I was peeling the spicy boiled shells of shrimp on the wood steps of the Tupelo Pavilion, a wondrous folly by the illustrious architect Ernesto Buch. Perched among the high majestic dunes in Seaside, Florida, the storybook neoclassical structure serves no practical purpose. It was erected solely to mark access to the beach, which it does with whimsical aplomb, and that’s what makes it — along with the eight other Seaside pavilions (all designed by different architects in distinct styles) so fantastic. Stationed at the end of each street in Seaside, the pavilions are the property of the respective street’s homeowner association. But they are also open to the public, so I have, over the years, taken the time to abide in them all for at least a few minutes, or to enjoy a few “walk away” shrimp from the Shrimp Shack nearby.
Dusk was creeping in. The sea oats swayed in the salty breeze as the sherbet sun sank into the horizon. Children giggled and squealed as they chased crabs below, along the beach, the beams of their flashlights aglow by the waves.
Known as the Emerald Coast, the colors of the Gulf of Mexico are only one geographical marvel of South Walton, affectionately abbreviated SoWal by locals. Visitors to this region of Florida are wowed by its sugary white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. More impressive are the soaring dunes, which reach as high as 30 feet, held together by the sea oats. These uncanny formations are the result of the same wind and waves that have, over thousands of years, also created a rare series of 15 dune lakes. Lush with lily pads, the lakes of shallow brackish water average about five feet in depth and sit quietly just beyond the dunes. All this means drool-worthy vistas from Scenic Highway 30A, the road that runs parallel to the Gulf – from which you can marvel at it all in one full sweeping glance – since these natural spectacles have been preserved in many of the 16 communities that comprise this 26-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle. Of South Walton’s 56,000 acres, 40 percent is owned by the state and protected from future development.
Development has indeed taken hold of South Walton, but it is nothing like its sprawling neighbor, Panama City. South Walton has managed to balance the temptation of economic boon with the vitality of its environmental allure. Much of that success is due to the vision of Robert Davis, who inherited 80 acres from his grandfather and founded Seaside in 1981. It is now a community of about 300 pastel cottages and the frontrunner of New Urbanism, a design movement promoting walkable neighborhoods and context-appropriate architecture. He was the first to envision that people would buy a beach house that wasn’t directly on the beach – if the sense of community was aptly executed.
In short, his vision defied the conventions of real estate gurus. But Seaside, which was the set of the movie The Truman Show, was a tremendous success: it features a circular cluster of cafes, boutiques, bodegas and an ice cream parlor, with the post office in the center. The community also has a limestone amphitheater for summer concerts and outdoor movies, a quaint chapel and a think tank – the Seaside Institute. It’s tough to imagine a place more idyllic than Seaside. Perhaps that is why other South Walton developers (and developers across the country) adopted the Seaside model and tweaked it. And why Seaside is textbook material in architectural classrooms throughout the U.S.
Rosemary Beach is east of Seaside along 30A and was planned by the same team as Seaside – Andres Duany and Elizabeth Platner-Zyberk – who applied their concepts of New Urbanism while also incorporating European and Caribbean influences into the architecture. Long manicured lawns lead the way to the ocean. Ditto for Alys Beach, the last oceanfront piece of property in South Walton to be developed. Post-recession, Alys Beach is now filling with exceptional white-washed homes, which conjure up a tough-to-pinpoint yet striking style that melds Bermudan and Californian elements. During the financial crisis though, this area, like many others, took some hard knocks and Alys Beach was little more than a bunch of empty lots. A few spec houses and some public infrastructure, however, spawned a creative marketing strategy: Digital Graffiti, a light show festival that draws artists from around the world. They treat the bleached stucco walls and white tile roofs of Alys Beach as canvases, and project vivid images upon them. This year’s annual multi-day extravaganza kicks off on June 4.
Watercolor and Watersound – two more pristine planned enclaves, each with a distinctive architectural ethos of its own – have also come into existence in the last few decades.
South Walton has had a long history of wooing visitors with its natural beauty. Santa Rosa Beach, South Walton’s original beach neighborhood, was founded in 1910 to support the thriving turpentine industry. It is home to gorgeous Edens Garden State Park, which includes the 1897 Wesley House.
Grayton Beach will celebrate its 125th birthday this year and offers a unique charm, true to its town slogan: “Nice Dogs, Friendly Folks.” Dune Allen, which boasts three dune lakes, and Blue Mountain, named for its wild blue lupine flowers and the highest dunes in the area, are natural landscape treasures. Seacrest and Seagrove have similar “Old Florida” auras. These time-kept neighborhoods have grown organically over many years in contrast to their master-planned counterparts. The contrast between the new communities and the old is the allure – the funkier, more bohemian authenticity juxtaposed with the contemporary architectural achievements, which will likely be considered timeless a century from now.
