By Rachel Kurlander for Fathom | Our server looked incredulous when I said I’d never tried grits before. I had never tried hush puppies either — or crayfish, or grouper, or pimento cheese — before a recent trip to South Walton, a coastal community in the Florida Panhandle. Despite having visited family in Florida for the last 20 years, this region felt a world apart from the Florida I thought I knew. South Walton is closer to Atlanta, New Orleans, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville than it is to Miami, and everything from the cuisine to the warm, overbrimming Southern hospitality served as a constant reminder that I had ventured where few northerners had been before.
South Walton is made up of sixteen planned towns built less than 30 years ago, affording regional planners and architects an opportunity most can only dream of: to construct entire towns from the ground up. South Walton’s blessing, and what makes it worth visiting, is that these charming, idealized, perfect towns (and they really are perfect: think white picket fences, building codes that require each home to have a courtyard, and beautiful, tanned residents with impeccable Southern manners) manage to retain a genuine spirit. Located between Panama City Beach and Pensacola, in the northwest part of the state, it serves as a popular vacation destination for visitors from neighboring Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The main draw is the 26-mile stretch of white-sand beach along the Emerald Coast, named for the calm, turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico that lap South Walton’s shores. But that’s not all the area has to offer: You’ll find exceptional design, a variety of restaurants and shops, outdoor recreation, a thriving art scene, and daily events year-round, drawing families with children of all ages, couples young and old, honeymooners, and bachelorette parties alike.
Lay of the Land
From east to west, the sixteen coastal towns of South Walton are Inlet Beach, Rosemary Beach, Seacrest, Alys Beach, Watersound, Seagrove, Seaside, WaterColor, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain, Santa Rosa Beach, Gulf Place, Dune Allen, Sandestin, Miramar Beach, and Seascape. The neighborhoods are connected by two highways, Country Road 30a (CR 30a), a scenic route that goes directly through several town centers (with adjacent bike and pedestrian paths), and Highway 98, the faster, more direct way to get from point A to point B. Every town has something different to offer, and I’d highly recommend learning more about each before settling on a home base. But in general, the main points of interest are Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, Seaside, Santa Rosa Beach, WaterColor, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain, and Gulf Place.
If You Only Do One Thing
Go to the beach. They don’t call this the Emerald Coast for nothing! There are eight public beach entry points in South Walton, but a stay at a hotel or in a rental property will usually include access to that neighborhood’s own private beach. Public beaches are surveilled by lifeguards from mid-March through September, and a colored flag system at every beach monitors surf conditions. Gulf waters tend to be calmer than the ocean, but swimmers should always exercise caution.
What You Should Know on Your First Day (That You Won’t Learn Until Your Last)
Forty percent of the land in South Walton is protected by the state of Florida, shielding the area’s natural beauty from developers, even as visitors flock here in record numbers and the tourism industry continues to boom. There are four state parks and one 15,000-acre state forest, home to campgrounds, diverse wildlife, and hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails you may not even think to look for in a beach town.
You’ll also see incredibly rare bodies of water — likely without realizing it. Coastal dune lakes are shallow lakes located less than two miles from a shoreline, and they’re only found in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest, and here. In fact, South Walton is home to fifteen of them, making it the area with the largest concentration of coastal dune lakes in the world. During periods of heavy rainfall, freshwater outfalls, or currents of lake water, breach sand barriers and flow out into the gulf, while salt water flows in until salinity levels stabilize. The lakes, therefore, are unique ecosystems that support both freshwater and saltwater marine life.