Coastal Bliss in South Walton - Northwest Florida’s shores score big for mile-high sand dunes, fashionable beach towns and a very cool Southern vibe
Jun 17, 2015 08:31AM ● Published by Kevin
Walking the alabaster beach of South Walton, you can’t help but notice the squeaking sound of your footsteps. One would almost think “squeaky clean,” as each barefoot impression made in the immaculate sands emits a shrill, yet sweet sound.
No matter where you stroll on this 26-mile stretch, tucked in the center of Florida’s panhandle between the Gulf of Mexico and the Choctawhatchee Bay, you will see pillow-shaped dunes as high as 40 feet on one side and the gulf’s watercolor blues and greens caught in the sparkle of a sunbeam on the other. This is a piece of paradise like no other in Florida, and on a quiet morning those squeaky footfalls in the softest powdery sand are music to the ear.
Considering South Walton’s location, it’s no surprise that southerners from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are frequent visitors, and restaurants like The Bay, serving new southern cuisine—think Faux Ya Ya, shrimp and grits made with grilled polenta cakes and spiced shrimp—are always packed.
But it’s this community’s sense of sophistication that really sets it apart from other beach towns. In fact, South Walton has become a favorite with celebs like actress Reese Witherspoon, singer Sheryl Crow, country music star Luke Bryan (rumored to be building a home here) and TV chef Emeril Lagasse (a recent transplant).
Strung along its coast are 16 eclectically stylish beach communities, each totally different in palette and architecture, and offering amazing rental vacation homes. (South Walton has only a handful of hotels.) If these neighborhoods have anything in common, it’s that you can walk—or pedal a jazzed-up beach cruiser—everywhere thanks to a new-urbanism design.
Approaching South Walton from its east end, you’ll travel Scenic Highway 30A along the coast through 12 neighborhoods, all guaranteed to mesmerize anyone who has a penchant for architecture. Rosemary Beach, with its narrow streets, a bocce ball court and old-world design inspired by British and Dutch colonial influences, features three-story homes with balconies and plantation shutters in earthy tones from terra cotta to sage green.
Its neighbor, Alys Beach, much like a whitewashed mirage rising up along 30A, is a stark contrast with its bleached masonry-walled vacation homes looking as if they were plucked off of a Greek island. Touches of Moroccan influence and wooden sculptures of life-size horses made with branches pop up.
Farther down the road is the epicenter of 30A: Seaside. Distinguished by its cottages with picket fences and skinny pathways that lead to the silver sands, this community has an amphitheater surrounded by indie cafes, boutiques and a pipsqueak post office. Concerts and events like the Seeing Red Wine Festival are held here.
As you follow a path to the beach, you’ll no doubt give into temptation and stop at Airstream Row where trailers converted to kitchens-on-wheels with names like Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs, The Meltdown on 30A and Frost Bites serve hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches on Texas toast and rainbow-hued shaved ice. Cross 30A and the blackboard in front of the Shrimp Shack announces the arrival of deepwater royal red shrimp fresh from the gulf. Next door is the tri-level Bud and Alley’s, an iconic sunset gazers’ hangout; sample the local Grayton Beer Company’s newest 30A Beach Blonde ale or dine on fresh cobia, which fishermen reeled in hours ago, served in a nice gumbo.
Those looking for a fresh-air workout can find it in the community of WaterColor, where Tom Losee, owner of the town’s Boathouse Paddle Club, was one of the first to promote stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) in South Walton. “SUP is to Florida what surfing is to California,” says the blonde, tall and toned Losee, who designed the Run/SUP course that involves running one mile and paddling a half-mile across a coastal dune lake. “While SUP gives your upper core and arms a workout, running takes care of the legs,” he says.
Besides the beach life, South Walton has a growing arts scene. In a red cottage tucked under sprawling oaks, Justin Gaffrey displays his room of flowers. His thick strokes of pure acrylic paint, often inches thick, add new dimension to paint on canvas, and his use of jewel tones turns walls into vibrant gardens.
Juan Francisco Adaro, an Argentine artist wearing paint-splattered shoes and holding a gourd of mate, was named South Walton’s Artist of the Year in 2015. He puts his signature on “extended canvases” by using pieces of wooden wine crates that protrude off the edge and shape the heads of his bathing beauties.
“We’re a close-knit community and even though we compete, we also support each other,” says Allison Wickey, a former artist of the year who has been painting South Walton landscapes for the past six years.
On the west end of South Walton sit Miramar Beach, Seascape and the full-fledged resort community of Sandestin. For those who prefer everything under one roof, Hilton Sandestin Beach, Golf Resort & Spa, fresh off a $13 million redux, is where you can start your day with a Pilates class at the new Serenity by the Sea spa and fitness center (the petite instructor Andi will push you to a new level) and wrap it with a gourmet meal at Seagar’s restaurant, a classic steakhouse where you just might spy chef Emeril indulging in chef Dan Vargo’s lump crab cakes layered between slices of crispy green tomato and eggplant.
Editor-in-chief for TOTI Media, Patricia Letakis has traveled the state and written about Florida for the past 20 years.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO SOUTH WALTON
- Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse, Grayton Beach 850-231-2733, hibiscusflorida.com
- Hilton Sandestin Beach, Golf Resort & Spa 800-559-1805, hiltonsandestinbeach.com
- The Pearl Hotel, Rosemary Beach 888-656-6463, thepearlrb.com
- Sunburst Beach Vacations 866-310-5718, sunburstbeachvacations.com
- WaterColor Inn & Resort, Santa Rosa Beach 888-991-8878, watercolorresort.com
- The Bay, Santa Rosa Beach 850-622-2291, baysouthwalton.com
- Bud & Alley’s, Seaside 850-231-5900, budandalleys.com
- Fish Out of Water, WaterColor 850-534-5050, watercolorresort.com/florida-gulf-coast/restaurant.asp
- 45 Central Wine Bar, Seaside 850-231-7327
- Seagar’s, Sandestin 850-622-1500, seagars.com
- Boathouse Paddle Club, WaterColor 850-419-6188, boathousepaddleclub.com
- Coastal Cruisers, Miramar Beach 850-543-6146, coastalcruisersdestin.com
- Adaro Art and Design, Santa Rosa Beach 561-985-5767, adaroart.com
- Justin Gaffrey Art Gallery, Santa Rosa Beach 850-267-2022, justingaffrey.com
Visit South Walton Tourism 800-822-6877, visitsouthwalton.com