This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, this world still big.
Surrounded by two popular Florida Panhandle destinations—Destin to the west and Panama City beach to the east—it’s easy to miss South Walton if you’re not familiar with the unique beauty hiding just off US Highway 98.
Fortunately, I knew exactly where to go when my fiancé and I veered a little south from the main highway. Venturing down scenic Highway 30A, we land at Rosemary Beach, one of 16 towns along the Gulf Coast that make up South Walton.
“We are much older than this city,” I said incredulously as I looked at the sign welcoming us into what would be our home in the next few days. Established in 1995, Rosemary Beach isn’t even the smallest in South Walton, but it’s an excellent example of the intent to develop this area into the idyllic seaside retreat it is today.
Cobblestone streets, tiled sidewalks, bonfires street lamps, and buildings that look straight out of the Dutch West Indies come together at Rosemary Beach, exuding a utopian vibe. The city is so perfect that it looks like it should be a movie set.
Built according to New Urbanism principles – a concept that originated in South Walton – fully walkable (or bikeable if you prefer) with homes built close together, a city center full of restaurants and shops, plus plenty of lush green space with pocket scattered around the gardens. As soon as we park our car in the pearl, our hotel and the architectural star of a town square, we didn’t need to move it. Part of what makes Rosemary Beach the ultimate destination for romantic getaways or family vacations is the ease of navigation and the tranquility that comes with it.
And Rosemary Beach isn’t the only one. Most cities in South Walton have their own unique architectural style and many are built around enhancing the community through new urban planning. At Seaside, South Walton’s first New Urbanist, you’ll find pastel-coloured homes and buildings constructed in the old Florida style, with an emphasis on wood construction, patios, and porches. Most homes don’t even wear a white picket fence that gives Seaside its cheery, Americana, Mainstreet USA vibe as imagined by Walt Disney himself. When you know that Jim Carrey movie Truman Show Filmed at Seaside, it just makes a lot more sense.
At WaterColor, you’ll find grand homes, perfect for multi-generational family vacations, with classic Southern charm that comes from the large colonnaded front porches; Intricately manicured gardens and a more neutral color palette. Meanwhile, Alice Beach, the newest of all towns, offers a step into the Mediterranean with its Greek-inspired architecture and whitewashed walls.
All 16 of South Walton’s cities are worth a visit, even if it’s just a matter of admiring how each one truly feels like its own little world. The laid-back, postcard-friendly environment is certainly a draw for visitors, but most people come to the beaches, which are arguably some of the best in the entire state, yet are rarely crowded, even in high season.
Every brochure describes South Walton as “26 miles of white sandy beaches,” but that description, while accurate, hardly does the place justice. Walking on soft, fine sand is like sliding your toes through bleached bread flour.
What gives sand its semi-dark white color and melts in your hands? It is actually a quartz crystal that has been eroded from the Appalachian Mountains over thousands of years and brought into the region by a system of rivers. Mix that fine sand with warm bay water and you’ve got the perfect emulsion for intricate sandcastles—something I learned years ago during a class about building sandcastles with Rick Munjim, an architect-turned-sand-sculptor and owner beach sand sculptures a company.
Away from the shoreline, the typically calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are incredibly attractive to families, especially those with young children, and beachgoers like myself who don’t deal well with rough surf. With an estimated 10,000 bottlenose dolphins living in the bay, don’t be surprised if you see a group of these playful animals in the distance. If you’re a fan of fiery sunsets over the water, the west-facing beaches of South Walton make the scene like a colorful palette.
Of course, there are other ways to explore the area’s natural beauty such as biking the 18.5-mile Timpoochee Trail or birdwatching to catch a glimpse of the more than 200 species that live in or pass through the area. But South Walton’s biggest bragging rights come from coastal dune lagoons, a rare geographic feature found in only four countries in the world: Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (Florida and Oregon).
Hike and bike your way around these natural phenomena, or grab a fishing pole, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard to get closer to the freshwater lagoons located just steps from the shore. For direct access to many of the 15 dune lakes in South Walton, head to Grayton Beach State Park or Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
Obviously the great outdoors is more than enough to keep a South Walton visitor occupied, but we wanted to explore beyond that. What we found was an amazing art destination with over twenty galleries, sculpture trails, and art-focused events. We are already planning a return for the annual digital graffiti festival at Alys Beach, which notably uses bare city walls to display artwork on a large scale.
For the art inclined, a stop at Grayton Beach is a must. The laid-back town feels like a creative colony with local artists showcasing their work all around, but especially on The Grayt Wall of Art, the butterfly mural, and the dog wall depicting the town’s furry residents. Grayton stores are filled with art studios, but my favorite was shard shopwhere you can take part in a workshop using shards of glass and resin to “paint” a picture on canvas and take your masterpiece home.
Another noteworthy art station is Justin Jaffrey Gallery In Santa Rosa Beach. We were fortunate to meet the artist himself to get a closer look at his unique technique which uses thick balls of specially formulated paint to create almost dense, three-dimensional canvases that jump off the canvas. With Gufry’s guidance, I tried my hand at his method. My results weren’t the best, but it was still fun to scale my creativity. Fortunately, the abstract nature of this technique can be a bit forgiving. I take Home tools for beginners To practice more, but now The exhibition offers lessonswhich gives me another reason to come back to this special part of the Sunshine State.
People are always surprised when I describe South Walton for them: paradise beaches, picture-perfect cities, artistic enclaves—not to mention a heavily influenced foodie scene with Southern classics and fresh seafood from the bay.
As tempting as it may be to keep this little-known area of the Florida Panhandle to myself, the tour writer in me can never sustain this idyllic destination. We hope South Walton gets the fame it deserves without the over-tourism of Florida’s most widely known beaches.