When I first met Robert Davis in the late 1980s he seemed more like the person one would ask for directions about how to find Robert Davis, than Davis himself. Davis had been riding his bike along a neighborhood street in the then-fledgling Florida panhandle planned community of Seaside. He was carrying a Tupperware bowl containing fish filets that he was bringing to the restaurant across tiny, coastal Highway 30-A, a then-inconspicuous path serving mostly beach bums and fishermen. A dachshund pranced behind him.
That Davis developed not only the street but also the neighborhood and the village would’ve been only one of the surprises to the unknowing. The other would be that Davis owned the restaurant across the highway, which is named Bud and Alley’s. Yet another surprise was that at that moment Bud himself approached and stood next to Davis. He was the dachshund. (Alley, Davis’s cat, wasn’t present for the occasion.)
Of all the developments along the Gulf Coast, none would have more of an influence than Seaside, which would turn Highway 30-A into an important strip known not just for its tourism but also for elegant living. Seaside gained a reputation in two categories that had seldom been taken seriously along the coast: architecture and urban planning. Davis was one of the visionaries of the coast. During the 1980s he began developing land he had inherited from his grandfather into a closely planned community. Seaside is a mix of homes, lofts, cottages, retail, a bed and breakfast and even a ’50s-style tourist court, each subject to carefully scrutinized design.
At first glance the community, as seen from the highway, looks like it might be a pastel colored Victorian waterfront village. (Davis says that British ocean-side towns were an influence.) At second glance there’s another influence: New Orleans. Modica’s Market, the town grocery store – and one of Seaside’s earliest, and most important, fixtures – looks and even smells a bit like Central Grocery in the French Quarter. Ruskin Place, consisting of parallel row buildings with retail at ground level and offices above, seems to borrow in spirit from the Pontalba Buildings that flank Jackson Square.
Not all the houses are Victorian; many test the whims of architects, including one strange Oriental-style home with an open-air center. Many homes have towering widow’s walks to provide views of the green sea and the often-red sunsets. None of the homes have lawns; they are against the rules. There are small front spaces in the front of homes but, by the rules, they must contain only plants that are native to the area and not a carpet of imported grass. As a practical and natural matter it works. And there’s no groan of lawn mowers.
Architecture magazines and books have tended to be high in their praise of Seaside, which has become a landmark in the world of town planning. Seaside would ultimately receive the highest form of flattery: imitation. Along the beaches of the Florida coast there are patches of comparatively new developments featuring buildings that, like Seaside, make their own architecture statements. Just a few block to the west on 30-A stands WaterColor, a planned community with a waterfront inn, grand homes and even a back lake. Near the eastern tip of 30-A, close to the Panama City bridge is Rosemary Beach. The homes and condos there have more earthy colors. (Of all the developments, Rosemary Beach has the largest section of land on the beach side of 30-A.) Nearby Alys Beach enlivens the sense with a Moroccan-style design embellished by sentries of palm trees standing guard along the highway. Signs for up-and-coming developments, many under the guidance of the St. Joe Papers company which owns most the land in the area, suggest more inspiring architecture in the future, though perhaps slowed by the economy.
I once spent a long weekend along 30-A and was so immersed in the architecture, restaurants, shops and nature trails that I almost forgot about what all the activity centered around – the beach. That, however, shouldn’t be missed. A mile or so west of Seaside is a stretch of protected shoreline known as Grayton Beach. A professor at the University of Maryland does an annual study of the nation’s beaches and once ranked Grayton as the best in the country. Travel magazines, most notably Condé Nast Traveler, looked at the professor’s research and came to the same conclusion. Now it has become a bit of doctrine to locals and to knowing visitors. The quiet, picturesque beach is on the continent’s A-list. Crystal sands provide a path between the waves of sea oats sprouting from the sand dunes and the green waves of the Gulf. Occasionally the Gulf’s water goes crashing toward the beaches, funneling through sandy channels and into coastal lakes that line the coast. Nature is fully at play in this area. Egrets watch the spectacle.
East of Grayton Beach, 30-A runs through an area known as Blue Mountain Beach. (Blue Mountain isn’t to be mistaken for the Rockies, but to early mariners this elevated area of coastline was a true landmark.) Redfish Village, which even has its own nature trail, is the newest development along that section of the road. Here, condominium complexes create their own travel niche.
At its eastern and western ends, 30-A intersects with U.S. Highway 98, which provides a fast track to Destin, Ft. Walton and Pensacola to the West, Panama City to the East. Ninety-Eight is efficient but certainly lacks the charm of the 18-mile long half-circle country road to its south.
Highway 30-A has taken on celebrity status among the nation’s roads, yet remains discreet. By law there are no pole lights to brighten its trail at night. (Such lights would have the undesired effect of attracting sea turtles to the road.) From one side of the two-lane highway to the other is only a few steps and is often barely noticeable, especially when traffic is light. Curiously, the boom along the highway is due partially to the charm of the road’s simplicity. For all its newfound lifestyle significance, 30-A is still a beach road.
By now, of course, there are landmarks other than the beach. Just as the planned village concept of Robert Davis’ dreams has expanded, so has Bud and Alley’s. The once-simple seaside eatery is now a busy two-story restaurant, though still with a view of the sea. Sitting at a corner table of the restaurant’s top deck while munching on a grouper burger I thought about my original encounter with Davis. I saw him again later that evening when we sat in his restaurant dining on the fish he had caught. Our dinner was interrupted by one of Florida’s United States Senators who was passing through. Davis was cordial to me but I understood, there was a senator waiting. At least the restaurant’s namesake was still around. He was at our feet hoping for some scraps. Like the highway that runs alongside the restaurant, Bud was by then famous, but remained unpretentious.
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