Excited to know more about the beaches of South Walton, Florida, we took a direct flight from Houston IAH, arriving at the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, ECP. Other choices to consider include Pensacola Gulf Regional, PNS or Northwest Florida Regional, VPS.
While Destin or Santa Rosa Beach are pretty well the main destinations, Highway 30A in South Walton runs along the “Emerald Coast” of Florida, stretching over 26 miles of sugar sand beaches and crystal, aquamarine water made possible by exactly that –the powder white sand, sparkling clear water of the Gulf and blue skies above. It’s distinctly like many Caribbean beaches!
The Emerald Coast is an unofficial name for beaches stretching through five counties in Florida and parts of Alabama; however, we are concentrating on the extraordinary beaches in South Walton this trip. Beach vacations for every budget can be found here, where 16 communities stretch out proclaiming gorgeous homes, condos, hotels, B&B’s, golf, fishing, restaurants and more.
We chose WaterColor, a resort property developed by St. Joe Company in Santa Rosa Beach. Guests may choose a luxury vacation rental home, beach cottage or enjoy the 60-room boutique WaterColor Inn and Resort. The 499acre WaterColor Inn and Resort offers numerous amenities that are complimentary with your stay, including canoes and kayaks; adult bicycles; Western Lake Eco Tour; Kid’s Camp; preferred rates for golf and Yolo Boarding; 24-hour onsite guest services and wireless internet, to name a few. watercolorresort.com
We spent most of our time in WaterColor, Sandestin and Alys Beach. Besides indulging in beachside Margaritas under gracious umbrellas, the location is a magnet for emerging chefs, gifted artists, golfers, outdoor enthusiasts and fishermen.
Dress up or be casual – You’re good!
At WaterColor we found three options for dining at these onsite restaurants: Fish Out of Water, The Gathering Spot and BeachClub Grille.
The Best of the Best 2015 contest and the Perfect in South Walton awards rank Chef Jim Shirley of The Bay and Great Southern Cafe as the best, and there are dozens of others.
Don’t miss Chef Kevin Korman of Caliza Restaurant at Alys Beach, who offers a perfect balance between the familiar and the challenging. His hand chosen pork series is delicious, and is offered selection by selection, until gone. Here is your spot for lovely, upscale dining overlooking an infinity pool – calizarestaurant.com
Vin’tij Wine Boutique and Bistro Chef John Jacob incorporates the freshest ingredients in thoughtful ways. You’ll love this eclectic wine bistro – art gallery space in Miramar Beach, which was featured on Season 3 of Emeril’s Florida on the Food Channel. vintij.com
Enjoy happy hour with great martinis and steaks at Chef Tim Creehan’s newest restaurant, Cuvee 30A at Inlet Beach, and a stunning wine collection. It’s within walking distance to Alys Beach, Rosemary and Secrest. cuvee30a.com
Lunch at The Beach House in Miramar, which is a golf front restaurant at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, provided stunning views and a chic place to unwind. thebeachhousesd.com
Don’t forget to visit Charlie’s Donut Truck in Alys Beach and Stinky’s Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach. The donuts sell out fast and when they're gone, they're gone until tomorrow. Stinky's is renowned and is a great seafood place!
Things to Do –
Between the Visitor’s Guide and the Trip Advisor, visitors will be amazed at the large number of locallyowned and run activities. There are 13 golf courses in Walton County – 200 holes of golf in South Walton! The courses here are pristiine and incredible. You can't go wrong with any of them but our favorites were the Raven Golf Club at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort and Camp Creek. Raven is the two-time host of PGA Champions Tour events. Opened in 2000, the Robert Trent Jones II-design places a premium on accuracy. Camp Creek Golf Club is located in WaterSound. Tom Fazio designed this 18-hole, par-72 championship course measuring 7,151 yards. Lauded for its environmental design and practices, and honored by numerous golf magazines, it accommodates players of all skill and experience levels.
There are 200 miles of hike and bike trails, plus outdoor movies, amusement parks, farmers markets, eco adventures or live music. You might decide to enjoy canoeing, Yolo Boarding, yoga or zip lining. Maybe hire a fishing or pleasure boat, swim, snorkel, ride horses or bike the Timpoochee Trail or the state park. Shop, create art, go to the spa or tour one of the two local breweries. Repeat. Relax. Repeat.
There’s more to know about The Timpoochee Trail for the bike enthusiasts out there. Many people are seen walking and biking on more than 18 miles, as this trail parallels the entire length of scenic Highway 30A, on wide and relatively flat surfaces. It’s a perfect day trip for families looking for exercise and fun along the way. visitsouthwalton.com
Forty percent of South Walton is preserved land with 15 coastal dune lakes, four state parks and a state forest. There are so many options in South Walton; you would have to stay a month to do them all.
Main events include a Wine and Food Festival, 30A Songwriters Festival, Gumbo Fest and Fashion Week.
For a shopping excursion, have fun at the Silver Sands Premium Outlets in Destin and find your designer and name brand favorites.
There are more than 60 art galleries in South Walton! To explore your artistic side, consider taking a class with Mary Hong and create a unique mosaic of glass on canvas or board. Mary’s art can be seen many places throughout South Walton. Her gallery is divine and reasonably priced. Or visit the Shard Shop next door to take an art lesson. Our art teacher was Robin.
