Creating Family Memories
Sometimes a beach leaves its footprints on you. By nature, South Walton breeds laughter, relaxation and togetherness. Come experience simple joys in an extraordinary setting, and see why families come back year after year to create lasting memories.
“I like this picnic,” my son says, his words muffled by a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly. He’s covered in jelly, just as he would be at home. But today we’re sitting in a peaceful cove filled with cypress trees and dragonflies, surveying the scene from the bow of a small motorboat. Clearly enchanted, he’s asking a million questions, most beginning with, “What’s that?”
Our afternoon tour of Choctawhatchee Bay is just one of many fun family adventures on Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast. It’s quiet on these turquoise waters – well, except for my son – but he’s calmer than usual, and wide-eyed. We’re perfectly content, and I’m thrilled to finally introduce him to one of my favorite retreats: South Walton.
Having grown up in South Florida and then traveling to the Caribbean extensively, I consider myself a beach connoisseur and never have I discovered a coastal area more beautiful than South Walton. Here you’ll find cozy beachside cottages, charming bed-and-breakfasts and first-class resorts sprinkled along a strand of 16 unique beach neighborhoods with names like Seaside, Rosemary Beach and WaterColor.
Travel down Scenic Highway 30A which connects the neighborhoods, and cruise back in time. This two-lane road winds its way along the coast with fantastic views of the tranquil Gulf of Mexico and pristine beaches. Bike paths meander beside it, inviting families to leave their cars and electronic gadgets behind in favor of bicycles with straw baskets. The Mayberry-esque charm echoes the feeling of precious, simply enjoyed family time in a beautiful seaside setting.
To find an idyllic home-away-from-home, enlist the help of a local rental agency. The folks there can help you organize the perfect retreat based on your needs, including number of bedrooms or proximity to the ocean or pools. Amenity-rich resorts and inns are also popular picks for families; they offer a range of locations, price ranges and conveniences, and many offer fun kids’ programs.
Step outside just about any time of year and wrap yourself in mild, sunny weather. Area temperatures average 85 degrees in the summer and 55 degrees in the winter, making South Walton a year-round outdoors destination. Stretching 26 miles along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the waters glisten with a gorgeous turquoise hue and the sands are sugar-white and so soft.
Forty percent of the land is protected, preserving sand dunes, coastal lakes, and state parks as a mainstay of the community. Towering condos are almost non-existent because buildings are limited to four stories tall. At night, darkness blankets the sleepy towns, making the coast a safe place for the hundreds of sea turtles who nest here.
From May through October, South Walton Sea Turtle Watch allows you to witness hatchlings make their pilgrimage to the sea. Kids learn about the endangered turtles, including turtle-safe lighting and proper methods to observe this natural wonder. Getting involved and educated piques kids’ curiosity and appreciation for wildlife.
Then take to the water, ones of the area’s biggest natural attractions. In many communities, you can rent kayaks, canoes and small boats to go exploring. If fishing hooks your interest, cast a line in the peaceful dune lakes or the deep sea. Grab a net to catch blue crabs for dinner, or just have fun chasing ghost crabs. If foraging for the night’s meal is too strenuous, laze away at one of the area’s community pools. WaterSound’s zero-entry pool with sea turtle-shaped sprinklers and play areas is a hit with little ones.
Woven throughout South Walton is the concept of biophilia, an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. This concept is highlighted at the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, nestled on the Nokuse Plantation, considered one of the most biodiverse areas in the continental United States. At the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center, kids step inside a spectacular, state-of-the-art facility and meet some of the area’s local inhabitants. The display area contains a working bee hive, a bird watching station, a rescued snapping turtle and several species of snakes and frogs.
Off the beach, you can still keep kids entertained and expand their horizons. South Walton is noted for its artistic side, and it’s easy to get the kids on-board. Find creative, hands-on fun for all ages at Seaside’s Fired Up! Paint-Your-Own Pottery. Engage older kids with visits to whimsical stores and galleries along Scenic Highway 30A.
Miniature golf is a beach vacation classic and Sandestin has it, while the Village of Baytowne Wharf’s Adventure Zone provides a rope course for just “hanging” around. For ice cream – that quintessential treat – hit up Seaside’s Frost Bites or have a homemade scoop at Heavenly Shortcakes.
When the sun goes down, head to the many town-sponsored gatherings such as Seaside’s movies and concerts on the green – free events where you can spread out a picnic blanket, sit under the stars and be entertained by local musicians or the latest family flick.
Of course, you have to feed the bodies as well as their imaginations. Many local restaurants were founded by chefs who fell in love with the area while visiting with their own families, so you’ll find plenty of crowd-pleasing fare. Highlights include kid-friendly Pickles Beachside Grill in Seaside and seafood haven Pompano Joe’s in Miramar Beach.
If you can spare some adults-only time, head to Café Tango for intimate fine dining in Santa Rosa Beach, or try Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood in Sandestin – it’s the first AAA Four Diamond-rated restaurant to grace Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Whether it’s footprints in the sand, getting closer to nature, or participating in one of dozens of family-friendly activities, families traveling to South Walton find it’s the memories they take with them that keep bringing them back.
By Lissa Poirot, as seen in Dothan Magazine
Modified: January 23, 2013 5:34 pm
Created: October 04, 2011 1:58 pm