New Panama City airport could stir Gulf Coast's sleepy way of life
Getting there: Panama City-Bay County Airport, to be re-named Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, opens in May. There are no nonstop flights from South Florida, but Southwest and Delta will fly to Panama City from Fort Lauderdale, and American and Delta from Miami, with one stop or change of planes in under four hours. Travelers can also fly to Pensacola, although it is farther (70 miles to Grayton Beach). American flies nonstop from Miami in an hour and 45 minutes; several other airlines fly from South Florida, with a change of planes, in just under four hours.
BY ELEANOR BERMAN
Travel Arts Syndicate
SOUTH WALTON -- They call it the Emerald Coast for the blue-green water, but the color I remember best about the beaches of South Walton is white: wide expanses of sand so white it glistens in the sun. Few beaches in Florida or anywhere can match this 26-mile shoreline in Walton County, bordering the Gulf of Mexico in Florida's northwest Panhandle. The sand is nearly pure quartz crystal, dazzling to the eye and soft underfoot.
This beach lover's paradise has been a semi-secret, known mostly to visitors from Atlanta, Birmingham, Tallahassee and other areas within driving distance. But that may change this spring when an international airport opens in Panama City, a half-hour away.
Beaches are not the only thing special about South Walton. More than 40 percent of the region is preserved as state parks and forests, meaning highways are lined with tall trees instead of strip malls, and the recreational possibilities, from kayaks to fishing to nature trails, are endless.
A string of 15 small, low-rise, low-key villages border the sea running along Scenic Route 30A, where a bike lane stretches the entire 19 miles of the highway. Each town has its own charming cottage architecture and locally-owned boutiques and restaurants. Vacationers can settle into a cottage or condo and walk to beach, shops, dining, tennis, outdoor concerts and other recreation. While there are plenty of luxury options, many rates are lower than better-known resort areas.
THE OLD TIMER
The oldest of the communities is Grayton Beach, which celebrates its 120th birthday this year. The shoreline of Grayton Beach State Park was named a national winner in 1994 by ``Dr. Beach,'' Stephen Leatherman. The park boasts massive dunes, winding trails, abundant wildlife, and Western Lake, one of the loveliest of the 15 coastal dune lakes found along Highway 30A.
The town itself is a laid-back place with oyster shell roads where historic cottages mix with modern beach houses in the shade of pines and oaks. For a long time, ``town'' meant one combination general store and Saturday night dance hall. That building still stands as the very popular Red Bar.
The original breezy, weathered cypress homes in Grayton Beach were among the inspirations for neighboring Seaside, the best-known village along the highway. This planned community developed in the early 1980s is in a style known as New Urbanism, imitating compact towns of the past where neighbors visited on the front porch and could easily walk to town.
Pastel cottages with pretty porches and white picket fences are set on narrow lanes, all no more than a five-minute walk from the town center or beach. A network of sand walkways cuts through the middle of blocks, allowing for a comfortable barefoot walk to the beach. At the end of each street stands a beach pavilion; there are nine in all, no two alike.
Seaside was the setting of the idyllic town featured in the movie The Truman Show.
Similar developments followed, each with a spirit of its own. Rosemary Beach, boasting a wide village green, has a West Indies influence. WaterColor added a luxurious seaside inn and gourmet restaurant to the mix. The newest development, elegant Alys Beach, has a Bermuda look.
Driving from town to town is a treat because each has its own shops and galleries. Florida's Panhandle definitely is Deep South, and there's a lot of appealing Southern folk art to be seen with artists often on hand to tell you about their work.
Big Mama's Hula Girl Gallery in Grayton Beach is a hoot, a funky and delightful mix of artwork by the owner, Debbie Weant-Lane, and whimsical glass mosaics by Phil Kiser, who was a recent Beaches of the South Walton Artist of the Year.
Seaside's Eileen West gallery is filled with charming Southern folk art known as ``Outsider'' for artists who have no professional training. The gallery is set along Ruskin Place, a cache of shops and galleries around a scenic green where an open house Art Walk takes place the first Friday of each month.
The Artists at Gulf Place in Santa Rosa Beach is a cooperative artists' colony and open air market where the wares include handcrafted jewelry, pottery and beach photography, as well as all kinds of local art.
The gallery of Justin Gaffrey in Blue Water Beach shows the work of another former Artist of the Year whose oil paintings are done in a style called ``impasto,'' using thick applications of paint to produce a textured, three-dimensional effect.
WaterColor has a satellite branch of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the New Orleans museum that has the country's largest collection of Southern art.
Those in search of more traditional shopping should take the 20-minute drive to Sandestin on U.S. Highway 98 (the Emerald Coast Highway), where they will find familiar stores like Chico, J.Crew and Coldwater Creek. The Silver Sands Factory Stores complex features names like Calvin Klein, Kenneth Cole and Michael Kors.
Sandestin will also please vacationers who prefer a complete resort. The Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort offers seven miles of private beach plus bay front for boating, four championship golf courses, and Baytowne Wharf, a pedestrian village with more shops, some of the area's best dining and lively nightlife.
While some of the area's few high-rise hotels are here, the beautifully landscaped acres also include a number of cottage communities in keeping with the spirit of the region. The variety of lodgings means rates for every budget. Convenient resort shuttle service means you can relax once you arrive, with no need for a car to get around.
Like all of little-heralded South Walton, the resort is a find. (Note: Sandestin is where I am this winter. And you can see lots of photos of it, plus some of the places listed in this article in other blog posts.)