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USA: Florida: Northwest Florida, Orlando
Northwest Florida, USA: 19 whites
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Most of us are aware of 18 greens. Here’s exploring something new. Tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, Northwest Florida has 19 communities; each one blessed with white sandy beaches of their own. White as white could be. Pure as pure could be. Coming to Florida without a few days in this little paradise may not be a good idea.
After completing 4 days of business in Orlando, I had the opportunity to spend 3 days in Northwest Florida as a guest of Visit Florida. A charter Jet from Shelteair Aviation Services was organized to take us from Orlando to Destin. It was a 60-minute flight. When emerald coloured waters and white beaches were in view, I knew I was to land at Destin which is one of the 2 communities that make for Emerald Coast. The other being Fort Walton Beach. Add Okaloosa Island if you may.
Since we are talking numbers, here’s the break-up of the 19 communities. Mexico Beach, Panama City Beach, 15 in Beaches of South Walton, Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The 15 communities of Beaches of South Walton are Seascape, Miramar Beach, Sandestin, Dune Allen, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain, Grayton, WaterColor, Seaside, Seagrove, WaterSound, Alys Beach, Seacrest, Rosemary Beach and Inlet Beach. This should be of help to the traveler with time on hand.
I couldn’t of course enjoy the hospitality of each community. But my visits, wherever I could go, did leave a lasting impression. A motor coach was waiting for us right on the airport tarmac. It feels good to alight from a private jet and walk straight into a waiting bus!
The first stop was Destin Harbor – home of the ‘World’s Luckiest Fishing Village’. The finest and the largest of fishes are an easy catch here. Destin Harbor hosts the largest charter fishing fleet in the State of Florida and is home to ‘Fishing Rodeo’ that’s a hit every year with fishing enthusiasts from around the world. Fresh seafood is caught right offshore in the Gulf and served up in dozens of restaurants. Our lunch was at Emerald Grande Resort overlooking the Choctaw Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
After lunch, we walked the harbor to board a catamaran ‘Emerald Dancer’. We were in very able hands of Captain Rex. An Australian, the skipper came to the US on a sailing mission in 1997. He never went back. That’s the magic of Emerald Coast (and a visa-waiver policy between the two countries). We sailed for 60-minutes with an average speed of 12 knots. As anticipated we could spot a few dolphins in the Gulf. Captain Rex organizes cruises of various lengths costing from $35. You may want to be on one of them.
Post sailing, we drove to Henderson Beach State Park located just east of Destin. The Park was purchased in 1983 from the Henderson Family and was made open to public in 1991. The three-quarter mile nature trail meanders through ancient but still growing and shifting dunes with vegetation known as coastal scrub. The trail provides a vista of the park and in some places, the Gulf of Mexico. The park has 60 campsites and picnic areas and is a hit during summers.
Next, we headed east to the Beaches of South Walton. 15 diverse beach communities offer upscale yet casual place to unwind and rejuvenate. The area has 22,000 acres of preserved land within the 5 state parks and forests. The area is also home to the largest concentration of rare coastal dune lakes in the world. These 15 lakes have been identified as globally extraordinary with similar ecosystems found only in Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand. The region provides great opportunities for hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, fishing and bird watching.
For our accommodation, we checked into Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. An award winning resort with 30 charming neighbourhoods featuring 1700 condominiums, villas, town homes and a wide variety of hotel accommodations. The property has to its credit 4 championship golf courses, 7 miles of beaches and bay front, 15 world class tennis courts, 19 swimming pools and 98-slip marina. The numbers should tell you all! I had a room with a view. In fact, that was the case with the 3 hotels that I checked in during this trip.
For dinner we walked to the Finz overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Finz Beachside Grille offers a fantastic dining experience where the cuisine outshines the view. Seafood, steaks, lamb and chicken are served with unique flavours that are inspired from the Gulf Rim including the Caribbean Islands, Jamaica, Haiti as well as hints from New Orleans. Chef Justin Stark did a great job that evening.
After dinner, it was stroll time in the vibrant Village of Baytowne Wharf – the heart and soul of Sandestin. The village features an array of boutiques, eateries, galleries and nightlife in a spectacular setting, nestled along the Choctawhatchee Bay. I was ready to hit the bed after a hearty walk and a frozen pinacolada.
The next morning, with are bags packed and loaded in the bus, we were ready to be driven in golf carts to reach Hilton Sandestin Golf Resort & Spa. My cart driver was Tommy - a creative guy who took extra pains to do some detours to show me some great landscapes in and around the property. Since I was an Indian, there was an Indian flag flying proudly atop the cart. It was very creative of the team at Sandestin Resort to organize flags of various countries for individuals in the varied group that we were. Small gestures go a long way. In our case it was 4 kms.
The Hilton is the largest beachfront resort in Northwest Florida. The property is located on the 2400 acres Sandestin Resort offering luxurious amenities and recreational activities. The breakfast was served on the deck overlooking sugar white beaches and emerald green waters of the Gulf. I had the opportunity to inspect a few rooms. A stay is bound to cheer the discerning traveler. Generally speaking, the region sells at prime rates from May through September. The room rates are quite attractive during other months.
