Written by Kathy Witt
There is something in the air and mood of South Walton, Florida. You can sense it as soon as you arrive in this well-scrubbed, preservation-minded town made up of 16 unique beach communities, close-knit next-door neighbors that stretch along 26 miles of velvety-white sand lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a lighter step, a contented mien and an overarching sensibility that is always laid-back yet keenly fashion-forward.
With architecturally beautiful, master-planned neighborhoods, four state parks, miles of pedestrian-friendly walking and biking trails and acres of native vegetation including photo-worthy pine groves, life is good in this beach-chic burg. Add coastal dune lakes, cypress swamps, dunes as white as snow and breathtaking sunsets that appear to melt into the Gulf and it follows that the folks who live here, as they freely admit, are a happy lot.
“If you meet a mean person, they’re not from here,” said Megan Harrison, marketing manager at the newly renovated Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa.
One town, but oh so many personalities. South Walton’s beach neighborhoods are as individual as grains of sand. From the “old Florida” feel of Seagrove and the picket fence charm of Seacrest to the alabaster enclave that is Alys Beach with its stunning white stucco architecture and South Walton’s very own “French Quarter” at Rosemary Beach, each community has its own niche on the spunky to spectacular Emerald Coast continuum.
Although its season goes full-tilt from Memorial Day through Labor Day, South Walton is seductive in spring and fall when the sunsets are said to be at their most gloriously picturesque and the crowds have reduced their ranks. But even in winter, South Walton is inviting, with temperate climate, brilliant blue skies and warming sun. You might find yourself playing at the beach one day, painting a landscape under the nurturing tutelage of an award-winning artist the next and ice skating at the Village of Baytowne Wharf, a veritable family playground with carousel, video arcade, boutiques, dining and more located at the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, the day after.
Easy going by design and demeanor, South Walton slows down even more during winter months. What’s the rush? You can stroll stretches of uncrowded beaches at your leisure; shop without bumping elbows at specialty stores, neighborhood boutiques and artist communities; and linger over meals to savor every single bite of what can only be called divine gastronomy.
Head to AAA Four Diamond-rated Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa for table-prepared dishes like Steak Diane, Dover Sole and Bananas Foster served in smart, sophisticated surroundings. Enter Ernest Hemingway’s world at Havana Beach Bar & Grill, a culinary hotspot with an impressive hand-carved mahogany bar, an exact replica of the one at La Floridita in Cuba where Hemingway enjoyed a tipple or three, located at The Pearl in Rosemary Beach.
The chefs on Airstream Row, a collection of funky food trucks parked in Seaside’s town square that are actually Airstream trailers, serve up everything from gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches to smoothies to smoky-delicious barbecue. And vegetarians, rejoice! South Walton chefs are culinary maestros when it comes to thinking outside the (pasta) box to offer dishes like Vin’tij’s grape, walnut and blue cheese tart with wine crust; Caliza’s forbidden rice with charred eggplant, cured olive and ash; and Mitchell’s Fish Market’s seasonal veggies prepared on a cedar plank and drizzled with a balsamic reduction.
Shopping is likewise full of flair. Miramar Beach’s Grand Boulevard is just that: an impressive 50 acres of specialty shops, restaurants, galleries, spas, movie theatre and more. Tommy Bahama, Billabong, Wine World and fab’rik are joined by dozens of other shops in a town center setting trimmed with walking paths, fountains, lampposts, lush landscaping and a Grand Park where concerts, performances and other events take place.
You’ll find the works of several South Walton Artists of the Year at the Grayton Artist Collective, a colony of charming galleries huddled together on Grayton Beach. Pop into Mary Hong’s and be wowed by her dimensional art glass paintings. Find an original piece of jewelry at the studio of Allison Craft, who combines pearls and hand-cut leather into stunning necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Tour Chandler Williams’ Modus Photography studio to see his and other artists’ works. At the Ruskin Artists Colony in Seaside, shops spill over with boutique clothing, original fine art paintings, garden accents, one-of-a-kind jewelry and more.
Easy-breezy South Walton aims to please, and makes it very easy to fall in love with its beaches, sunsets, coastal landscapes, eateries, shops and other attractions, any time of year.
ADVENTURE GUIDE TO DON’T-MISS MOMENTS
I In Miramar Beach, spend the evening at Gold Spoon Award winner Vin’tij Wine Boutique, an oenophile’s nirvana that combines wine market, bar and bistro in a gallery-like setting with jewel-toned stain glass windows, wine box boards stained to match covering one wall and original art that can be purchased. Grab a seat at the glass-topped wine cork table and enjoy Chef John Jacob’s menu of locally sourced, uber fresh seafood and inspired nibbles like field pea relish, grilled pineapple salsa and parsnip puree. The restaurant will be featured on the Cooking Channel’s “Emeril’s Florida” at 2:30 p.m. EST on March 1, 9:30 a.m. on March 2 and 10:30 a.m. March 5.
I Exercise your right brain with an art class with South Walton artists, including painters, photographers, sculptors and others. For instance, 2015 Painter of the Year, artist Melody Bogle, will set up easels outdoors at the dunes on funky Grayton Beach or some other idyll for a painting workshop. With the sun warming your face, the landscape providing inspiration and Bogle guiding with a gentle touch, you’ll soon see your masterpiece take shape.
I Take your camera to Deer Lake State Park and head to the boardwalk. Round the bend and a magnificent vista opens of pure white dunes. This pristine beach area gives visitors a chance to take in a very dynamic dune ecosystem in one of the most breathtaking areas of the Emerald Coast.
I Dine at the Grecianesque Caliza Restaurant on Alys Beach and be treated to a culinary tour de force with Chef de Cuisine Kevin Korman, an American Culinary Federation certified executive chef. His menus are inspired by the local fish and farmers markets and his enticing vegetarian dishes could sway even the most committed carnivore.
I Be a tourist and get your beach portrait taken. It is so de rigueur that even the locals do it.
South Walton has more vacation rentals than you can shake a palm frond at, including the Gulf-front Hidden Dunes Beach & Tennis Resort, HiddenDunesResort.com, in Miramar Beach. It is managed by Newman-Dailey Resort Properties, a TripAdvisor “Award of Excellence” recipient, which has properties all over South Walton, including those located off the coveted 30A coastal road.
The Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, HiltonSandestinBeach.com, is the only full-service resort hotel in South Walton. A recent $13 million transformation includes completely refurbished Spa Tower guest rooms, a redesigned indoor pool, a gorgeous and expansive main lobby, the renovation of the Serenity by the Sea Spa and the retooling of Sandcastles Restaurant and the Hadashi Sushi Bar. The outdoor pool is simply breathtaking.
The Pearl, ThePearlRB.com, is a new very high-tech and very elegant boutique hotel located in Rosemary Beach. Trimmed with black and white awnings and with a white sand beach mere just footsteps from the front door, The Pearl offers luxurious guestrooms, many of which have private balconies with views of the Gulf of Mexico.
Upcoming events in South Walton include the 26th Annual Sandestin Gumbo Festival, Feb. 13-14; Sinfonia Gulf Coast Presents Wine, Women & Shoes, Feb. 13-15; and the third annual 30A Wine Festival, March 6-8, held in Alys Beach.
For more information about the 16 beach communities of South Walton, Florida, visit VisitSouthWalton.com.
Author, travel and lifestyle writer, and travel goods expert Kathy Witt feels you should never get to the end of your bucket list; there’s just too much to see and do in the world. She can be reached at KathyWitt24@gmail.com or KathyWitt.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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