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30A Real Estate

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.

Beach chair and umbrella service, compliments of the Pearl Hotel.

Beach chair and umbrella service, compliments of the Pearl Hotel.PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

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.

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Before the beach towns of South Walton were built, the land on which they stand today was owned by the St. Joe Company, a timber and paper operation that, at its peak, controlled over one million acres of land. It closed its mill in the late ‘90s and pivoted to land development (it’s still active in the area), just as the blueprints for the community were being drawn up. A group of University of Miami architecture students outlined an ambitious prototype for a town modeled on the New Urbanism movement, which prioritized a strong sense of community in which residents take an active role in planning and business development. This means pedestrian-friendly design means a central commercial hub easily reached on foot from any point in town. Seaside, with its quaint, pastel-colored beach cottages, was born, and fifteen other communities soon followed.

Modeled after traditional Bermudian "butteries" used to store perishable dairy products, these... [+] structures mark the entrance to Alys Beach.

Modeled after traditional Bermudian “butteries” used to store perishable dairy products, these…PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

On the whole, South Walton trends towards upscale, which sets it apart from nearby Panama City Beach, another popular vacation spot. Some South Walton towns are more budget-friendly than others. Clothing boutiques and home furnishing stores in Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, and Seaside, for example, are high-end, with nary a strip mall in sight. Country music stars like Sheryl Crow and Luke Bryan vacation here (and sometimes play free concerts, if you’re lucky enough to catch one), as do well-heeled Southerners, which explains the perhaps inevitable “Hamptons of the South” comparisons.

Nine distinct pavilions, each designed by a different architect, stand at the beach access points in... [+] Seaside.

Nine distinct pavilions, each designed by a different architect, stand at the beach access points in…PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

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.

For high-end boutique shopping, head to Rosemary Beach or Alys Beach.

For high-end boutique shopping, head to Rosemary Beach or Alys Beach. PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

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.

Whoever named this "the Emerald Coast" was on to something.

Whoever named this “the Emerald Coast” was on to something. PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

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.

Western Lake, one of South Walton's largest dune lakes.

Western Lake, one of South Walton’s largest dune lakes. PHOTO BY RACHEL KURLANDER.

What to Do

Explore the Towns

All of South Walton’s planned towns are unique in their design and overall feel, and there are a few in particular that are worth spending a day touring on bike or on foot. Rosemary Beach and Seaside are the easiest to explore, since both have pedestrian-friendly, lively downtown areas filled with shops and restaurants, as well as nearby residential streets that you could easily spend an afternoon wandering. In Rosemary Beach, pan-Caribbean-style homes line shaded streets connected by hidden pocket parks and wooden boardwalks that lead to the beach, while Seaside is a breezy, pastel-colored dreamscape home to little beach cottages with white picket fences. Alys Beach, South Walton’s newest community, is known for its glittering white stucco architecture that lends the town a polished, Mediterranean vibe. Grayton Beach, home to Grayton Beach State Park, the Shops of Grayton, and funky dives like The Red Bar and Hurricane Oyster Bar, is one of the more alternative towns in South Walton, with the (unofficial) motto, Nice dogs, weird people.

Laid back, funky vibes in Grayton Beach.

With preserved lands and 26 miles of sparkling coastline, it’s no surprise that there’s an artistic community seeking to capture the area’s natural beauty. At the Shops of Grayton in Grayton Beach, you’ll find the galleries of Mary Hong and Andy Saczynski. Hong uses found glass on canvas to compose seascapes, marine life, and other nature motifs, and visitors to her studio can even take classes to learn more about her technique and create their own glass works (a perfect way to spend a rainy day). Saczynski transforms recycled materials into funky, bold, 3D wall art. Justin Gaffrey, whose studio is located just off 30a in Santa Rosa Beach, layers heavy acrylic paint for a thick, textured style to depict local wildlife and gulf coast landscapes. Keep an eye out for their work around South Walton and impress your travel companions with your local art acumen.

Two words: Southern hospitality. If you’re not from the South, exchanging pleasantries with strangers may strike you as impertinent or downright creepy, but around here everyone greets each other politely, even if it’s just in passing. So be friendly, flash a smile, and return the courtesy. The communities of South Walton are beach towns, which means the dress code is scanty swim attire — bathing suits, flip flops — on and off the sand. Lastly, everyone drives the speed limit here, so don’t be that a**hole.