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Emerald Coast in Florida, a Family Nature Vacation

One southeast Michigan family's quest for a fun, Disney-free trip found them spotting dolphins and sharks – and trying a 'Swapvette' and Snuba

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Swampvette and Snuba

Another character along our adventure turned out to be Captain Mike of Pananma City-based Airboat Adventures aboard the "Swampvette" – a sure treat for Detroit gear heads. With an eight-foot propeller whirling behind him, Mike's part-naturalist, part-historian, part-swampman and part-boat-pilot entertaining 20 or so adventuresome souls on a trip up the Intracoastal.

After whizzing down the river-like waterway, he jumps the 10-by-20-foot craft and its Chevy 454 high-output engine along the swamp's sandy edge – or whips it into a doughnut, washing a wave over the bow. In between, he weaves in facts about the waterway and the critters that live there or local history lessons.

Catch a few alligators sunning themselves in the wild along the way – and meet a live one up-close at Swampvette's headquarters back by shore. During the summer, take a night cruise to see gators eating, too! Costs run $22 for children up to age 12 and $29 for adults.

The best adventure of the trip, though, turned out to be a kid-friendly cross between snorkeling and scuba diving, called Snuba. We took a large dive boat out along the shore with a group of snorkelers with Destin Snorkel, clad in wetsuits they provided. Once anchored along shore, we strapped on weights, dive masks and flippers.

Standing in chest-deep water, they showed us how to use the breathing mouthpiece that's hooked via a 20-foot tube to a raft carrying our oxygen tanks. During the training, Jimmy easily began bouncing up and down, breathing underwater, excited about seeing what was underneath. Then we swam over to a gradual drop-off and headed down into the sea.

The experience of truly being underwater was so exciting that Zach said he wanted to learn to dive when we got home. Tickets were $75 for adults and $55 for children ages 8-12 – but in spring, when we went, the shop was offering a half-off Groupon (bonus).

Hanging out, lodging and food

Surprisingly, the boys loved simply climbing trees and hunting for shells during some down time at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach.

And just hanging out, wave jumping at the beach outside our condo at SunDestin resort – book and umbrella drink in my hand – was another highlight for all of us. We found our beachside lodging through Resort Quest of Northwest Florida. Expect to pay $900 to $1,800 a week for a condo on the beach depending on the time of year, but you save money on food costs with in-suite kitchens. Or check Orbitz or other online suppliers for hotels in the area.

For an unforgettable meal, old-world Florida-style at a true fish shack, visit Dewey Destin Seafood, with its motto, "Any fresher and it'd still be moving." Visit the original open-air dockside location overlooking Crab Island, too.

We didn't have time to fit in paddle boarding or snorkeling, two popular ways to see the natural sights. And word to the wise: Buying a couple of sets of snorkel gear at Costco before we left wasn't actually necessary – most outfits provide all the equipment you need.

A couple extra notes

We were sad to miss the re-opening of Florida's Gulfarium, a mini-version of Sea World in Fort Walton Beach that had closed for improvements and a new swim-with-the-dolphins adventure this summer. After tapping on the glass of a dolphin enclosure at a similar park, Gulf World in Panama City Beach, and having the dolphins flapping their flippers back, I regretted not arranging a swim for the boys.

We're glad we didn't stay in Panama City Beach after we saw some drunken spring breakers wandering around the strip – and heard stories from friends who stayed there. The family-friendly beaches and low-key resort feel of Destin were just the right for us.

We drove the 19-hour trip straight through, but would probably stop halfway next time. Or fly into Pensacola Airport, about 50 miles away.

'Up North', south style

I was worried about remnants of the April 2010 oil spill. But that happened a little further west of Destin. But I don't know that we'd take a chance on the weather in the panhandle during spring break again, unless the region was seeing more record-setting heat. The area can get downright chilly in March. But the region serves as the "Up North" for southerners during the summer. That might be a better time to visit to guarantee a good-weather vacation.

After our deep sea fishing, the air boat ride, Snuba and ventures into nature, Florida's Emerald Coast gave all the nature-based Up North trips we've ever taken a run for the money. Plus I heard Zach tell friends, "The first fish I caught in the ocean was a shark!" after we got home.

It's the ultimate fish tale.

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