A collection of 15 unique beach neighbourhoods makes up the region of South Walton. Sprinkled along a 43-kilometre stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, they are known for their fine, white sand and small, upscale communities. Whether old or new, the towns all have a timeless feel – many visitors choose this area for its uncomplicated, quiet and mellow vibe. In South Walton, time spent at the beach is the essence of a carefree time when life was simpler.
South Walton is especially popular with snowbirds from the north seeking sun and warm air in the winter, as well as families at Christmas, spring break and the summer months. The majority of properties are condominiums, townhouses and houses in a rental pool, making it a good choice for a multigenerational get together and group getaways. There are very few chain properties, and high rises are few and far between.
Photos South Walton TDC
The Original Florida Beach-Style Communities
The older communities of Grayton Beach, Sandestin, Miramar, Searest and Sea Grove are classic Florida towns circa the 1920s, some with narrow laneways awash with white picket fences and small weathered clapboard cottages (height restrictions keep all new development to four storeys). These neighbourhoods ooze charm and feel like their roots are planted deep.
Photos South Walton TDC
Discover The New Urbanist Communities
South Walton is an innovative study in urban planning. Beginning in the mid-1980s, a handful of new residential communities made it from the drawing boards of some very forward thinking architects to this streetscape along the Gulf. Coined “new urbanism,” the design goal was a small town feel, with bike pathways and green space, and all major streets leading to the area’s trademark sparkling white beaches.
But each of the new urbanist communities is stamped with its own unique layout, colour and feel. Here’s a sampler:
The hand that designed the neighbourhood of Alys Beach was all about green practices and sustainability. The bleached white buildings reflect the rays of the sun, reducing the need for air conditioning. Pretty cobblestone streets allow runoff to filter into the groundwater slowly and naturally. Homes are oriented to maximize the effects of cooling breezes off the Gulf. Public greenery is indigenous plants, and the entire development backs onto an eight-hectare preserved wetland.
Remember Jim Carrey on the big screen in The Truman Show? The movie about a small town that was too good to be true was filmed at Seaside, the first of the new style, planned communities. The tidy streets of Seaside are filled with cottages and homes that look like they’ve been handed down across the generations; but they’re actually realty teenagers, over-the-top wholesome with bike paths and skateboard paths for kids. Every Seaside home has a white picket fence, but no two on any one street can be the same. Almost all the homes are rental properties and appeal to families, group getaways and those with the beach and sunset mindset.
Named for the dune rosemary plant, Rosemary Beach’s Dutch and West Indies-inspired architecture spells “beach time.” Muted colours of nature, Bermuda shutters and wide second-floor porches add to the relaxed feel. The rental units here are popular with families.
Photos South Walton TDC
Fits Every Need
At the far west end of South Walton, the expansive Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort offers every rental configuration imaginable: over 1,300 condos, villas, town homes and hotel rooms, all laid out in 30 resort neighbourhoods on 969 hectares. Resort units come equipped with full kitchen facilities (ranging from microwaves and mini fridges in the hotel rooms to fully stocked kitchen and dining areas in the luxurious villas and town homes), so keeping the meal budget under control is easy. The resort’s pedestrian-friendly Village of Baytowne Wharf has a variety of restaurants from takeout to upscale dining.
Besides splashing in the water along the resort’s 11 kilometres of white sand beachfront, there are complimentary kayaks, canoes and boogie boards, bicycles, a fitness centre and spa, 72 holes of golf on four championship courses, 15 tennis courts, 19 swimming pools, a 113-slip marina and a certified children’s program.
Photos South Walton TDC
Explore The Outdoors
South Walton is blessed with thousands of acres of protected land, including the spectacular Grayton Beach State Park. The park provides hours – and days – of enjoyment for outdoor enthusiasts.
“This is primarily a fragile dune environment,” explains Murray Balkcom, a guide with Walco Eco Tours. “The park includes Western Lake, one of the unique coastal dune lakes. One of the things that makes these lakes unique is what lives there – a little bit of everything, because the brackish level of the water is always changing.”
The park’s Dune Trail meanders along the secondary dunes (those at a slightly higher elevation, backing onto the upland pine forest, resulting in a more diverse ecosystem). The plants that line the pathway are generally scrubby – naturally pruned back by the harsh salt spray coming off the Gulf.
The park is also part of The Great Florida Birding Trail. Where the wind and water allow, an oasis of small trees has sprung up. Sand live oak, Southern magnolias and hardy saw palmettos are what Balkcom calls “dune builders” and provide nesting grounds for migratory birds like savannah sparrow, eastern towhee and orange-crowned warbler. Loaner binoculars and field guides are available.
“In a harsh environment like the dunes,” he says, “this shade invites in a lot of plant and animal life.”
Photos South Walton TDC
Only In South Walton
- This stretch of the Florida Panhandle has the largest concentration of rare coastal dune lakes in the world. Coastal dune lakes are formed when the wind pushes the sand dunes up against the water, creating a dam. The shallow lake water is usually open to the Gulf, allowing salt water and fresh water to continuously exchange and flush out the lake, creating distinctive ecosystems. Only five areas in the world are known to have coastal dune lakes.
- Forty per cent of Walton County’s land is preserved for nature, including five state-owned swaths of pristine coastal wilderness.
