Florida's Panhandle has outgrown its lowbrow reputation

Contributing Travel WriterFebruary 23, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Beaches of South Walton, Fla.

    Where to stay:

    ■ Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Accommodations on both the beach and the bay, primarily in one-, two- and three-bedroom condos. Sandestin has world-class amenities — four golf courses, two spas, a number of restaurants from casual to fine dining, a full-service marina and the Village of Baytowne Wharf, a complex of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. (9300 Emerald Coast Pkwy., Destin. Sandestin.com.)

    ■ The Pearl. An exquisite boutique hotel on the main square of Rosemary Beach, it has quirky art scattered through the public spaces, a pool deck with private cabanas, and a rooftop champagne bar with gulf views. (63 Main St., Rosemary Beach. Thepearlrb.com.)

    Where to eat:

    ■ Grayton Bar and Grill. A Florida Golden Spoon award winner, the restaurant specializes in modern Deep South cooking. That means barbecued shrimp with soufflé cornbread, skillet-fried pork chop with sawmill gravy, and Aunt Irma's banana beignets. (170 E. County Hwy. 30A, Santa Rosa Beach. Graytonbarandgrill.com.)

    ■ Vin'tij Wine Boutique. A funky bistro with a local clientele and creative décor and an eclectic menu featuring delectable dishes, including roast tomato and brie crostini and an oyster BLT with tomato chutney. The wine list is small but excellent. (10859 U.S. 98 West, Miramar Beach. Vintij.com.)

    ■ Havana Beach Bar and Grill. This atmospheric restaurant in the Pearl Hotel will have you thinking you are in pre-Castro Havana. The ambience is matched by the menu, which features Floridian and Southern specialties with a Latin twist. (63 Main St., Rosemary Beach.)

    ■ Solaris Dinner Cruise. For something a bit different, book passage on a dinner cruise aboard the 5,200-square-foot yacht Solaris. The two-hour cruise, leaving from Baytowne Wharf marina at the Sandestin resort, combines a premier dinner with a sunset cruise of Choctawhatchee Bay. (Sunquestcruises.com.)

    Learn more: Visitsouthwalton.com

When I lived in New Orleans, I loved a getaway to the beach. If I just had a day, I'd make do with Mississippi's Gulf Coast, an hour's drive away, or Gulf Shores, Ala., a two-hour drive. If I wanted to make a weekend of it, I'd head to the Florida Panhandle.

I spent a lot of time on these beaches, and one thing I never got used to was the nickname given to this gorgeous strip of sand: "the Redneck Riviera." The term even has its own listing in the online Urban Dictionary. Along with having "the most beautiful beaches in the world," the listing says, "it also has tattoo parlors, beer joints, crab shacks, burger barns, T-shirt boutiques, and more beach trinkets than you can imagine."

I had my own redneck experience (sort of), once being present at the iconic Flora-Bama Lounge (on the Florida-Alabama line in Perdido Key) when a bar fight — set to a Jimmy Buffet tune on the jukebox — broke out between tipsy LSU and Alabama students. Despite this, I always thought the nickname was a disservice to the region.

A public relations genius apparently agreed with me. Seemingly overnight, the "Redneck Riviera" became the "Emerald Coast." You'll still find plenty of T-shirt shops and tattoo parlors, but you'll also find the creamiest white sand lapped by the bluest-green water anywhere.

My most recent trek to the Gulf Coast took me to the beaches of South Walton, a stretch of surf and sand along Florida's U.S. 98 east of Destin that takes in 16 communities — from Miramar Beach at the western end to Inlet Beach to the east.

In the 1950s and '60s, this was a place where working-class families could rent inexpensive beach cottages in charmingly named communities: Seascape, Seagrove, Seacrest. They could be fairly certain that from their modest bungalow, they would have an uninterrupted view of the gulf.

On many parts of the beach, cottages have given way to condos, and the gulf view remains only until it is blocked by the construction of another, larger condo.

Still, those in search of what this part of Florida looked like 50 years ago are in luck. There are four state parks in Walton County. Those parks and Point Washington State Forest make up 40 percent of the county's acreage.

Topsail, considered the most pristine piece of coastline in Florida, is famous for a land- and seascape that includes bald cypress swamps and 25-foot sand dunes.

Grayton Beach has trails winding through pine woods and around freshwater ponds, making it an ideal habitat for wading and water birds; closer to the beach, gulls and terns hang out.

Deer Lake occupies a site alongside one of the area's rare coastal dune lakes (a combination of fresh and brackish water). If you have keen eyes, you might spot the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse, which makes its nest inside the dunes among the sea oats.

Eden Gardens boasts historic Wesley Mansion, built in the 1880s by a lumber baron. It's shaded by ancient oaks dripping in Spanish moss. The park is especially beautiful during the spring, when the azaleas and camellias are in bloom.

A visit to any of these parks makes it feel as if civilization is far away.

You can't escape civilization indefinitely, however, and with so many diverse communities, it's up to visitors to decide what they're looking for. Families with small children or those on a budget generally gravitate to the westernmost communities of Miramar Beach and Seascape, with their kid-friendly activities.

At the eastern end, the striking white stucco Mediterranean-style architecture of Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach's French Quarter-inspired town square attract those with more adult pursuits in mind.

The communities of Seaside and Watercolor have gained international recognition. Seaside is known for the elegance of its planned community and as the setting for the 1998 movie The Truman Show. (If you're looking for Jim Carrey's house in the movie, it's the rainbow sherbet- colored cottage at 36 Natchez Street.)

Nearby Watercolor is another perfectly planned community whose centerpiece is the WaterColor Inn and Resort, with its award-winning restaurant, Fish Out of Water.

Many visitors prefer to headquarter at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. Voted the top resort on the Emerald Coast by several groups and publications, it has accommodations on both the gulf and Choctawhatchee Bay. Sandestin is a one-stop recreation destination, with four golf courses considered among the best in the United States; two spas (one, Serenity by the Sea, is undergoing an extensive renovation); and the Village of Baytowne Wharf.

The Wharf is a shopping and entertainment complex built around a series of lagoons. You could easily spend a day here. Stop in for a hearty breakfast at the Broken Egg Café, test your skills on the zip line and Sky Trail ropes course in the Adventure Zone, shop for designer duds at Island Clothiers and Mermaids, and end your evening at Hammerhead's Bar & Grill, overlooking the bay.

Of course, the area's star attractions are the beaches — 26 miles of them. With sugar-white, powdery sand perfect for digging your toes into and warm, translucent waters that change in color from vivid green to turquoise, the beaches are routinely listed on lists of the world's best.

Just don't call it the Redneck Riviera.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at pnickell13@bellsouth.net.

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