guide you somewhat. There are trade-off’s for everything, and it boils down to deciding what is most important to you. My knowledge of the waterfront comes from growing up here, being a competitive sailor, a fisherman, and my real estate experience.

I’ll give some information on the types and then go into the areas. Across our area, there is bay-front, bayou, back bayou, sound-front, canals, harbor and gulf front. The bayfront provides wide, sweeping views of the Choctawhatchee Bay. The water along the bayfront, generally, has a nice, sandy bottom with some grass flats and is clear, good swimming water with schools of mullet, redfish, speckled trout and dolphins. The challenge here is that the water is very shallow, and the majority of the properties only allow for small boats with outboard engines and shallow drafts (center console, speedboat, or pontoon boat). Most of the properties along the Bay also face North, so their climates are not as temperate as other properties due to the change of predominant wind directions. In the Summer, the cool, seabreeze blows out of the South and in the winter, the cold wind comes from the North. In other words, your property is hotter in the Summer and much colder in the winter than other waterfront properties. The positive is that the most powerful winds from a Tropical Storm or Hurricane come from the South, so these homes are more protected from the catastrophic scenarios, while the winter storms can make it seem pretty rough and brutal there.

The bayou’s and back bayou’s can present some compromises. The views are not as long but can still be great with some curves allowing for westward facing sunsets, and the water and bottom near the mouths of the bayou’s (leading out to the bay) is still sandy and clear. The further back you go in the bayou, the darker and murkier the water (the back-bayou) gets because the bayou bottom turns to mud and silt that flows out of the marshes and creeks. This is usually a calmer and more protected area, but not good for swimming. In areas where there is a lot of marshland, you’ll also have an increase in bugs. However, these bayou’s offer a lot of protection from storms and are ideal for owning boats, kayaking, paddleboarding, etc. Properties have to be looked at individually for water depth, and then you also need to be aware that some bayou’s entrances to the bay can become very shallow in the winter and from shifting sands making it hard to get a boat in or out at times.

The Sound-front properties are in Fort Walton, Mary Esther and Navarre. Here houses can be either on Okaloosa Island facing north and walking distance to the beach with deep water or on the mainland facing South with nice sea breezes and shallower, more swim-able water. The Sound can still get very rough though, and it is water that is being pushed and pulled between two areas, which means it can have some strong currents. A fun plus here, is that the intracoastal waterway is very close to the shore, so you’ll get to see all of the yachts and barges going by.

Canal properties are very protected and offer good boat access, but you give up both privacy and views. The most famous ones are on Holiday Isle which have the advantage of having properties from which you can walk to the beach and also access the fun amenities on the harbor, but you’ll also be looking right into your neighbor’s backyard and vice versa.

The Destin Harbor is a highlight providing both pretty views, easy access to the Gulf and protected waters. While many people do swim here, I don’t believe it is has very great circulation except out towards where it meets the pass. So the further back you go would make the water less clean. They used to pump in clean water into the back of the harbor from the Gulf, but that has now ceased. The north side of the harbor has houses on high bluffs that enjoy sea breezes in the Summer and temperate weather in the winter (from the house blocking the winds and sun shifting further to the South warming the back porches). The Holiday Isle side is less temperate, but it also has larger lots and houses that are not right on Hwy 98.

As far as areas go, Fort Walton has the best bayou’s. They are large, have great view options, and no issues with access in the winter or shifting sands. The bay-fronts are similar with Fort Walton’s bay front looking Eastward with phenomenal sunrises or facing South in Shalimar with wonderful views to the island/gulf and sea breezes. There are some lower bridges on the Fort Walton bayous, so you want to make sure that the boat you have or want will not get “bridge-locked” with the property you choose.

Destin’s Bayou’s all have narrow entrances that need to be regularly dredged. This can present a problem for boats with deep drafts. They are also all on the north shore of Destin meaning they are generally very hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter. Destin also has a lot of marshes in the backs of it’s bayou’s, so the water quickly becomes dark and murky as you venture back. Joe’s Bayou has the best general water quality and access. Along Calhoun Dr, the houses face the bay and can have incredible sunset views facing Westward towards Fort Walton. Also, the pretty Gulf water ventures up in here regularly, especially when it hasn’t rained giving the beautiful water vistas that we’re known for.

Niceville has great, large bayou’s and nice bay front that faces South with good views towards Destin. The challenge with Niceville is that in order to get to Crab Island, Destin for dinner, or Fort Walton Beach, you have to cross one of the widest sections of the bay, which can get very rough. The Summer storms also pop up frequently in Niceville, which can sometimes leave you stranded in Destin for quite a while if you venture out in the Summer.

The water quality gets increasingly more dirty as you venture Eastward from Destin to Santa Rosa Beach. The main tributaries that flow into the Choctawhatchee Bay empty out into the Bay in Freeport. So, the water for much of the year back in this area can seem very muddy, especially after heavy rains in Georgia/Alabama. There is good fishing on the flats and marshes of the back bay though. The bayou’s do have some good deep water, but the usefulness of your waterfront also becomes a question. It can easily take well over an hour on a speedboat to get back to Destin. The only fuel docks are Sandestin and Freeport, and there are really no waterfront restaurants or attractions to go to by boat in that direction. However, one can venture through the “ditch” over to Panama City fairly quickly and in protected water, and you can also venture up the rivers in Freeport for fresh water fishing or other adventures.

The Gulf is a matter of whether your want to be on the beach or have a boat along with the obvious price differences. The Gulf also gives the houses there a terrible beating from the constant onslaught of salt and seawater on the structures, but the views and serenity are worth it to many.