“I like this picnic,” says my then-2-year-old son. Well, except that it sounds more like “mywikeispicnic,” as his mouth is filled with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He is covered in the jelly, just like he would be at home, except we are sitting in a remote cove filled with cypress trees and dragonflies, on the bow of a small motor boat, life jacket so high it comes up to his chin. My 4-year-old daughter is dancing around the boat, asking a million questions, most beginning with “What’s that?”
Our afternoon tour of the Choctawhatchee Bay in the Beaches of South Walton is just one more adventure for my family during a vacation on the Florida Panhandle, as our friendly guide Captain Kent Mundy of the Wetland Wilderness Adventures points out turtles sunning themselves on logs, an alligator that quickly dives under water, and a number of colorful birds flying overhead. Mundy spends nine months of the year here before retreating to the remote Alaskan wilderness for three months, but he never tires of navigating these waters. It’s quiet, well, besides the kids, but they are quieter than they normally are, and wide-eyed. We are content, and I am thrilled to have finally introduced my children to one of my favorite retreats, the Beaches of South Walton.
Something for Everyone
The Beaches of South Walton, Florida, is home to cozy beachside cottages, charming bed and breakfasts, and first-class resorts and inns featured in more than two dozen “Mayberry-esque” communities that span along 26 miles of Guld of Mexico coastline: Alys Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Dune Allen Beach, Grayton Beach, Inlet Beach, Miramar Beach, Sandestin, Santa Rosa Beach, Seacreast, Seagrove Beach, Seascape, Seaside, Rosemary Beach, WaterColor and WaterSound. All 26 miles of shoreline have been certified “Blue Wave Beaches,” a Clean Beaches Council environmental seal of approval.
The majority of its communities align along 30A, a two-lane stretch of road where wind-blown sand slithers across like a snake. Designated as a historic district, the road will forever remain intimate, and dotting its lanes are a number of small communties that evoke a bygone era where families sit on the porch and connect, and children can explore and play safely. As a two-lane road, it can get congested during the peak of summer, which is why most families pedal by on bicycles equipped with straw baskets that hold their beach gear and purchases from small town shops, such as fresh cheeses from Modica Market in Seaside, pastries from Blue Mountain’s PJ’s Coffee or groceries from Grayton’s General Store.
Of all of the communities, Seaside is perhaps the most famous, as it was featured in 1998’s “The Truman Show” as the “perfect” town, and its pastel, tin-roofed cottages provide an artistic backdrop to the emerald-green waters of the Gulf. From Watersound’s New England-style community amongst dunes to Rosemary Beach’s feel of the West Indies to the white walls and behind-the-front-door courtyard reminiscent of the Greek Isles and a Moroccan-themed pool providing an opulent retreat along these shores at Alys Beach, there is a place for everyone. We, however, have chosen to stay in Grayton Beach, an older, sleepy community, and its Redfish condominiums. The Sanctuary at Redfish, situated on 14 acres, provide 64 two- and three- bedroom condos decorated in typical beach-style furnishings, and are outfitted with modern amenities and luxuries, like flat-screen televisons, marble countertops and stone-tiled bathrooms. We’re tucked away, with glimpses of the Gulf through trees and dunes, while overlooking an oversized pool where children are splashing happily. We have chosen the condo because of this pool, just steps from our door, which is a little easier to navigate with small children, in the event that trekking to the nearby white-sand shores with all of our gear proves to be too much.
Still, after dropping our bags into our rooms, we all can’t resist immediately running off to the beach, which has been named by Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman as one of the best beaches in the United States. The sand here is so soft and fine that it actually squesks when you walk on it — and it’s the perfect consistency for building fantastic sandcastles! I’ve spent a lot of time on beaches around the world, and I have yet to encounter sand as soft as it is in the Beaches of South Walton. The Gulf is mostly calm during our visit, meaning our tiny ones can play in the minature surf without being overcome by crashing waves.
Grayton Beach is also home to Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, a stretch of land that will forever remain undeveloped and serves as a wildlife refuge, including a safe place for ancient leatherhead turtles to nest and hatch hndreds of tiny sea turtles every year. The high dunes provide natural protection, and the lack of housing means no lights to confuse hatchlings that look to the shimmering light of the moon or sun reflecting off the ocean to find their way home. Still, Beaches of South Walton is dedicated to its environment — 40 Percent of its land is protected — which is why high-rises often found on sandy shores will never pop up along 30A. In fact, regulations only allow for a building to stand four-stories-high, at most, and lights are kept dim near beaches. Stand on these beaches at night and in the distance you will see the lights of PCB to the east and Destin to the west, with nothing but darkness in between — the 30A communities.
Besides soaking up the sun beachside or poolside, or even getting a tour of the bay in a motor boat, the area, mostly filled with families, features entertainment that brings them closer, as well as mom and dad fun (hundreds of holes of championship golf!), when the opportunity presents itself. One such escape, as my kids napped in the condo with daddy, was a chance to shop the numerous art galleries and boutiques that make up Grayton Beach. While 30A is a year-round artist retreat, Grayton Beach must be Mecca, for everywhere you turn is a kitschy-looking shop. From the pastel-colored cottages of The Shops of Grayton with houses of art to the yard-sale-inspired lot of Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery that showcases whimsical wares to lure you indoors, an array of local artwork and beach home decor can be found, and after just a couple of hours I returned to the condo with bags upon bags.
Reunited with the family, we hopped on our bicycles to explore, stopping at Watercolor’s recreation center to rent a canoe to paddle our way through the peaceful coastal lakes. If we didn’t have little ones, we would have chosen a kayak and made our way to the open Gulf of Mexico in hopes of spotting a dolphin or two, but these lakes are unique, as the largest body of fresh and sea water lakes in the U.S. After working up an appetite, we rode back into Seaside, where we grabbed ice cream cones from Frost Bites — the original old- fashioned silver bullet camping trailer converted into a permanent popsicle stand — to seat on the community’s great green lawn. There is now a row of these unique food trucks, serving fabulous foods around the lawn. With a little amphitheater that features concerts and movies under the stars, the lawn is a hill and my kids weren’t the only ones taking part in the simple pleasure of rolling down it, dizzy when standing and then running back to the top to do it again.
Although Sandestin is a part of the Beaches of South Walton, connecting 30A to Destin via Highway 98, it’s a busier destination with miniature golf courses, outlet shopping, grand resorts, and chain restaurants, and we decidedly stayed put in our Mayberry. There is something to be said of spending a vacation doing nothing more than enjoying the simple pleasures of togetherness, such as rolling down grassy hills! Still, most communities have fitness centers, recreation centers with kids activities and boating options galore — deep-sea fishing and sailing excursions, anyone? Boredom is not possible here.
After enjoying a laidback dinner at Seaside’s Pickles Beachside Eatery (if you’re looking for something a bit more formal, the neighboring Bud-N-Alleys is a main-stay to these parts, and Watercolor’s Fish Out of Water serves up fresh-from-the-sea fare), we watch the sunset and it’s amazing display of colors before arming ourselves with crab nets and flashlights to go on a hunt. Nighttime is another perfect time to play with the kids, as ghost crabs are fast and scurry into the water as soon as we discover them, but the kids were squealing with delight every time they saw one, chasing them into the surf.
There is nothing like a family getaway where lazy days are spent just going with the flow, allowing the surroundings to serve as entertainment. Well, that and the smiles and giggles of the kids, who always prefer a trip to the beach over a jam-packed trip to a theme park or city destination. No, the Beaches of South Walton is the place the kids will befriend other visiting children, and the place they fondly recall as adults when they return with their own children.