Coastal towns picture perfect on the Florida Panhandle
Built in 1995 overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on Florida's Panhandle, Rosemary Beach was based on the principles of neo-traditional design and new urbanism. (John Handley, Chicago Tribune)
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In that 1998 film, actor Jim Carrey played the unknowing "star" of a global TV show set in a town that also doubled as a production set. Although the film crews for that project have long departed, there's still an undeniable movie-set feel to Seaside, the central point in a scenic 20-mile stretch of County Road 30A along the Gulf of Mexico.
A two-lane road with a speed limit of mostly 25 mph, it's a perfect backdrop for a leisurely side trip off the faster-paced U.S. Highway 98 between Panama City Beach and Destin. Known as Scenic Highway 30A, it's home to a dozen tiny towns that take the notion of the old-fashioned beach town and inject it with Disney-esque doses of landscaping, architectural and community design touches.
On a recent afternoon in Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, two towns on the eastern end of 30A closest to U.S. 98, children frolicked in a park with emerald grass that looked as perfect as a putting green. An enormous hose from a shiny red fire truck supplied the resource for a massive water slide.
If a youngster had dropped an ice-cream cone, it's easy to imagine a support team rushing into action to replace it and clean up the mess.
Compared with the spring-break vibe of nearby Panama City Beach, with its towering beachside hotels and accessible nightspots, the South Walton vibe is more affluent.
Although it's possible to snag a one-bedroom cottage for less than $200, depending on the season, more elaborate suites can go for more than $2,000 a night. It's also possible to find reasonable rates at chain hotels in Destin, only a few miles west of the South Walton scenic highway.
So what's to see?
Well, the Gulf beaches are world famous for the combination of sugary white sand and emerald-green water.
"The color of the water, the white sugary color of the sand, I don't think you can find anything like it anywhere else," says artist Dan Sawyer, 63, who has owned a gallery in Grayton Beach for more than a decade and has been a frequent South Walton visitor since childhood.
There are numerous public beach access points along 30A, including the picturesque Coleman Pavilion, a 50-foot landmark surrounded by restaurants and shops at the center of Seaside.
Just down the road, the coastline at Grayton Beach State Park has been voted top beach (in the 1990s) in the nation by Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman and the park also offers an extensive self-guided nature trail on its 1,100 acres. Nearby, Topsail Hill State Preserve offers prime views of the Gulf and bald cypress swamps from its 25-foot sand dunes.
Grayton Beach offers a less polished approach to the beach-town mindset, embodied by the funky charm of the Red Bar. The walls of the beachfront restaurant and bar (which doesn't take credit cards) are adorned with a kitschy mishmash of art, collectibles and, of course, red lights.
There's also an 18-mile bike path that stretches from Blue Mountain Beach to Inlet Beach, which is a recommended travel method to avoid the competition for parking spaces at Seaside's business district.
It's worth braving the crowds to have a drink and watch the sunset Bud & Alley's, a Seaside ritual.
And there's plenty of shopping around the grassy park that hosts weekly concerts and storytelling events. Artists display wares at the Shops of Ruskin, an outdoor courtyard that evokes the feel of New Orleans' Jackson Square, in a faux movie-set way.
"Summers are always great, but it seems a little busier this summer," says Jenny King, manager of Sundog Books, located downstairs from Central Square Records, an independent record store. "I think a lot of people who skipped last year [in the wake of news reports about the Gulf oil spill] have returned."
Sawyer recommends waiting until fall, when the crowds are thinner, the temperatures more pleasant and the sunsets more breathtaking.
"You haven't seen a sunset until you've seen one here in November, all turquoise, pink and purple," says Sawyer. "It makes you realize what kind of imagination God's got. It's colors you just can't mix."
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If you go
Getting there: The towns of South Walton -- Inlet, Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, Seacrest, WaterSound, Seagrove, Seaside, WaterColor, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain, Santa Rosa Beach and Dune Allen -- are on County Road 30A in the Panhandle between Destin and Panama City. From Orlando, take Florida's Turnpike north to Interstate 75 north, then take Interstate 10 west to U.S. Highway 231. Take that south to U.S. Highway 98, then west to County Road 30A.
Staying there: Seaside has 280 dwellings in its rental program, including homes, guest cottages, penthouse apartments, town homes, beachfront and beachside cottages and motorcourt rooms. Nightly rates on cottages range from as low as $140-$165 (depending on season) to more than $2,000. There are similar vacation rentals along 30A, with chains available in nearby Destin and Panama City Beach.