Travels with Barbara Beckley: Surprising South Walton, Florida

Story & photos by Barbara Beckley

 Truly sugar-white sand made of quartz crystals.  

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes — and walked across it barefoot — I wouldn’t have believed that sand can be this beautiful and cool to the touch.  

I’d heard that the beaches of South Walton, on Florida’s northwest coast, were incredible. But you can’t appreciate their beauty — crystal white and truly like sugar — until you’re there.

Why are they so uniquely beautiful?

“The beaches are composed of pure quartz crystals, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains over millions of years and buffed into tiny particles,” explained David Demarest of Visit South Walton. As if gorgeous beaches weren’t enough, the water is a beautiful transparent turquoise. “This is because no sediment-heavy rivers directly influence the sea, and the quartz sea bottom reflects the light,” Mr. Demarest added.

“Our 26 miles of beaches are truly unlike anywhere else in the world,” he said. I, for one, believe him. As a California girl, who has visited Tahiti, Fiji, and Mexico, I’ve never seen beaches like these. Swimming, water sports, sunning, and simply snuggling your toes in the sand is pure joy.

Sand castle-building takes on a new dimension when your creation looks like it could be the icing on a cake. Sand castle lessons by Beach Sand Sculptures, a professional sand sculpting company, is one of South Walton’s favorite activities. Family groups, wedding parties, friends, and couples arrange lessons with Rick Mungeam, a former architect who founded the company in 2011.  

“First you have to wet the sand,” he instructed, handing me and each of my eight classmates a bucket filled with freshly dug beach sand. Pouring in seawater little by little, I mixed my sand to his recommended consistency. I was surprised at how solid the sand became: nearly like cement. Next, using kitchen tools — and lots of help from Mr. Mungeam — I sculpted a castle! Complete with a drawbridge, arched entryway, and two towers. Pretty good for my first lesson!

There’s plenty to do after enjoying the beach, as well. Sixteen resort communities span the sugary sands, most built within the last 10 years or so. Architects call this area the “birthplace of ‘new urbanism,’’’ a community design movement that creates walkable neighborhoods containing a range of housing, resort, and amenity offerings from ultra-luxe small hotels, fine dining, and championship golf to eclectic arts and crafts and Jimmy Buffet-like beachfront bars and cafes.

Natural attractions include 15 rare coastal dune freshwater lakes, accessible at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park and Grayton Beach State Park.

I stayed at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, located inside the Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort community. Set on the beach, it features ocean views from every guest room.

From the resort, I rode Sandestin’s free hop-on-hop-off tram to the Village at Baytowne Wharf, on Choctawhatchee Bay, a local go-to for restaurants, boutiques, night spots, and entertainment. I lunched at the “old Florida” style Hammerhead’s Bar & Grill, enjoying live guitar music; then I strolled along the boardwalk out over the water with sweeping bay views, and lastly hit the sale rack at Lilly Pulitzer, a Florida-based clothing designer.

Exclusive Rosemary Beach was on my agenda the next day. It’s the epitome of luxury beachfront living, with million-dollar homes designed as mini Ante Bellum mansions lining small shady lanes. The luxury Pearl Hotel takes guests back to Hemingway’s Cuba, with sumptuous architecture and décor — bongo drums as lamps — inspired by the author’s old Havana haunt, the El Floridito hotel. “I could live like this,” I fantasized, sipping a mojito on its ocean-view Rooftop Lounge.

In the neighboring beach town of WaterColor, I rented a bicycle from the Bike Barn, then pedaled through the cute little town of Seaside. Hot dog stands housed in Airstream trailers, fun restaurants, and eclectic shops and galleries, make Seaside one of the area’s most happening micro-towns. I followed the locals to lunch at Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar + Trattoria, upstairs overlooking the water. Then I perused the boutiques. A dachshund figures prominently in Seaside’s 20-year history. The flagship Seaside Style boutique brims with adorable dachshund-themed clothing and home décor. I bought a great pair of turquoise-rimmed sunglasses from a street vendor.

My most memorable moment was at The Shard Shop in nearby Grayton Beach. It’s a friendly, make-your-own-art store, where individuals, groups, and families create works of art on canvas from broken glass, pottery, and jewelry. My smiling alligator, with a pearl necklace, pearl high heels, and a bow on her tail, will forever bring me happy memories of South Walton.

For more, go to www.visitsouthwalton.com.


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Jan 2022


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