The Beaches of South Walton
by ERROL LABORDE
Of course I knew how to get to the Beaches of South Walton, I thought to myself when I first drove to the then newly named strip of white sand and green water several years ago. It is common sense. Just go to Fort Walton and head south. Being a man, I had no question about my geographical reasoning.
Steering around Okaloosa Island, which is south of Fort Walton Beach, I discovered that I was wrong. Not only was I on the wrong beach but in the wrong county.
Several miles to the east, Okaloosa County, which contains both Fort Walton Beach and Destin, ends, and mammoth Walton County begins. Along southern Walton’s heralded coast is a string of 13 pristine beach areas beginning with Seascape and Miramar beaches and followed by the bustling Sandestin and the emerging names for condo-happy beach-goers, Dune Allen, Santa Rosa and Blue Mountain beaches.
U.S. Highway 98 is the main route across southern Walton County, also referred to as the “Emerald Coast Parkway.” The area’s most charming road, however, is also the most important in terms of the good life, modern beach living and new town concepts. Linked to 98 at both ends but looping down toward the beach is Florida Highway 30-A, a humble road with a burgeoning reputation. Here the architecture competes with the sea for majesty, though with full respect for giving nature its space. Grayton Beach, protected in parts as a state park, has frequently been rated as one the best, some say the best, in the country.
Nature delivers shades of green and white to the area. Seaside, the residential community that has influenced the entire Gulf Coast for the better, adds pastels.
Grayton is isolated with pockets of funkiness at its fringe. Other beaches are experiencing their own new towns, each built in the spirit of Seaside, though each has its own character and colors; two of the fastest growing are WaterColor, next door to Seaside, and Rosemary Beach, further down the road.
Penny and Mark Dragonette may be the ultimate 30-A couple. They began their 30-A entrepreneurial life with a shop at Seaside then they moved on to Rosemary Beach, where they built The Pensione, a stylish inn that houses Onano, an Italian restaurant. All along the highway, new ventures are taking place; New Orleans influences are plentiful – and not just blackened fish. The blueprint of New Orleans architects Ron Domin and Tim Trapolin is on many buildings, especially at Rosemary Beach. The Blue Spa was opened May 1 by masseuse turned entrepreneur Krista Dumbleton of Metairie. And then there’s Blue Orleans, a funky-to-the-max café co-owned by Tom Smith and his partner, who answers to “Gator.” The latter, a native of Chackbay (between Vacherie and Thibodaux), cooks during the days and lays down some blues between courses.
Away from 30-A, at the spiraling Sandestin complex, the chef at FINZ restaurant (previously known as Elephant Walk) is New Orleanian Frederic Heurtin. On the north side of Sandestin the booming new village of Baytown Wharf includes an Acme Oyster House, the only one outside Louisiana, as well as restaurant activity by the Messina family.
Besides the New Orleans influences, there are other sources that are just as important, including what might be called the beachfront Southern culture.
There is, for example, the “cracker” look, usually featuring a cottage with a wide porch and windows for cross-ventilation. The look, named after a slang term for rural Southerners, is even incorporated into some of the modern beach home designs.
At Fish Out of Water, the casual/elegant restaurant at WaterColor, the menu includes Low Country grits with shrimp, a dish that is purely Southern. And the native fish in these parts is grouper, a gulf fish seldom seen on New Orleans menus.
Seaside is also creating its own culture. Used as the setting for the Jim Carrey movie “The Truman Show,” the development has brought national attention to Walton County and set a tone for the entire beach area. There is so much to behold in terms of design and enterprise that it occurred to me during my last trip that I almost forgot about the beach. For the record, the water is still green, and the dunes, though pushed around a bit by Hurricane Ivan, are still crystal white.
And if on the way to the Beaches of South Walton you happen to arrive at Okaloosa Island instead, just say that you knew where you were going all along.
For information: (800) 822-6887 or www.beachesofsouthwalton.com.