Words and photographs by Janis Turk
Florida is always an easy sell for New Yorkers. It’s a no-brainer destination: You leave cold and grey JFK and in a few hours you land sunny side up someplace warm and welcoming. How sweet it is.
But Miami and West Palm Beach are just so been-there-done-that, aren’t they? And The Keys are fun and funky, but they lack good beaches. None of those places has the same allure as the topaz Gulf waters and white sugar beaches that edge the Florida Panhandle, and they don’t offer as many options for a custom-made coastal vacation as South Walton.
More than just another pretty beach
In the southern half of Walton County, Florida, are 16 neighborhoods from which to choose and an array of unique vacation experiences available. Want a family-friendly getaway with the kids and the dog? No problem. Booking a romantic honeymoon? Forget the Bahamas; this is just as nice. Want a man-cation – you know, golf with the guys? Tee up here. Need a wine and retail-therapy girlfriend getaway? Got it. Each of its 16 perfectly planned communities along the Florida Gulf Coast is unique, offering a bespoke experience: a tailor-made Florida to fit your personal style.
Not that kind of Florida
First, leave your stress and old Florida stereotypes at home – this part of the state doesn’t cater only to retirees. South Walton beach communities are young and vibrant, hip and happening. Sure “snowbirds” flock to Florida, but many visitors are young professional couples who love watersports, fine dining and good wines.
At first it can be hard to conceptualize what the communities of South Walton are all about. They’re not really towns, and they’re a little too large to be considered neighborhoods. What they are is young, planned developments that follow the New Urbanism concept of design: walkable communities with diverse housing and amenities within steps from your front door. That may sound fake and Disneyland-like – but they’re not. They’re a string of 16 unique pearls – small pedestrian-friendly, residential, retail and entertainment developments that tug at the sleeve of a pristine 26-mile shoreline along the Florida panhandle. Just a few short hours by car from both Atlanta and New Orleans and 45 minutes from the small Panama City airport, each has its own architectural style, colors and personality. Some are upscale and new, while others have a wind-blown, laid-back beach village vibe. Whatever your preference, there’s a beach community that’s right for you.
Rosemary Beach, Seaside,
Seaside and WaterColor stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the whitest beaches and the bluest waters I’ve seen since Aruba and are the perfect Florida vacation spots.
Seaside is the oldest of the young communities in the area. Founded almost 35 years ago, Seaside is a carefully planned idyllic quarter of pristine pastel-colored houses, white-picket fences, tree-lined cobblestone streets, a chapel and town center. Small wonder it was chosen as the setting for the Jim Carey movie “The Truman Show,” where characters lived in an ever-sunny Utopia that turned out to be a reality show set. I went expecting Seaside to be too perfect, plastic and commercial. Turns out, it isn’t phony at all: The past 30 years have softened its edges and allowed a real neighborhood to take root. Tall trees shade the sidewalks, flowering bushes and sturdy hedges line broad streets. Food trucks and open-air markets line the town center. It’s charming, but not contrived. Condos, villas and small bungalows near the beach are available to rent by the day, week or month.
WaterColor is another community visitors adore. Architecturally attractive, featuring colors in softer hues like sage and café-au-lait, WaterColor is home to excellent restaurant options like Fish Out of Water, a fine-dining destination with sunset views over the water, and local artists’ shops and galleries. Nearby, Gulf Place and Grayton are known for art studios and galleries, too.
Rosemary Beach is perhaps my favorite South Walton place to stroll the streets and duck into a bar for a mojito after a sunny afternoon at the beach. The architecture is entirely different here – its Main Street has Spanish-style buildings like those in Key West with wooden second-story balconies. Some even have a Mediterranean look, with white stucco walls. While in Rosemary Beach, be sure to stop at The Pearl, a bright new five-star boutique hotel with a rooftop pool and a handsome Havana-themed bar and restaurant.
Grayton Beach State Park, Miramar and Sandestin
If you don’t have five-star funds or champagne tastes, and your style is more state-park than condo-centric, don’t worry. South Walton has more than 70 public beach and bay accesses, affordable vacation rentals, and a state park with RV-hook ups and cabin rentals at reasonable rates. Grayton Beach State Park is more than just a family beach with good bathrooms and great camping; it also is perfect for eco-friendly fun: nature hikes, bird watching and watersports. Shutterbugs adore photographing its line of wind-sculpted pine trees. Miramar also has a popular public beach with nice facilities and superior family-friendly beaches.
For a resort with golf courses, shopping, an active marina, and fun for the kids, look no further than Sandestin, a 2,400-acre gated property of golf courses, condos, homes, a Hilton hotel, and bungalow vacation rentals sprinkled between the beach and bay. Be sure to visit Baytowne Wharf, Sandestin’s shopping village with restaurants, diners, bars, shops, bicycle and watersport rentals. With a zipline and a high ropes course, Baytowne is a favorite of kids. While there, be sure to check out the plantation-style Grand Sandestin hotel.
How sweet it is
With so many diverse communities hosting popular events year round, like wine and food festivals each season and a songwriter’s festival in January, as well as fine art, food and music every day, South Walton is Florida’s best-kept-secret sunny escape destination. You’re sure to find your own favorite Florida along its shore.
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