It’s easy to use the cliché “string of pearls” when describing the 16 communities and neighborhoods that dot the beach and back bays of South Walton County, Florida. But reflecting on the days I recently spent there as part of a press trip hosted by Visit South Walton, I think it’s more apt to think of it as a string of crystal, like the fine quartz crystal particles that make up the beach itself, often recognized as the best beach in the world. The source of that sand was one of the first things we learned the morning we spent making intricate sandcastles on Miramar Beach: The sugar-white sand is composed of pieces of quartz that originated high in the ancient mountains that became the Appalachians. After millions of years tumbling in rivers and streams, the particles made their way to the Gulf, creating beach sand that is so pure, it squeaks when you walk on it. And because the crystal particles reflect the sunlight, the sand is cool underfoot on even the hottest days. The beach really is everything the tourism people say it is.
DAY 1: Our group’s exploration of the beaches and bays of South Walton County started out at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa, a location so popular, we learned that more than 14 different corporate groups and organizations have brought their annual event to the resort every year for the past 32 years. Lisa Jones, director of sales and marketing, says it’s a tradition. “We have associates who have been here since we opened or whose mother or father worked here, and many are on first-name basis with our returning guests,” she said. “That’s important to what we do. There’s a real tradition here, with our guests and our staff.”
We toured the resort’s 40,000 square feet of ballrooms and breakout rooms, a tiered theater, and event space at Segar’s Steakhouse before relaxing with a reception on the aptly named Sunset Deck. The decks add another 20,000 square feet of beachfront event space.
DAY 2: The next morning, we headed down the road for breakfast and a tour of the recently updated Embassy Suites at Miramar Beach. The hotel has a spacious light-filled atrium and 6,000 square feet of function space right next to the atrium. This fall, the pool area is set to be updated with new gazebos and fire pits.
After breakfast, it was time for sandcastle building lessons! We walked across the road to the beach where we met Rick Mungeam, a former architect and founder of www.BeachSandSculptures.com, a professional beach sand sculpting company. Yes, there is such a thing, and Rick and his employees stay busy all up and down the beaches of South Walton passing on their secrets. I learned it’s kind of like sculpting from stone. You start with well-packed sand and carve away the excess to reveal your design. Not only do Rick and company work with families and groups (he said it’s great for a team building experience) they also create special sculptures with logos or messages.
Later that afternoon, following lunch at Hammerheads, one of the several great bayside restaurants at Baytowne Wharf, we headed to Rosemary Beach, one of the “new urbanism” communities in South Walton’s string of crystals. A multiple award-winning community for its unique architecture, Rosemary Beach is designed with Old World style and charm. The turreted boutique hotel called The Pearl Hotel looks like it could be in Switzerland, except instead of the Alps, the hotel offers views of a stunning private beach just beyond the dune line.
Rosemary Beach is both elegant and comfortable. We wandered the tree-lined streets admiring the lovely homes and parks and poked our heads into a few of the shops, wishing we had more time to explore.
We were treated to another sunset reception that day, this time with views of Rosemary Beach and the Gulf from the Rooftop Sanctuary at The Pointe at Inlet Beach, a Wyndham Resort Quest resort perched at the eastern entrance to Scenic Highway 30A. Our day ended with fresh seafood, outstanding sushi, and local craft beers at The Bay, a family owned restaurant on Choctawhatchee Bay.
DAY 3: Sunday brought something new for our group—a breezy, blustery, sometimes rainy day at the beach, but we didn’t let it slow us down. We began with another tasty breakfast, this time from The Bistro at the Courtyard Sandestin at Grand Boulevard. We took a quick look at the hotel’s four meeting rooms, and did a drive through of the Shops at Grand Boulevard to whet our appetite for the next day when we would return to shop. Then we set off, dodging rain showers, to tour WaterColor Resort in Santa Rosa, a 500-acre property situated between the Gulf and one of the area’s rare coastal dune lakes. Our planned bike ride that day was out because of the showers, so we walked, seeing event facilities, the Inn, and neighborhoods at WaterColor before crossing into Seaside, another “new urbanism” development, which replicates the look and feel of old Florida beach towns. Most residents in Seaside get around by foot or on bike; there is a bustling little town center with a wonderful gourmet market, a row of Airstream trailers serving up great things to eat, and more shops and beachside pavilions just across 30A. We took shelter from the rain for a delicious lunch at Bud and Alley’s, an iconic beachfront restaurant in Seaside that’s been serving up coastal cuisine for more than 30 years.
After lunch, we found a perfect rainy-day activity, expressing our artistic sides and creating original art at The Shard Shop in Grayton Beach, a make-your-own art boutique, inspired and owned by South Walton artist, Mary Hong. Debbie, the staff artist on duty, introduced us to the process and materials and then let us do our own thing, offering guidance when art went awry! (Another super team building activity!) We all worked diligently on our creations, and while mine may not be a great work of art, I had loads of fun imagining a mountain scene, thinking of the journey quartz took to become the white sand beaches of South Walton.
Next it was back to Baytowne Wharf to check in for the night at the Grand Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort that offers a collection of lodging options, each with its own style and personality, and all just steps away from all the shops, dining, and entertainment options of the Village of Baytowne Wharf. We toured the complex’s abundant 65,000 square feet of meeting and event spaces, including the Baytowne and Linkside Conference Centers.
A few days after the visit, the Grand Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort had big news to share: A new $100 million, full-service hotel is coming in 2020, adding 250 guest rooms and more than 20,000 square feet of new meeting and event space adjacent to the Baytowne Conference Center. Guests at the new hotel will have access to all resort amenities, including 7+ miles of beaches and bay front, four championship golf courses, 15 world-class tennis courts, marina and all the events, shopping, dining, and nightlife of The Village of Baytowne Wharf.
Our final dinner of the trip was at the casual beachside Blue Dune Grille at Tops’l Beach and Racquet Club in Miramar Beach, a Resort Quest by Wyndham vacation rental property. The 52-acre gated community sits on the beach and borders a nature preserve, with a lovely outdoor event lawn and unique space for events, including Centre Court and Wimbledon Room that overlook the resort’s state-of-the-art tennis facilities.
DAY 4: Monday morning dawned and with it the final day of our trip. It was a short day for me, thanks to an early flight home, but I did get to enjoy breakfast with the group on the porch at Another Broken Egg, a fun restaurant in the Village of Baytowne Wharf. As we ate and sipped our mimosas, we watched herons wade along the shore and osprey dive for fish in the lake. In the trees nearby, smaller birds flitted from limb to limb. Is breakfast porch bird watching a thing? We decided it certainly could be, at least in South Walton County, Florida.