This very un-Florida spot has some of Florida’s best beaches

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 that hides just off US Highway 98.

Fortunately, I knew exactly where to go when my fiance and I turned slightly south from the main highway. As we headed down Scenic Highway 30A, we landed in Rosemary Beach, one of 16 Gulf Coast towns that make up South Walton.

“We’re older than this town,” I said in disbelief as I looked at the sign welcoming us to what would be our home for the next few days. Established in 1995, Rosemary Beach isn’t even the youngest in South Walton, but it’s a perfect example of the intentionality that went into developing this area into the idyllic beach getaway it is today.

Cobblestone streets, brick sidewalks, fire-powered streetlights and buildings that look straight out of the Dutch West Indies come together in Rosemary Beach, exuding utopian vibes. The city is so perfect that it looks and feels like it should be a movie set.

Built with the principles of New Urbanism – a concept that originated in South Walton – the city is completely walkable (or bikeable if you prefer) with homes built close together, a downtown full of restaurants and shops, plus lots of lush greenery with pockets parks scattered throughout. When we parked our car at The Pearl, our hotel and the architectural star of the square, we didn’t have 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 it.

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 promoting community with New Urbanism planning. In Seaside, the first of South Walton’s New Urbanist towns, you’ll find pastel-colored homes and buildings built in the Old Florida style, with an emphasis on woodwork, decks and balconies. Most homes even have a white picket fence, giving Seaside its air of blissful Americana, Mainstreet USA, as Walt Disney himself would have 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 multi-generational family vacations, with a classic Southern charm that comes from their large, columned front porches; intricately manicured gardens; and a 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 whitewashed walls.

All of South Walton’s 16 towns are worth a visit, even if just to admire how each truly feels like its own little world. The peaceful, postcard-ready environment is certainly a draw for visitors, but most come for the beaches, which are arguably some of the best in the entire state and yet are almost never 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 sand feels like shuffling your toes through bleached baking flour.

What gives the sand its almost blinding white color and dissolving texture in the hands? It is actually quartz crystal eroded from the Appalachian Mountains over thousands of years and brought to the region by a river system. Mix the smooth sand with the warm Gulf water, 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-sandsculptor and owner of the company Beach Sandsculptures.

Offshore, the typically calm waters of the Gulf of Mexico are incredibly inviting for families, especially those with small children, and beachgoers like me who can’t handle 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 west-facing beaches set the scene like a colorful painting.

Of course, there are other ways to explore the area’s natural beauty, like biking the 17.5-mile Timpoochee Trail or bird watching 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 geographic feature found in only four countries in the world: Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (Florida and Oregon).

You can hike and bike around these natural phenomena or take a fishing rod, kayak or stand on a paddleboard to get even closer to these freshwater lakes that are 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.

Obviously, the great outdoors is more than enough to keep a South Walton visitor busy, but we wanted to explore beyond that. What we found was a surprising artistic destination with more than two dozen galleries, sculpture trails and art-focused events. We’re already planning to return for the annual Digital Graffiti Festival at Alys Beach, which makes special use of the town’s bare walls to project large-scale artwork.

For the artistically inclined, a stop in Grayton Beach is a must. The laid-back town feels like a creative colony with local artists showcasing their work everywhere, but especially on The Grayt Wall of Art, the butterfly mural and the Dog Wall which showcases the town’s furry inhabitants. The Shops of Grayton are full of art studios, but my favorite was The Shard Shop, where you can take part in a workshop using shards of glass and resin to ‘paint’ an image on canvas and take home your masterpiece.

Another notable art stop is the Justin Gaffrey Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach. We were lucky enough to meet the artist himself for a closer look at his unique technique that uses thick balls of specially formulated paint to create heavily textured, almost 3D paintings that jump off the canvas. With Gaffrey’s guidance, I tried his method. My results weren’t the best, but it was still fun to stretch my creativity. Fortunately, the abstract nature of the technique can be somewhat forgiving. I brought home a beginner’s kit to practice a little 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 amazed when I describe South Walton to them: the paradisiacal beaches, the picturesque towns, and the artsy enclaves—not to mention the food scene that’s 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 keep this utopian destination. Here’s to hoping South Walton gets the fame it deserves without the over-tourism of Florida’s more popular beaches.

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