- The communities and neighbourhoods are designed for walking – everything is on a pedestrian scale and laid out in a way that promotes friendly exchanges between neighbours.
- Bicycles are a way of life here. The Timpoochee Trail, a 30-kilometre paved bike path, runs along the Gulf of Mexico, linking the three waterfront state parks and tying together a dozen of South Walton’s scenic beach communities.
- South Walton boasts a thriving arts scene with small galleries and artisan-owned boutiques, stocked chock-a-block with artistic treasures. Hunt out the Bayou Arts Center as well as artist colonies at Gulf Place, Ruskin Park in Seaside and Shops of Grayton.
- There are nearly 60 public beach access points along the 43-kilometre stretch.
- The resort of WaterColor Inn & Resort in Santa Rosa Beach is the home of YOLO Board Adventures, the company to bring stand-up paddleboarding into the mainstream. The area’s 15 natural lakes are ripe for exploration by YOLO board or kayak and you can rent the equipment right at YOLO Board Adventures on Western Lake.
- Just north of Choctawhatchee Bay, the innovative, LEED-certified E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center offers visitors the unique opportunity to learn about native creatures like birds of prey and gopher tortoises, with presentations by the centre’s wildlife experts.
Breakfast: The Donut Hole in Santa Rosa Beach, bakes ups a wide variety of freshly made donuts, with popular flavours including red velvet and key lime pie. Or choose pancakes, omelets or French toast. Portions are generous and prices and reasonable.
Lunch: In old-style Grayton Beach, The Red Bar is a colourful spot known for crab cakes topped with a tangy citrus beure blanc, the fried shrimp po’boy, frosty drinks and live music that rocks the place most evenings. In the newer community of Seaside, a collection of funky Airstream trailers house affordable takeout eateries serving barbecue, gourmet hot dogs topped with homemade chili and customized fruit smoothies.
Dinner: Can’t seem to get your fill of seafood even though you’re right next to the source? The Marina Bar & Grill at Sandestin Resort’s Baytowne Marina is known for the Marina Seafood Basket, a platter full of crispy shrimp, crab cakes and fried oysters. The Grill is a great place to watch the sun set over the Choctawhatchee Bay – to celebrate the end of each day, the staff sounds a cannon.
5 Ways To Chill
- Golf beside the natural dunes at the Tom Fazio-designed course at Camp Creek Golf Club. Awarded distinction as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, Camp Creek is one of the most environmentally friendly courses in the southeastern U.S. The certification means the course design and maintenance adheres to stringent standards designed to help preserve and enhance the environmental quality of the landscape.
- These beaches have powder soft sand made for walking. Take a long stroll along the sand at sunset.
- Put on a pair of hiking shoes and explore the trails through 8,080 hectares of protected state forests.
- If a second wedding is on the horizon, consider a beach wedding in South Walton. Under 50 people and there is no permit charge for a beach wedding (a small fee applies over this number).
- Don a lifejacket and take a two-hour guided kayak tour of the area’s rare coastal dune lakes. It’s easy to paddle and the wildlife watching is spectacular. Bring binoculars.
5 Things For Families
- Bike the paved Timpoochee Trail, stopping at beaches along the way for a swim.
- Build sandcastles at the beach, then watch the high tide wash them away. Come back the next day and start all over again.
- Go for ice cream to Heavenly Shortcakes in Seaside. Take your picture with the giant triple-scoop ice cream cone out front.
- Escape the trappings of telephone, TV and the Internet and rent an “unplugged” cabin for an overnight stay at Grayton Beach State Park. Book early, cabins sell out fast.
- Pick a starry night and have a family bonfire on the beach (fire permit and fee required).
- The Artists at Gulf PlaceArt Co-op in Santa Rosa Beach hosts the Wine Walkabout, a wine tasting with live music held on the third Thursday of every month.
- Stake your spot on the rooftop deck at Bud & Alley’s, order a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio and watch the sun pop below the horizon while the sky turns pink and purple.
- Have your kids try the zipline at The Village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin’s giant playground.
- Catch up on world news at Fonville Press in Alys Beach. The international newsstand is known for its variety of periodicals. Settle into a chair in the courtyard with a good read and a steaming mug of cappuccino. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, Fonville showcases some of the area’s best musical performers. On the second Friday of each month Fonville hosts the ever-popular Trivia Night.
- Enjoy a concert at one of the free musical performances at the Seaside Amphitheater, or Sandestin’s Village of Baytowne Wharf.
- Take a guided horseback trip with Gulfside Trail Rides through Point Washington State Forest, a 6,060-hectare preserve with trails galore for hiking, biking and riding.
Mark Your Calendar
• Taste of the Beach is a three-day wine lovers’ gala where guests choose to attend any or all of five individually priced events, each showcasing an assortment of premium vintners. November 2-4, 2013.
• The 30A Songwriters Festival features three nights and two days of musical performances by industry greats, rising song-writing stars and local talent. January 2013.
• Every President’s Day, the Village of Baytowne Wharf in the Sandestin Beach and Golf Resort hosts the annual Sandestin Gumbo Festival. Pots of gumbo paired with live Cajun music make for a spicy time. February.
• ArtsQuest Fine Arts and Music Festival showcases over 130 international exhibiting artists, live music on three stages, arts activities for children, interactive public art projects led by visiting artists, and art demos led by local artists and art groups. May 11-12, 2013.
Ask The Experts