This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
Flanked by two well-known destinations in the Florida Panhandle—Destin to the west and Panama City Beach to the east—South Walton is easy to miss if you’re not aware of the unique beauty hiding just off of US Highway 98.
Luckily, I knew exactly where to go when my fiancé and I veered slightly south from the main motorway. Venturing down Scenic Highway 30A, we landed in Rosemary Beach, one of 16 towns along the Gulf Coast that make up South Walton.
“We’re older than this town,” I said incredulously as I looked at the sign welcoming us to what would be our home for the next few days. Established in 1995, Rosemary Beach is not even the youngest in South Walton, but it is a perfect example of the planning that went into developing this area into the idyllic beachfront escape that it is today.
Cobblestoned streets, brick-paved sidewalks, fire-powered street lamps, and buildings that look straight out of the Dutch West Indies all come together in Rosemary Beach, exuding utopian vibes. The town is so perfect that it looks and feels like a movie set.
Built with the principals of New Urbanism—a concept that originated in South Walton—the town is entirely walkable (or bikeable if you prefer) with homes built close together, a town center full of restaurants and shops, plus plenty of lush greenery with pocket parks scattered throughout. Once we parked our car at The Pearl, our hotel and the architectural star of the 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 getting around and the tranquility that comes with that.
And Rosemary Beach isn’t the only one. Most towns in South Walton have their own unique architectural style and several have been built around fostering community with New Urbanism planning. In Seaside, the first of South Walton’s New Urbanist towns, you’ll find pastel-colored homes and buildings constructed in the old-Florida style, emphasizing wooden constructions, patios, and balconies. Most homes even don a white picket fence that gives Seaside its air of blissful Americana, Mainstreet USA as Walt Disney himself would’ve imagined it. When you learn that Jim Carrey’s movie The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, it makes even more sense.
In WaterColor, you’ll find grand homes, ideal for multigenerational family vacations, with a classic Southern charm that comes from their large, columned front porches; intricately manicured gardens; and more neutral color palette. Meanwhile Alys Beach, the newest of all the towns, offers a step into the Mediterranean with its Greek-inspired architecture and white-washed walls.
All of South Walton’s 16 towns are worth visiting, even if it's just to admire how each one truly feels like its own little world. The peaceful, postcard-ready environment is certainly a draw for visitors, but most people come for the beaches, which are arguably some of the best in the entire state and yet are hardly ever crowded, even in high season.
Every brochure describes South Walton as “26 miles of sugar-white sand beaches,” but that description, despite its accuracy, hardly does the place justice. Walking along the powdery soft sand feels like shuffling your toes through bleached baking flour.
What gives the sand its almost blindingly white color and dissolve-in-your-hands texture? It’s actually quartz crystal eroded from the Appalachian Mountains over thousands of years and brought to the region by a system of rivers. Mix that smooth sand with the warm Gulf waters and you have the ideal emulsion for intricate sandcastles—something I learned years ago during a sandcastle building class with Rick Mungeam, an architect-turned-sand sculpture artist and owner of the Beach Sandsculptures company.
Beyond the shoreline, the typically calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are incredibly inviting for families, especially those with young children, and beachgoers like me who don’t do well with intense waves. With an estimated 10,000 bottlenose dolphins living in the Gulf, don’t be surprised if you spot a pod of these playful animals in the distance. If you’re a fan of fiery sunsets over the water, South Walton’s westward facing beaches set the scene like a colorful painting.
Of course, there are other ways to explore the area’s natural beauty like biking on 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 region. But South Walton’s biggest bragging rights come from its coastal dune lakes, a rare geographical feature found in only four countries in the world: Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. (Florida and Oregon).
You can hike and bike your way around these natural phenomena or grab a fishing pole, kayak or stand up paddleboard to get even closer to these freshwater lakes that sit just steps away from the beach. For direct access to several of South Walton’s 15 dune lakes, head to Grayton Beach State Park or Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.
The great outdoors is obviously more than enough to keep a South Walton visitor busy, but we wanted to explore beyond that. What we found was a surprisingly artsy destination with more than two dozen galleries, sculpture trails, and art-focused events. We’re already planning to go back for the annual Digital Graffiti festival at Alys Beach, which makes special use of the town’s bare walls to project large scale works of art.
For the artistically inclined, a stop in Grayton Beach is a must. The laidback town feels like a creative colony with local artists showing off their work everywhere, but especially on The Grayt Wall of Art, the butterfly mural, and the Dog Wall depicting the town’s furry residents. The Shops of Grayton is full of art studios, but my favorite was The Shard Shop, where you can participate in a workshop using shards of glass and resin to “paint” a picture on canvas and take your masterpiece home.
Another noteworthy art stop is the Justin Gaffrey Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach. We were lucky to meet the artist himself for a closer look at his unique technique that uses thick globs of specially formulated paint to create heavily textured, almost 3-D paintings that leap from the canvas. With Gaffrey’s guidance, I tried my hand at his method. My results were not the best, but it was still fun to stretch my creativity. Thankfully, the abstract nature of the technique can be a bit forgiving. I took a beginner’s kit home to practice some more, but now the gallery offers classes, giving me yet another reason to return to this special part of the Sunshine State.
People are always surprised when I describe South Walton to them: the beautiful beaches, picture-perfect towns, and artsy enclaves—not to mention the foodie scene heavily influenced by Southern classics and fresh seafood from the Gulf.
As tempting as it is to keep this little known region of the Florida Panhandle to myself, the travel writer in me could never gatekeep this utopian destination. Here’s hoping South Walton gets the fame it deserves without the overtourism of Florida’s more popular beaches.