Still, on a nice summer evening, the flashlights come out at dusk, and children laugh and scoop crabs from the turquoise waters in little nets, and it doesn’t matter which sugary beach you are on. You are simply in South Walton. Then again, if you are watching from a neoclassical pavilion designed by Ernesto Buch, you are most definitely in Seaside.
Eat, Stay, Shop, Play
You could lounge in the natural splendor of these beaches with nothing but a Kindle, a sack lunch, and a bocce set for an entire week and consider it respite aplenty. But you’d be remiss not to explore a bit further.
Picolo’s Restaurant & The Red Bar, Grayton Beach
Where the Butler family, one of the founding families of Grayton Beach, once ran a local dance hall, is now a landmark in South Walton and the one restaurant to choose if you’re short on time. Arrive early if you want to avoid the wait, though the few shops and galleries nearby are worth whiling away in. The service is fast but be sure to stick around for the jazz band that plays most nights.
Caliza, Alys Beach
Located poolside at Alys Beach on the north side of 30A, Caliza offers an otherworldly chic atmosphere and ambitious cuisine with international influences. If you don’t have time for a full dinner arrangement, catch a sunset cocktail from Caliza’s rooftop.
Shrimp Shack, Seaside
The best of many offshoots owned by Bud & Alley’s, the overseer of most of Seaside’s dining options, Shrimp Shack is true to its name. It offers a fine selection of several shrimp varieties as well as other seasonal crustaceans like lobster tail and crawfish. An easy, casual option is a half-pound of “walk away” shrimp, which you can take directly out back to eat in the Seaside Pavilion overlooking the ocean. There’s also a small selection of wines.
Seaside Food Trucks, Seaside
On the north side of 30A in Seaside, you’ll find a row of vintage (or vintage-looking) airstreams to satisfy your grab-and-go whims – from Asian noodles to kale juice, from hot dogs to barbecue.
Stinky’s Fish Camp, Santa Rosa Beach
“With a name like Stinky’s, it better be good” – that’s the slogan. And it’s true. Fresh, casual, and everything a fish camp should be.
George’s, Alys Beach
Run by the locals of Alys Beach, George’s is perhaps the only structure in Alys Beach that doesn’t quite fit the master-planned stark white mold. The shingled beach cottage was once the home of Sandor’s Restaurant, and was slated for demolition until George and Ann Hartley decided to restore it. The menu is humorously divided into “behave” and “misbehave” columns. It is a delicious, dependable staple for lunch or dinner.
Seagrove Village Market Café, Seagrove
Behind the quirky souvenirs and the tacky ornaments of the shop upfront, the restaurant has offered tough-to-beat sandwiches and platters with fresh Gulf catches since 1949.
A welcome addition to the South Walton dining scene, V Seagrove has a cool ambiance, indoor and outdoor seating, some ocean views, and a varied menu with an emphasis on seafood but more meat options than most other nearby spots.
The Donut Hole, Inlet Beach
Long a staple of Destin, Florida, The Donut Hole is part bakery, part diner, and the South Walton location does not disappoint.
Café Thirty A, Seagrove
One of the first upscale dining destinations on 30A, the kitchen emphasizes fire-roasted preparations of fish and poultry, with a casual ambiance.
Restaurant Paradis, Rosemary Beach
This dimly lit restaurant with dark-paneled walls doesn’t seem like a beach restaurant, but its menu hinges on coastal ingredients, and you’ll see people in everything from flip flops to blue blazers.
The Pearl, Rosemary Beach
A new addition to South Walton, which lacks an abundance of luxurious hotel options, The Pearl is easy to distinguish by its black and white awnings, which correspond to its black and white umbrellas on the beach. Not all of its 50-something rooms have ocean views, though the quaint street views of Rosemary Beach are nice. It’s also not on the ocean, but the ocean is a quick walk away.
Watercolor Inn, Watercolor
Designed by David Rockwell, this high-style Inn has 60 splendid, ocean-facing rooms, each with its own porch or balcony.
Clothes & Beauty
Willow + Woods, Rosemary Beach & Seaside
An upscale boutique for women, stocking designers like Joie, DVF, and Milly.
Alys Shoppe, Alys Beach
The first retail location in the area designated to become Alys Beach’s town center, Alys Shoppe stocks a wide selection of wares, from Alys Beach’s logo t-shirts to fine dresses.
