SANTA ROSA BEACH: A STATE OF MIND
A small sign announcing Sunday-morning beach services flaps in the coastal breeze. Seaside and Watercolor are to the east, to the west Dune Allen. At the crossroads of Hwy. 30A and 393 is Santa Rosa Beach. Straight ahead: the Gulf of Mexico, a sparkling seascape. Over millions of years, the quartz sand has been polished to perfection. Sunlight dances across an ocean of cerulean blue and emerald. The clarity of the water and the startling whiteness of the sand create a brilliant vista that shimmers as though flecked by diamonds. More than the postcard perfection of dunes, sea oats and a sun-drenched beach awaits visitors.
“The Beaches of South Walton are like Camelot,” says Jane Higdon of the Tourist Development Council. “They exist in your mind and heart.” Higdon, the Public Relations and Promotional Manager for the beaches of South Walton, is enthusiastic about the beautiful twenty-six-mile stretch of paradise and the environmental values championed by South Walton. Santa Rosa Beach is the oldest of the thirteen beach communities that comprise the beaches of South Walton County in the Florida Panhandle.
Each has charm and distinct history. Each has a feeling. Santa Rosa Beach’s is one of laissez faire. Architecturally, it upholds the dictums of the new urbanism, planned communities that playfully harmonize design with environmental awareness. Indigenous plants surround vacation homes and condos painted in pastel and terracotta hues, creating vignettes that epitomize the beach lifestyle.
The state of Florida created the South Walton Conservation and Development Trust (SWCDT) in 1993. The organization is responsible for maintaining the balance between development and conservation and oversees the plan for 31,000 acres. South Walton County has an expansive environmental education and public outreach program, including Turtlewalks, nature walks, horse, bike and walking trails, and off-road biking adventures. Five rare plants and nine threatened animals, including the Atlantic Loggerhead Sea Turtles, the American Alligator, the Piping Plover and the Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse, share the woodlands with deer, turkeys and the migratory birds. The commitment to preserving natural habitats while diversifying the economy has yielded destinations that delight Eco-tourists and vacationers alike.
Whitewashed wrought iron, terracotta colors, brick walks, wooden-plank floors and the gleaming glass of shop windows give the look and feel of a Spanish Caribbean plaza to the Gulf Place development. Palm trees and oleanders of deep pink and red compliment the architecture. There are shops and boutiques for every taste, including beach fashions, Shabby Chic® furnishings, leaded glass lamps and collectibles. Sassy signs from management set the tone at Miss Lillian’s Gossip Parlor, a shop that offers libations, desserts, newspapers and two Internet connections.
True to its name, the Smiling Fish Café serves a good shrimp sandwich with plenty of smiles from the staff. Huge umbrellas shade the lemon-colored tables and chairs. Outdoor fans arch like question marks and stand ready for days when the breezes wane. Several restaurants lie between Goatfeathers on the east end and the Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club on the west end. The Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club offers a semi-private 18-hole course. Called “The Purest Golf on the Panhandle” by Golf Magazine, golfers will find a challenging game with a panoramic view of the gulf. There are two tennis courts, a pro shop, a restaurant and a driving range for golfers who need a warm-up.
Metal artist Chas Lawson’s enormous dragon sculpture and the hand-carved Adirondack chairs of Roy Godwin border the decidedly Caribbean corner of the Artists at Gulf Place. The eight brightly colored kiosks are home to a co-op of nine artists.
“The members of the co-op take turns overseeing the shops. We celebrated our one-year anniversary in July. This is a place to meet artists and see their work,” says portraitist Anita Weldon. Realistic portraits in soft natural pastels dot the walls of her kiosk. Other kiosks house the sculpture and stoneware works of potter Dwight Ward, Joe Elmore’s wood and stone sculpture, the colorful and whimsical folk art of Billie Gaffrey, Kris Meigs' papier-mâché, Manny Chavez’ fine art photography and the candles and handmade papers of Shanda Beste.
Santa Rosa Beach extends north past Hwy. 98 and is the largest of the beach communities. Its name was adopted from the prosperous Santa Rosa Plantation located on Hogtown Bayou in the 1800’s. The abundance of pine trees led to a booming “naval stores industry,” when turpentine was used to seal the hulls of wooden ships.
Don’t miss the Bayou Arts and Antiques or the view of Hogtown Bayou. Owner Chick Huettel has created a smorgasbord of art at its eclectic best with antiques, jewelry, books, abstracts and an al fresco museum The Wildlife Chapel and a children’s pet cemetery celebrate all creatures, from reptiles to insects and pets. Surrounded by fountains and arbors, an art studio overlooks the wetlands.
The Santa Rosa area includes Eden State Gardens. Discover the Old South at the Wesley Mansion. The restored antebellum home sits amid six-hundred-year-old oaks and includes Louis the XVI furniture and other antiques. Wander among the butterfly gardens, camellias and azaleas, or stop to gaze into the reflecting pond in the manicured gardens. The unspoiled 1,600 acres of Topsail Hill State Preserve are known as the “most pristine and environmentally protected” coastal property in the state. Wildflowers, rare plants and cypress swamps are home to coyotes, white-tailed deer, raccoons and fox. Point Washington State Forrest occupies 15,810 acres and has the three double loop trails. The Eastern lake Bike/Hike Trail was a cooperative effort between the Florida Division of Forestry and Beach Bay, Inc.
The beaches of South Walton County received the “Blue Wave” Environmental Certification from the Clean Beaches Council (CBC). Recipients must meet the stringent standards that include beach and intertidal conditions, safety, habitat conservation, services, erosion management and water purity. Three state parks and the thirteen beach communities received the certification for two consecutive years. “The brilliant white, fine quartz sand is a phenomenon unlike any other in the country,” says Walter McCleod, president of the CBC. According to the Council, countless miles of coastline are lost to erosion.
Combine the ambience and amenities that make Santa Rosa Beach an ideal summer destination with an average winter temperature of 68 degrees, and the appeal to winter travelers is obvious. An abundance of natural beauty and the mandate to protect these resources attract tourists who appreciate what the beaches of South Walton County have to offer. There are natural treasures and man-made wonders to be discovered and savored in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.
For more information visit http://www.beachesofsouthwalton.com/ or contact Beaches of South Walton TDC, P.O. Box 1248, Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32459, Phone: 1-800-822-6877