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Beaches of South Walton Family Vacations

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

It's generally easy to categorize family beach destinations. Beaches of South Walton, however, defy labels and stereotypes. Located on Florida's Emerald Coast, this is a place of stunning beauty and quite charm. Quite simply, there's something for everyone among the 15 diverse beach communities that comprise this destination.

Stretching along 25 miles of Scenic Highway 30A in Florida's northwest coast, the Beaches of South Walton include large planned beachfront communities, charming pastel New Urbanist towns, laid back historic cottage enclaves, and whitewashed developments lined with palm trees. The Gulf beaches here are stunning, with emerald waters lapping onto sugar white sands. The pure white sand here comes from clear quartz eroded and washed down rivers from the Appalachian Mountains and as such, they are unique. So are the 15 coastal dune lakes, a special combination of saltwater and freshwater found only in four places throughout the world. These bodies of water, along with the massive Choctawhatchee Bay, give the area more places to have fun on - and in - the water.

This area is a paradise for active vacationers. A bike trail stretches 17 miles from one end of Scenic 30A to the other and bicycles are available for rent in most communities and resorts. Bike trails are also available through some of the forests and state parks. This area is also home to YOLO boarding (YOLO stands for "You Only Live Once"), a popular form of stand-up paddle boarding that's easily done on the dune lakes in this region. YOLO yaks make the sport easy for beginners, so head down to Eastern Lake to give it a try. Golf, fishing, boating, boogie boarding, parasailing and hiking are also favorite pastimes in this area.

So is shopping. The Silver Sands Factory store is the nation's largest designer outlet center with over retailers. Stores include Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5th, Juicy Couture, Coach Factory Outlet, the Polo Ralph Lauren Factory Store, Lacoste, Ann Taylor, and so many more. The Market Shops at Sandestin and the shops at the Village of Baytowne Wharf are also fun destinations for those seeking a little retail therapy.

Each of the communities in the Beaches of South Walton has its own individual charm. All are built in different styles and have their own special character. Your family is sure to find one (or several, in my case) that is just right for you. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sandestin: This 2,400-acre resort community stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bay, with complete golf and beach amenities. With over 1,400 different types of rental accommodations spread throughout 30 neighborhoods, this resort has something to meet the needs and budget of almost any family. Guests can choose from single family homes, one- to four-bedroom villas, condominiums, hotel rooms and penthouse suites. To find the best accommodations for your family, talk with the Sandestin reservations agents about your interests and vacation plans - they are more than happy to help. The resort's 28-acre pedestrian Village of Baytowne Wharf offers guests dining, shopping and entertainment options all within easy access of their accommodations. For sports lovers, Sandestin offers 72-holes of award-winning golf on four championship courses, fifteen tennis courts, and the 98-slip Baytowne Marina for boating. Families will enjoy the resort's 7.5 miles of white sandy beach and 19 swimming pools. Children's activities, free use of the fitness center and bikes, and complimentary tram transportation are also provided.

Grayton Beach: This laid-back conclave of cottages is the oldest community along Scenic 30-A. Low key Grayton Beach is nearby Grayton Beach State Park, consisting of nearly 2,200 acres of coastal vegetation, trails, sand dunes and a scenic coastal dune lake. The beach at Grayton Beach State Park is ranked as one of the most beautiful strands in the United States, often making it onto the yearly top 10 list of "Dr. Beach" himself. Families can stay in the park's modern cabins or use their full facility campground. Alternatively, historic homes and huge multi-bedroom dwellings are available for rent in Grayton Beach itself. Whether staying here or just passing through, don't miss dining at the Red Bar, a local favorite for great meals and live jazz music. Shorty's Surfside and Topside, one of Grayton Beach's newest restaurants, is also an excellent choice for family meals.

WaterColor Inn & Resort: This expansive 499-acre coastal resort and residential community is situated next to a rare, 220-acre coastal dune lake. The resort is home to the lovely David Rockwell-designed WaterColor Inn, a AAA Four Diamond hotel that caters to families. In addition to rooms at the Inn, WaterColor offers vacation homes and rental cottages throughout seven distinct neighborhoods. Kids ages 3-12 will enjoy Camp WaterColor's many activities available Tuesday through Saturday. The resort also offers a wide array of water sports, a tennis center and fitness center, golf, fishing charters, adventure tours and more. Canoes, kayaks and YOLO boards are available from the BoatHouse on Western Lake and the nearby Bike Barn offers provides bike rentals for every member of the family.