An open-air emporium full of everything a girl could want in the vein of beach attire: Beautifully arranged cover-ups, totes, bathing suits, jewelry and more.
Patchouli’s, Rosemary Beach
A beauty boutique – offering scents, skin care and gifts.
Home, Gifts, Books
Pizitz Home & Cottage, Seaside
A furniture and home décor store with glamorous coastal neutrals and textures galore.
Made on 30A, Santa Rosa Beach
Specializing in making furniture from reclaimed wood, Made on 30A will customize anything to your heart’s content, including a large bed swing, ideal for an afternoon nap.
Sundog Books, Seaside
Sundog Books is everything a good book shop ought to be, where you can find the perfect beach (or more serious) read.
Arriaga Jewelry, Seacrest
Richard Arriaga’s exquisite one-of-a-kind designs incorporate pearls, opals, turquoise and other gems. He often works with 18K silver and gold, while his “Pearls Gone Wild” series mixes pearls with stunning leather knots.
Art & Galleries
Adaro Art Gallery, Grayton Beach
Featuring work by Argentinian-born Juan Francisco Adaro.
Gordie Hinds Contemporary Art, Seaside
The self-taught artist Gordie Hines started painting in 2002 and opened his own gallery a few years ago. His wife, Lisa, manages the gallery, which represents the couple’s art as well as other local artists.
Elmore’s Landing, Santa Rosa Beach
Sculptor and artist Joe Elmore has an acre of lush gardens, which serves as both his inspiration and studio. This acre is full of unique works, most of wood, which he sands, saws and chisels to achieve the desired effect.
The Zoo Gallery, Grayton Beach
The best spot to wait until your table is ready at the neighboring The Red Bar. Founded in the hippy-dippy 70s, The Zoo Gallery – a funky, eclectic emporium of furniture, art, home accessories and jewelry – strives for the unusual – and succeeds.
A. Wickey Gallery, Seacrest
Allison Wickey practiced as a faux finisher of furniture for years before embarking on her career as a fine artist, and she incorporates her tricks of the trade into her current work, giving her works, mostly landscapes and nature-inspired subjects, a patina through a thirteen-step, 4-day process.
Justin Gaffrey Studio & Gallery, Blue Mountain
Chef-turned-artist, Justin Gaffrey is most known for his dramatic palette knife paintings, which utilize such excessive amounts of paint that they feel a bit like sculptures mounted on canvas. In Panama City, his work adorns the airport walls.
Andy Saczynski Studio Gallery, Santa Rosa Beach
Mixed media artist Andy Saczynski combines fine art with reclaimed wood and found objects, such as musical instruments. His work shows traces of a folksy tropical inspiration and often uses bright, bold tones.
Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery, Grayton Beach
This flavorful destination has a wide array of folksy and funny art. Priding itself on humor, Big Mama’s has plenty of shell-encrusted and driftwood kitsch but a sophisticated keepsake can be found here as well.
Bonfire on the Beach
There’s nothing finer in South Walton than an evening spent in the casual comfort of friends, food and the light of a bonfire on the beach. Services such as Live Well 30A Rentals & Concierge (livewell30a.com) will set up the fire for you and handle the cleanup. Plus, they offer add-ons like a grill. Grayton Beach Catering will provide a nice setup and will even serve up a Lowcountry boil upon request.
Kayak, Paddleboard, Hike or Bike
Eden State Gardens
The highlight of Eden State Gardens is the Wesley Mansion, built by a wealthy timber family in 1897 from locally sourced pine. In the 1960s, New Yorker Lois Maxon purchased it and pumped a million dollars into the renovation. It now houses the second largest collection of Louis XVI furniture in the United States.
Topsail Hill State Perserve, Santa Rosa Beach
Topsail Hill Preserve spans over three miles of beaches, sand dunes, lakes, plant and animal life, and wetlands. A pristine piece of coastal property, the park boasts 1,600 acres of pine forest, nature trails and a mountainous dune system, including The Topsail Hill dune which stands nearly 25 feet above sea level. You can swim, bike, fish, hike, bird watch, or just trek out for a scenic picnic.
Grayton Beach State Park
Opened in 1968, this state park is one of four Walton County stops on the Great Florida Birding Trail. You can enjoy canoeing, kayaking, and boating on the 100-acre Western Lake as well as swimming and fishing. You can also hike or bike along a four-mile nature trail.
Point Washington State Forest
A 15,000-acre forest, Point Washington can be visited by bike or on foot. It has more than 10 miles of trails for bicyclists, hikers, and nature lovers. The terrain primarily consists of rare sand hill ecosystems, basin swamps, wet flat woods, wet prairie, and cypress swamps.