A visit to Serenity by the Sea Spa, located within the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa and which was voted Grand Champion for 2015 and 2016 in the Perfect in South Walton awards, was a luxurious treat. The spa was bright, airy and relaxed, with baskets, vases and jars filled with glass pieces. The spa has won numerous national awards and huge compliments from patrons. Don't miss this.
Beach Destinations –
We took a drive to learn more about the areas of Seaside, Grayton Beach, Alys and Santa Rosa Beach.
Robert Davis, Jr. was the founder of Seaside in 1981, and his goal was “new urbanism.” More than 30 years later, Seaside is still a dream community with shopping and dining within walking distance. The favorite mode of transportation is walking or biking. (After he built Seaside, the first new urbanist community, many beach neighborhoods were built after this one, including Rosemary Beach and WaterColor.)
It should be noted that Seaside is currently being featured on Emeril’s Florida, a TV show on the Cooking Channel, and was the primary location of the classic movie “The Truman Show.” seasidefl.com
If you want privacy, WaterSound Beach Resort in Watersound is a new vacation rental community, which was developed and is managed by St. Joe Club and Resorts. visitsouthwalton.com/beaches/watersound
The Yolo Board was invented here by Jeff Archer and Tom Losee. Jeff operates several Yolo board rental locations in the area, while Tom runs the Boathouse Paddle Club at WaterColor, where guests can opt for Yolo board classes.
Seacrest Beach is one of the more secluded beaches, where there are regulations in place since the 1970’s restricting building height to no more than four stories high, although a few buildings exist that were built prior to when the law went into effect. The law is to keep the skyline low and to prevent hurricane damage. (It’s been 10 years since the last hurricane.) visitsouthwalton.com/beaches/seacrest
Alys Beach is on the highest upscale level, and is currently undergoing a boom in development. They just celebrated their tenth anniversary, and are in the process of building a town center with more shopping. Alys Beach is home to the first outdoor projection art festival, “Digital Graffiti.” Beach properties here have recently sold for $6.25 million. Alys Beach consists of 158 acres with more than 600 homes inspired by Bermuda and Guatemala. Alys Beach and WaterSound are considered the most exclusive neighborhoods. Just as in WaterSound, Alys Beach is private and for owners or renters only. visitsouthwalton.com/beaches/alysbeach
Rosemary Beach is also on scenic 30A. It’s known for a yearly Bocce Ball Tournament and is a multi-generational destination beach community. rosemarybeach.com
Grayton Beach is adjacent to Grayton Beach State Park, and recently deployed artificial reefs 750 feet offshore in water 18 feet deep. People are already scuba diving there, with the anticipation of 58 more artificial reefs to be placed this year.This project was spearheaded by the South Walton Reef Association. In what used to be the Old Grayton Beach General Store, you’ll find the famous Red Bar. “Nice dogs Friendly Folks” is Grayton Beach’s slogan.Grayton Beach is historically known for its old family charm. There’s a lot of history, and the locals flock here, as it is a bit quieter. Although there are rental homes, most are yearly residents. graytonbeach.com
Blue Mountain Beach is named after the brilliant blue lupine flower, and sits at a slight incline, thus giving gorgeous views of the aquablue water. Blue Mountain consists of mostly residential rentals, and is part of South Walton. Enjoy the views and the ice cream from the local creamery. visitsouthwalton.com/beaches/bluemountain
Dune Allen and Gulf Place are in South Walton, with the 30A Songwriters Festival held in Gulf Place, while headliners perform at the amphitheater.
On the western end of South Walton is Sandestin, which is an area for folks who like the familiar, more commercial amenities. The Beach House Restaurant, tasty and a great view, is found at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. sandestin.com
South Walton claims 15 named coastal dune lakes throughout the 26-mile coastline. The Boathouse is on Western Lake, which is the second largest coastal dune lake in South Walton. These lakes are a unique geographical, natural phenomenon found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and South Walton. Said to be as much as 10,000 years old, these lakes are truly unique with a mix of fresh and salt water. This happens following a heavy rain, when their mostly fresh water contents are breached by salt water from the Gulf of Mexico. This event is known as “outfall” and is vital for the unique ecosystems and the survival of local vegetation.
There are 15,407 acres in the Point Washington State Forest, which dominates the area and will never be developed. It forms a cove of area right up to the beach communities. Other state parks in the area are Grayton Beach, Eden Gardens, Deer Lake and Topsail Hill Preserve.The state parks offer numerous free programs on sand dunes, crabs, fishing, hiking shorebirds and sunset hikes.
South Walton beaches are a part of the Walton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and are funded by tourist occupancy tax or bed tax. It is their goal is to promote the destination, to “Get the right heads in our beds and to promote our off season.” According to coordinator Carey Peters, “We will be happy when our businesses can function and stay open in off-season, which is December, January and February.” The nice thing about vacations in South Walton, according to the TDC, “Whatever you are looking for, we’ve got that!
Whether you want planned communities; a house on the beach with nothing in sight; resort communities; condo or beach house; sand or bay? They’ve got that! They’ve got the opportunity for adventure! There are all types of fishing charters, everything from bay tours to offshore, 20 miles! Although the weather fluctuates in the offseason, visitors can enjoy outdoors every day.
There are 25,000 permanent residents and three million visitors annually. When St. Joe Paper Company owned most of the land, they started a land development company ages ago, and donated thousands of acres to the state for park land. The visitor center in South Walton is located at the intersection of Highways 98 and 331 in Santa Rosa Beach, and is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week. For more information on any of these vacation ideas, go to www.visitsouthwalton.com