Coastal Bliss in South Wal­ton

North­west Florida’s shores score big for mile-high sand dunes, fash­ion­able beach towns and a very cool South­ern vibe

RSWLiving - - Your Florida - BY PA­TRI­CIA LETAKIS

Walk­ing the al­abaster beach of South Wal­ton, you can’t help but no­tice the squeak­ing sound of your foot­steps. One would al­most think “squeaky clean,” as each bare­foot im­pres­sion made in the im­mac­u­late sands emits a shrill, yet sweet sound. No mat­ter where you stroll on this 26-mile stretch, tucked in the cen­ter of Florida’s pan­han­dle be­tween the Gulf of Mex­ico and the Choctawhat­chee Bay, you will see pil­low-shaped dunes as high as 40 feet on one side and the gulf’s wa­ter­color blues and greens caught in the sparkle of a sun­beam on the other. This is a piece of par­adise like no other in Florida, and on a quiet morn­ing those squeaky foot­falls in the soft­est pow­dery sand are mu­sic to the ear.

Con­sid­er­ing South Wal­ton’s lo­ca­tion, it’s no sur­prise that South­ern­ers from Ge­or­gia, Alabama, Mis­sis­sippi and Louisiana are fre­quent vis­i­tors, and restau­rants like The Bay, serv­ing new South­ern cui­sine—think Faux Ya Ya, shrimp and grits made with grilled po­lenta cakes and spiced shrimp—are al­ways packed.

But it’s this com­mu­nity’s sense of so­phis­ti­ca­tion that re­ally sets it apart from other beach towns. In fact, South Wal­ton has be­come a fa­vorite with celebs like actress Reese Wither­spoon, singer Sh­eryl Crow, coun­try mu­sic star Luke Bryan (ru­mored to be build­ing a home here) and TV chef Emeril La­gasse (a re­cent trans­plant).

Strung along its coast are 16 eclec­ti­cally stylish beach com­mu­ni­ties, each to­tally dif­fer­ent in pal­ette and ar­chi­tec­ture, and of­fer­ing amaz­ing rental va­ca­tion homes. (South Wal­ton has only a hand­ful of ho­tels.) If th­ese neigh­bor­hoods have any­thing in com­mon, it’s that you can walk—or pedal a jazzed-up beach cruiser—ev­ery­where thanks to a new-ur­ban­ism de­sign.

Ap­proach­ing South Wal­ton from its east end, you’ll travel Scenic High­way 30A along the coast through 12 neigh­bor­hoods, all guar­an­teed to mes­mer­ize any­one who has a pen­chant for ar­chi­tec­ture. Rose­mary Beach, with its nar­row streets, a bocce ball court and old-world de­sign in­spired by Bri­tish and Dutch colo­nial in­flu­ences, fea­tures three-story homes with bal­conies and plan­ta­tion shut­ters in earthy tones from terra cotta to sage green.

Its neigh­bor, Alys Beach, much like a white­washed mi­rage ris­ing up along 30A, is a stark con­trast with its bleached ma­sonry-walled va­ca­tion homes look­ing as if they were plucked off of a Greek is­land. Touches of Moroc­can in­flu­ence and wooden sculp­tures of life-size horses made with branches pop up.

Far­ther down the road is the epi­cen­ter of 30A: Sea­side. Dis­tin­guished by its cot­tages with picket fences and skinny pathways that lead to the sil­ver sands, this com­mu­nity has an am­phithe­ater sur­rounded by indie cafes, bou­tiques and a pip­squeak post of­fice. Con­certs and events like the See­ing Red Wine Fes­ti­val are held here.

As you fol­low a path to the beach, you’ll no doubt give into temp­ta­tion and stop at Airstream Row where trail­ers con­verted to kitchens-on-wheels with names like Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs, The Melt­down on 30A and Frost Bites serve hot dogs, grilled cheese sand­wiches on Texas toast and rain­bow-hued shaved ice. Cross 30A and the black­board in front of the Shrimp Shack an­nounces the ar­rival of deep­wa­ter royal red shrimp fresh from the Gulf. Next door is the tri-level Bud and Al­ley’s, an iconic sun­set gaz­ers’ hang­out; sam­ple the lo­cal Gray­ton Beer Com­pany’s new­est 30A Beach Blonde ale or dine on fresh cobia, which fish­er­men reeled in hours ago, served in a nice gumbo.

Those look­ing for a fresh-air work­out can find it in the com­mu­nity of Wa­ter-Color, where Tom Losee, owner of the town’s Boathouse Pad­dle Club, was one of the first to pro­mote

stand-up pad­dle­board­ing (SUP) in South Wal­ton. “SUP is to Florida what surf­ing is to Cal­i­for­nia,” says the blonde, tall and toned Losee, who de­signed the Run/SUP course that in­volves run­ning one mile and pad­dling a half-mile across a coastal dune lake. “While SUP gives your up­per core and arms a work­out, run­ning takes care of the legs,” he says.

Be­sides the beach life, South Wal­ton has a grow­ing arts scene. In a red cottage tucked un­der sprawl­ing oaks, Justin Gaf­frey dis­plays his room of flow­ers. His thick strokes of pure acrylic paint, of­ten inches thick, add new di­men­sion to paint on can­vas, and his use of jewel tones turns walls into vi­brant gar­dens.

Juan Fran­cisco Adaro, an Ar­gen­tine artist wear­ing paint-splat­tered shoes and hold­ing a gourd of mate, was named South Wal­ton’s Artist of the Year in 2015. He puts his sig­na­ture on “ex­tended can­vases” by us­ing pieces of wooden wine crates that pro­trude off the edge and shape the heads of his bathing beau­ties.

“We’re a close-knit com­mu­nity and even though we com­pete, we also sup­port each other,” says Al­li­son Wickey, a for­mer artist of the year who has been paint­ing South Wal­ton land­scapes for the past six years.

On the west end of South Wal­ton sit Mi­ra­mar Beach, Seas­cape and the fullfledge­d re­sort com­mu­nity of San­des­tin. For those who pre­fer ev­ery­thing un­der one roof, Hil­ton San­des­tin Beach Golf Re­sort & Spa, fresh off a $13 mil­lion redux, is where you can start your day with a Pi­lates class at the new Seren­ity by the Sea spa and fit­ness cen­ter (the pe­tite in­struc­tor Andi will push you to a new level) and wrap it with a gourmet meal at Sea­gar’s restau­rant, a clas­sic steak­house where you just might spy chef Emeril in­dulging in chef Dan Vargo’s lump crab cakes lay­ered be­tween slices of crispy green tomato and egg­plant.

STRUNG ALONG ITS COAST ARE 16 ECLEC­TI­CALLY STYLISH BEACH COM­MU­NI­TIES, EACH TO­TALLY DIF­FER­ENT IN PAL­ETTE AND AR­CHI­TEC­TURE, AND OF­FER­ING AMAZ­ING RENTAL VA­CA­TION HOMES.

Clock­wise from top left: Sea­side’s 45 Cen­tral Wine Bar serves South Wal­ton’s own 30A Coastal Dune la­bel of chardon­nay; the Gulf’s wa­ter­color hues; Sea­side’s Airstream Row is home to shiny sil­ver trail­erslike Frost Bites, where shaved ice is served; artist Justin Gaf­frey in his Santa Rosa Beach Gallery.

From top: The pres­i­den­tial suite at the Hil­ton San­des­tin Beach Golf Re­sort & Spa; Wa­ter­Color Re­sort & Inn’s gar­den-lined paths pro­vide safe bi­cy­cle rid­ing for young­sters; pro­tected sand dunes skirt South Wal­ton’s coast.

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