SHIP-SHAPE GARDEN: The two biggest ladies in Destin — and a nautical-themed sanctuary

Laura Hall | Gardens with Annie
Suzie Westbrook perches on a large old row boat that came with the purchase of the property.

I passed their house by accident one day and took one look at the collections of nautical paraphernalia; I knew there had to be a story behind that fence. 

You will know immediately that this isn’t your run of the mill couple when I tell you they were married on a row boat, on Indian River in Dominica which is close to Aruba.

Suzie and Captain Jim Westbrook were married in 2005 and live in a lovely shaded area of old Destin called The Coleman Kelly subdivision. They have a lake in the backyard with a naturally white sandy beach. The lake was formed from what was originally called “the borrowing pit.” 

The dirt was borrowed from this area to build Kelly Road.  Most houses were built here in the ’50s and after pondering the statement that Alexander the Great once lived in their house; I had quite a hearty chuckle upon discovering that this Alexander was the name of a more recent, professional wrestler.

Suzie comes to us from the big city of Birmingham and Captain Jim moved here from South Dakota.  Suzy moved to Destin in 1990 and she loved to fish.  Out on a party boat going from Destin to Fort Walton, Suzie was determined to catch herself a red snapper.  She had her own rod and reel in the cabin and was the first and only one out of 10 to make a drop.  I forgot to ask if she caught that fish, but I’ll take a bet that she did.

   In 1993, Capt. Jim asked Suzie to be his galley girl.  Suzie relates this tale to me with a smile and twinkle in her eye.

Capt. Jim said, “How would you like to fish everyday, all summer long, on the biggest boat in Destin, for free?”  So, big city girl Suzie is thinking, big, big yacht. As things turned out, Suzie said, “it was the biggest, oldest, scow-dog, tattered, roach infested, battered old boat with the rub rails about to fall off.” 

Suzie looked her over carefully and decided that this old junk heap had potential and had the makings of a beautiful lady. This boat belonged to Dave Marler, and in 2000 Suzie and Jim took a leap of faith and bought the boat.  Today you may know her as the New Florida Girl. She is the oldest party boat, still in service running today.  

Along with their ownership of The American Spirit, they operate the two biggest party ladies in the Destin harbor.  There is little time off from fishing and the party boats, but every year Suzie makes the time to indulge in another of her passions, which is the joy and pleasure of deep sea diving in many different and exotic parts of the world. 

I doubt if she can stay under very long without talking or laughing.

Big party girls on the harbor are one thing, but big parties at home is another. Suzie and Capt. Jim have the most inviting, incredible garden set-up for entertaining one, two or two hundred people. 

As you enter into the open, spacious backyard you see a large-sized pavilion with inviting outdoor table and chairs, scattered seine nets, an old antique glass buoy from Bali and a huge framed picture of a war ship with cannons booming across the wind tossed waters. 

A wooden boardwalk with twinkling lights, leads down to the lake filled with a sizeable collection of koi, and a fountain ring that sprays water skyward. To the right of the lake is a manmade or perhaps I should say, Suzie made, stone waterfall that flows into the lake. To the far left of the lake’s edge there is a large old row boat that came with the purchase of the property. 

As the sun sets, all is peaceful and quiet with just the two of us out back with their two cats that mosey quietly around.  Once a year the quietness in the air gives way to the rousing promise of a big party brewing. Coming down the street is a group of revelers heading for the Annual Christmas Chili Party led by friend, Bob Horner and his merry men. 

They are marching down to the Westbrook house, playing bagpipes, dressed in all their Scottish regalia. 

Every year Jim returns to his roots in South Dakota and pursues one of his passions, which is pheasant hunting.  People who attend this party come from all walks of life; captains, crews, business owners, customers along with local and South Dakota friends. Jim makes sure there is plenty of pheasant available along with elk and venison.

I asked Suzie about the nautical garden in the front of the house.  She said, “Jimmy Shirah and Harold Destin gave me my first seine net and that got me started. Floating out in the gulf, after a storm, we found an old life raft covered almost completely with barnacles and propped that against the wall.  People just drop things by for me because they know I am a collector.  I have a customer from Norfolk, Virginia that brought me a lot of the old buoys.” 

Rope, the size of your arm, is wrapped around the trees and draped along the fence.  I will defy you to pick up more than a foot or two of that enormous rope without help.

Is bigger better? I’ll leave that up to you, but I will say I have never met two people with bigger hearts.  Suzie talks at ninety five miles an hour as laughter scatters through the air.  Ah, there it is again, that twinkle in Suzie’s eye makes me think there is a lot more to this story than I know. 

Laura Hall is a longtime gardener and Destin resident. She explores area gardens with her cavalier spaniel Annie. If you would like to show off your garden, contact Laura at 837-8720.