Seaside: Pastel-colored Seaside is a little slice of beach paradise. Founded by Robert and Daryl Davis, this vibrant 80-acre beach community is an architectural wonder. This tiny town was the first in the area to be built using the concepts of New Urbanism, a pedestrian "new town with old ways." The design encourages walking, talking and interaction between residents and guests. The town is a blend of unique residences and guest houses. At the end of each street is an architecturally distinctive pavilion, welcoming residents and visitors to Seaside's one-half mile of lovely white sand beach. Families will love the town's tin-roofed, picket-fenced cottages, many for rent through the Seaside Cottage Rental Agency. Seaside is a great place for families to relax, take a bike ride, stroll through town with an ice-cream cone, and bond with each other again. Bud & Alley's, a casual beachside eatery, is a good place to sample fresh seafood or other regional fare. The community of Seaside has won many awards and accolades - Travel & Leisure magazine named Seaside in its 100 Greatest Trips of 2009 and Frommer's named Seaside as one of the Top 12 worldwide places to visit in 2010.

Alys Beach: This community of whitewashed residences gets its architectural inspiration from the villages of the Mediterranean as well as Antigua, Guatemala. It feels very hip and trendy. In fact, Forbes recently named Alys Beach as America's "Top Spot for Design-Savvy Home Buyers." It's certainly different than anything else you'll see up and down Scenic 30-A. Each three - to five-bedroom home is designed around a spacious central courtyard and all of the town's amenities are within easy walking distance in keeping with New Urbanist philosophies.

Rosemary Beach: Located near the eastern end of Scenic 30-A, Rosemary Beach reminded me of many towns that I've seen in the Caribbean ... with gardens, courtyards and fountains that remind me a bit of Charleston, South Carolina as well. Another New Urbanist town, the community design of Rosemary Beach encourages walking and community interaction. Here, you'll find cobblestone streets, lots of parks and common green areas for play, a butterfly garden, walkovers to protect the area's fragile dune system, a network of trails and footpaths, four pools, a Racquet Club and Fitness Center, and - of course - a stunning white sand beach.

Driving down Scenic 30-A is almost like being in an artist's studio filled to the brim with beach scenes painted in pastels, emerald greens, brilliant whites, and sun-lit hues. It's hard not to stop to take photographs every mile or so. This Panhandle area was once called the "Redneck Riviera," but there's nothing about these architecturally beautiful towns that fits that moniker. Quite honestly, the Beaches of South Walton area is my idea of picture perfect.

If You Go:

* For more information on the communities that comprise the Beaches of South Walton, visit their website at www.beachesofsouthwalton.com. Festivals and events are held throughout the year in this area, so make sure to check the calendar on the website to find out what's happening.

* If you're planning to fly into the area, there are three airports that service this destination: Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP); Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS); and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport (PNS). Southwest Airlines flies into the relatively new Northwest Florida Beaches (ECP) airport and both ECP and VPS offer direct flights from a number of cities. When booking your accommodations, ask which airport(s) are closest.

* Families come to the Beaches of South Walton at various times during the year. It's a popular place for family spring break with the kids and certainly during the summer months. June grass, a feathery type of algae, often shows up in the warm waters and on the beaches in May and June. Fall bring lots of families with young children and long weekend vacationers to the Beaches of South Walton area. While winters are cool, festivals and shopping can be fun pastimes for beach getaways.

* Some communities offer special amenities for those renting directly through the resort. Sandestin (www.sandestin.com), for example, offers two complimentary bicycle rentals for each day per unit; one hour of free kayak, boogie board and canoe rentals; one hour of free tennis court time per unit during peak season; free access to the Destin resort tram transportation; free access to the Sandestin Fitness Center; free children's activities; and other exclusive privileges. Make sure to check out some of these details before booking. Other places simply have some of the largest selections of vacation home rentals. Located directly within Seaside, for example, Cottage Rental Agency (www.cottagerentalagency.com) offers a particularly wide array of beach cottages within this idyllic community.


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