This very unflorida place has some of the best beaches in Florida

This is the latest in our series on underrated travel 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 are unaware of the unique beauty that lies just off US Highway 98.

Luckily, when my fiancé and I turned a little south off the main freeway, I knew exactly where to go. Driving along 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 city,” I said in disbelief as I looked at the sign welcoming us to our home for the next few days. Established in 1995, Rosemary Beach is not even South Walton’s newest, but it is a perfect example of the intent that went into developing this area into the idyllic beach retreat it is today.

Cobblestone streets, cobbled sidewalks, fire-powered streetlamps and buildings straight out of the Netherlands Antilles all come together in Rosemary Beach and exude utopian vibes. The city is so perfect that it looks and feels like it was meant to be a movie set.

Built on the principles of New Urbanism – a concept that originated in South Walton – the town is entirely walkable (or bike-ridable, if you prefer) with houses standing close together, a town center teeming with restaurants and shops as well as lots of lush greenery with pocket parks scattered everywhere. Once we parked our car at The Pearl, our hotel and the town square’s architectural star, we didn’t have to move it. Part of what makes Rosemary Beach the ultimate destination for a romantic getaway or family vacation is the ease of getting around and the tranquility that comes with it.

And Rosemary Beach isn’t the only one. Most South Walton towns have their own unique architectural style and several were built to encourage community with New Urbanism planning. Seaside, the first of South Walton’s New Urbanist cities, features pastel-colored homes and Old Florida-style buildings with an emphasis on timber structures, patios and balconies. Most homes even have a white picket fence, giving Seaside its touch of blissful Americana, Mainstreet USA, as Walt Disney would have envisioned. If you know this movie by Jim Carrey The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, it makes even more sense.

At WaterColor you’ll find great homes ideal for multi-generational family vacations, with a classic Southern charm that emanates from their large, pillared porches; ornately manicured gardens; and more neutral color palette. Meanwhile, Alys Beach, the newest of towns, offers a step into the Mediterranean with its Greek-inspired architecture and whitewashed walls.

All of South Walton’s 16 towns are worth visiting, if only to admire how each truly feels like a little world of its own. The peaceful, picture-postcard setting certainly draws visitors, but most people come for the beaches, which are arguably some of the best in the state and are rarely crowded, even in high season.

Every brochure describes South Walton as “26 miles of sugar-white sandy 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 texture that dissolves in the hands? It is 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 warm Gulf water and you have the ideal emulsion for intricate sandcastles—something I learned years ago during a sandcastle-making class with Rick Mungeam, an architect-turned-sandsculptor and owner of Beach Sandsculptures.

Beyond the shoreline, the normally calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are incredibly inviting for families, especially those with young children, and beach-goers like me who don’t do well with big 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 west-facing beaches set the scene like a colorful painting.

Of course, there are other ways to explore the area’s natural beauty, such as biking the 18.5-mile Timpoochee Trail or birding for a glimpse of the more than 200 species that live in or through the area they pull. But South Walton’s greatest 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 US (Florida and Oregon).

You can hike and bike these natural phenomena, or grab a fishing pole, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard to get even closer to these freshwater lakes just steps 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 artistic destination, with more than two dozen galleries, sculpture trails, and arts-centric events. We are already planning to return to Alys Beach for the annual Digital Graffiti Festival, which will make special use of the city’s bare walls to project large-scale artwork.

For the artistically inclined, a stop at Grayton Beach is a must. The laid-back city feels like a creative colony, with local artists displaying their work everywhere, but most notably on the Grayt Wall of Art, the butterfly mural, and the dog wall, which depicts the city’s furry residents. The Shops of Grayton is full of art studios, but my favorite was The Shard Shop, where you can take a workshop that uses broken glass and resin to ‘paint’ a picture on canvas and take home your masterpiece take.

Another notable art stop is the Justin Gaffrey Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach. We were lucky enough to meet the artist himself to get a closer look at his unique technique, which uses thick globs of specially formulated paint to create highly textured, almost 3-D paintings that pop off the canvas . With Gaffrey’s guidance, I tried his method. My results weren’t the best, but it was still fun to let my creativity flow. Thankfully, the abstract nature of the tech can be a bit lenient. I took home a beginner’s kit to keep practicing, but now the gallery offers classes, which is another reason for me to return to this special part of the Sunshine State.

People are always surprised when I describe South Walton to them: the paradise beaches, quaint towns and artistic enclaves – not to mention the foodie scene, heavily influenced by Southern classics and fresh Gulf seafood.

As tempting as it is to keep this little-known region of the Florida Panhandle to myself, the travel writer in me could never conquer this utopian destination. In hopes that South Walton gets the fame it deserves without the overtourism of Florida’s better-known beaches. This very unflorida place has some of the best beaches in Florida


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