After breakfast al fresco, we headed towards Topsail Hill State Preserve located on the Florida Scenic Highway 30A near Santa Rosa Beach. In 15 minutes we were in the park that offers a wide variety of natural resources including 3.2 miles of secluded white sand beaches with majestic dunes over 25 feet tall. Three rare coastal lakes provide excellent freshwater fishing. The 1640 acres of park area is home to Gulf-front pine forests and wild plant communities from beach dunes to pine flatwoods.
Most of the communities of Beaches of South Walton fall on the Florida Scenic Highway. Running from Dune Allen up to Rosemary Beach, the route that can be driven pretty quickly, offers spectacular views of the Gulf on one side and forests and lakes on the other. It has bike and walking trails too. A drive on this route is absolutely a must for all visitors. Since we were in a group it was not possible to stop at all picturesque spots along the way.
20 minutes further up the road was Seaside. This is an 80-acre award winning holiday town where wooden cottages with picket fences line brick streets leading towards beachfront gateways. You don’t have to be famous to own a home in this picture perfect town. But you certainly have to be rich. Keep aside half a million dollar… give or take a few hundred thousands. Few of the homes can be rented for a vacation. Whilst walking through the streets of Seaside, I was intrigued by the names of the pastel coloured cottages. Here are a few I came across. ‘Julie had her way’, ‘God will have to pay’, Mom’s off duty’, Ooh la la’ to name but a few.
The town’s interfaith chapel is a simple wooden structure, painted white but recipient of prestigious architectural awards. The structure’s simplicity and use of natural lights does the trick. By the way, no 2 homes on a street can have the same picket fence. They have to be different… that’s the identity of the home! If you are looking for a beachside holiday and want to be away from branded chain stores, head for Seaside. Burgers and gelatos made locally by the residents keep the Macs of the world at a distance.
The walk built my appetite. And what could be better than to enjoy a delicious lunch at the WaterColor Inn & Resort, located just minutes away between Seaside and Grayton Beach. This 499-acre coastal resort offers breathtaking views of the Gulf. Its restaurant, Fish Out of Water, is well known for using fresh, local ingredients served in a chic ambience. It was not wrong when Chef de Cuisine Philip Krajeck was honoured with the ‘Best Chef: South’ award.
Continuing driving further up for another 25 minutes got us into a totally new world. Alys Beach. A ‘fortified’ community. While at Seaside homes were built with timber, at Alys Beach every home is built to Fortified Standards as well as Green Home Designation Standard. Bullet proof glasses, steel structures and concrete foundation make sure the homes withstand hurricanes of the highest order. Alys Beach draws its architectural inspirations from Bermuda and Antigua, Guatemala. Homes with central courtyards and pastel coloured paints make for a great holiday setting.
25 minutes further up the Scenic Highway is Panama City Beach. That would be our destination for the evening and the rest of the night. We were hosted at Sterling Breeze. My room was on the 11th floor overlooking the Gulf. Whilst in Panama City Beach you would definitely want to do at least 2 things. One, make a visit to famous Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. Their menu card highlights some exotic chillers and gourmet bites. Sipping one of their frozen margarita whilst watching the sunset would be a great way to welcome the evening. Second, stroll around Pier Park to shop or dine. Heaps of shops, boutique stores and restaurants are sure to keep one busy.
Early next morning we checked out from our hotel and prepared ourselves for breakfast on board ‘Island Time’ – a sleek 55 feet long and 30 feet wide catamaran. We sailed the calm waters of St. Andrews Bay with schools of dolphins as our guides. The setting was perfect to kick back and relax leaving the hard work to the experienced crew.
The catamaran docked in a pier near to St. Andrews State Park. The park ranks number two on the list of ‘Top 10 Beaches in the United States’. A trip around this picture perfect 1260 acres of rolling, white sand dunes separated by low swales of pine woods and marshes will tell you the reason why. There’s a tram that runs through the park every hour by the hour. Volunteers are a friendly lot and have interesting stories to share with visitors.
After spending a couple of hours in the park, we were ready for lunch. The setting was at Boatyard Restaurant overlooking the Grand Lagoon. Region’s popular chef Konrad Jochum cooked some delicious Florida fare that was served with southern hospitality.
For the afternoon I had options to opt for some adventure trips including fishing, sailing in a pontoon boat, dolphin encounter and a round of 9 holes golf. I resisted the temptation and chose to take it a bit easy in my hotel which would be Marriot Bay Point Golf Resort & Spa. A walk around the hotel’s spacious campus along the edge of the water was an enriching experience.
In the evening we strolled down the dock for a sunset cruise and cocktails aboard a private yatch ‘S S Oaseas’. After a soothing 60 minute sailing and sipping we docked at a pier located on Lagoon Drive… just a few meters away from Captain Anderson’s Restaurant and Waterfront Market. The restaurant is named among America’s Top 50 restaurants and is the recipient of the ‘Best Seafood Restaurant’ award from Southern Living Magazine as also Wine Spectator’s ‘Award of Excellence’. It’s a local tradition to watch the fishing fleets unload their catch while dining at this fine restaurant. If you happen to be around somewhere, don’t miss a meal at Captain Anderson’s.
Our trip would come to an end tomorrow morning. But the excitement was not over. We were a special group to celebrate the opening of the new international airport aptly named Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. Now there won’t be any need to charter flights.
As luck would have it, I was the first passenger on Southwest’s inaugural flight to Orlando. An exciting way to end an equally exciting trip.
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