Endless Possibilities: The Beaches of South Walton
Today’s “Let Them Eat Cake” is another article from the New Orleans Bride Magazine travel editor Becca Hensley. Hensley whisks us away to the Emerald Coast, offering readers six beach vacation options for couples to celebrate their “I Do’s” or just a weekend getaway. While we are still in Phase 1 of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, we want to remind everyone to abide by social distancing rules, do research into how states are handling the virus and reopening and checking all the boxes to ensure a safe honeymoon or wedding celebration.
It’s unexpected. The sand looks like snow—or sugar.
Indeed, the beaches seem to be frosted along the Emerald Coast, a patch of northwestern Florida panhandle, carpeted with Lilliputian pebbles of clear quartz, hailing, via erosion, from the nearby Appalachian Mountains. Here, scattered under a golden sun, 16 unique beach communities dot 26-miles of bright-white coastline like pirate treasure washed up from the Gulf of Mexico. Glittering, gemstone-hued waters flank the entire expanse.
Along Scenic Highway 30A, the Beaches of South Walton communities beckon. Varying in size, each enclave exudes its own personality. Some dazzle with swank; others reflect an earthy, laid-back vibe. The newest have manicured gardens, celebrity designed golf courses and chic shops aplenty. Older, sleepy hamlets have been the retreat for generations of Southerners looking for nothing more than soulful confabulation with friends and loved ones. Not just for boogie boarders, this beach area also attracts nature lovers who bike along the 19-mile long Timpoochee Trail, while hikers roam myriad routes beneath trees festooned with Spanish Moss and alongside sea oak mottled dunes. Kayakers and Stand Up Paddleboarders skim the rare brackish dune lakes, which are a geographical anomaly found only in a few locales around the world. Birdwatchers flock to the area to check coveted species of fowl off their lists.
Depending on which community you choose, expect bright yellow umbrellas marking beach towels, hammocks slung between trees, artists hovering over canvasses, kids building castles in the sand, and honeymooners sipping wine from ocean facing porches. Where should you vacation? Perhaps the best option is to not limit yourself to just one spot. Here are six to consider.
You saw it in the Truman Show, which was filmed here. Seaside is New Utopian perfection. But beyond its uniform, colorful cottages, picket fences, and brick-laid streets, it hearkens to simpler times. A stay means grabbing your bicycle for the short ride to the beach, neighborhood lemonade stands or s’mores roasting over a fire. With 12 restaurants, 41 shops, a town square and an amphitheater which always hosts an event, visitors will never be bored. Stay to embrace old-fashioned, family-centric activities from pot luck suppers with the neighbors to star gazing.
The most resort-like getaway of all the communities, this 2,400 acre playground sprawls along seven-and-a-half miles of glittering sand. Its crystalline, turquoise waters boggle the mind. Replete with four Golf Digest noted golf courses, a bevy of swimming pools, marinas and Disney-like pedestrian areas, awash with boutiques and eateries, Sandestin holds the area’s largest full-service hotel — the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa. Those swinging for a hole-in-one may prefer to bunk at any of the myriad course-side condos, as trams whisk guests with ease across the property. Foodies: don’t miss Seagar’s, a AAA Four Diamond restaurant, and the only one in the area.
Three rare brackish sea lakes mark the terrain around Dune Allen, beloved by nature fans for its untouched beauty. A lesser developed hamlet, with simple, beachside cottages, Dune Allen attracts visitors who tend to keep their cameras aimed for bald eagle sightings, their fishing lines baited for freshwater casting, and their hiking boots on for the seven miles of trails which connect the lakes. With the highest dunes along the Beaches of South Walton strip, the nearby Topsail Hill State Preserve defines otherworldly. Don’t miss a shrimp po’boy at Stinky’s Fish Camp.
As the oldest burg along Scenic 30A, and just named the #1 beach in all of the U.S. by Dr. Beach, Stephen Leatherman, Grayton Beach reigns supreme. Evoking a boho, Jimmy Buffet, laid-back cool, it has narrow, live oak-lined streets. Its unpretentious, no-fuss beach bungalows set a tone that pays homage to less complicated living. Rich in history, with piers galore for fishing, the community incorporates Grayton Beach State Park, where sport fishing excursions leave right from the sand, camping is common, and cabins provide inexpensive, old-fashioned lodging. Touting a pine forest, magnolias bent from sea breezes, and a salt march eco-system, this stay embodies the original northern Florida beach life.
Don’t forget to pack your paintbrushes. One of the newer towns, Watercolor evinces cozy homes with front-porch swings and whirring ceiling fans for lazy vacation evenings. Bigger than Seaside, its city plan also borrows from New Urbanism’s precisions, resulting in an almost too-cute-to-be-true reality. But eco-conscious, this responsibly developed burg has set aside half of its 499 acres for open space. Considered by many to be an artists’ enclave, Watercolor boasts galleries, revels in open air concerts, and offers a bevy of crafts classes At Watercolor Inn, a snazzy hotel overlooking the ocean, Camp Watercolor offers Watercolor guests and homeowners with exclusive amenities, such as access to the property’s basketball court and pools. Saturday evenings mean hot dog and marshmallow roasts for all on the busy crescent of beach.
You may have the entire oceanfront to yourself at Seagrove, where hickory, holly, magnolia and pine trees enwrap unspoiled nature trails and tree-house-like cottages. One of the quietest communities, it attracts visitors who may never don a swimsuit during their stay. Instead, they’ll be found traipsing into Point Washington State Forest. Look for the gopher tortoise and other endangered and threatened species amid the cypress swamps and sand hills of this immense park. A deer hunter’s paradise, the park remains most popular with visitors who carry only their cameras into the woods