By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser Jr.
Fall and winter bring crisp days to northern Florida, and the sugar-white beaches offer peace and quiet after the summer influx of visitor’s ends. Cool weather travelers to the area, though, have options that extend beyond the beachfront. The Panhandle “new town” of Seaside-immortalized in the movie The Truman Show–escaped the 2005 hurricane season unscathed and is beckoning off-season visitors with a variety of activities on and off the beach.
Robert Davis, who owned the 80 acres of land along the Gulf which became Seaside, decided to develop the property as a traditional Florida beachfront small town, working with Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk to design a pedestrian-friendly village. Old-fashioned porches, picket fences, and winding brick lanes make for a refreshing contrast to the high-rise beach scene elsewhere in Florida.
Some Seaside houses are just the right size for a romantic getaway; in fact, a row of beachfront units is known as the Honeymoon Cottages. Inspired by the guesthouse Thomas Jefferson built at Monticello, these one-bedroom, two-story cottages are full-service, including maid service, bicycles, champagne, firewood, and a daily newspaper.
Atmospheric amenities include a first-floor jacuzzi on the beachside porch, sheltered with white canvas panels, a wood-burning stove in the upstairs living room, and a double hammock on the upstairs porch which looks out over the Gulf.
For the past several years, Walton County’s beachfront communities have welcomed visitors to the annual Autumn Tides celebration-a series of special events which includes Seaside’s Autumn Playwright Festival, produced by the Seaside Repertory Theatre. The yearly event honors a single playwright. In 2005, it featured performances of Edward Albee’s 1963 Broadway smash “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
Later in the fall, Seaside is the setting for the annual Seeing Red Wine Festival, featuring more than 250 wines from around the world, and the November 26th Christmas parade which kicks off the beachside holiday season. The whole town lights up for Christmas, and the first three Saturdays of December find carolers strolling the streets.
Visitors who venture past the beach find that South Walton County maintains a vibrant art scene. A few miles west of Seaside, the hundred-year-old community of Grayton Beach is home to Grayton House of Art, which features folk art. Owner Lisa Hinds represents some thirty artists, most self-taught-including her husband, Gordie, a former charter-boat captain who began painting in 2003 and now has a following. Further down Scenic Highway 30-A, outsider art can be found at Collaborations, whose slogan is “Stuff that Don’t Match the Couch.” Walton County maintains an “Artist of the Year” program. Justin Gaffrey has the title for 2005; his whimsical works spill out of his home, Gaffrey Art Gallery, in Blue Mountain Beach.
For visitors who want to explore the countryside, Seaside is a convenient headquarters for back-to-nature activities. The honeymoon cottages come equipped with bicycles, and if you’re feeling ambitious, the nineteen-mile paved Timpoochee Trail winds through nine beachfront communities along Highway 30-A and is popular with hikers and bikers alike.
The area offers numbers of off-the-beaten-path attractions. Deer Lake State Park near Seaside features massive dunes, a beach and a lake. A few miles away, at Eden State Gardens and Mansion in Point Washington, an elegant Greek Revival house and grounds overlooks the Choctawhatchee River. Huge live oak trees shelter camellias and roses and the park has its own butterfly garden-prime spot for a picnic.
If you’re a fan of indoor eating, Seaside has a number of good restaurants. Bud & Alley’s, right on the beach, is the recipient of the 2005 Florida Trend magazine’s Golden Spoon Award as one of the Top 20 restaurants in Florida. An award-winning selection of wines accompanies fresh seafood prepared with herbs from the Gulf-side garden. For casual fare Shades, across from the beach in the Central Square area, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers the option of dining on its covered deck. On the beach, Pickles Beachside Eatery is popular for casual outdoor snacks.
Seaside, located on Scenic Highway30-A off U.S. Highway 98 east of Destin, Florida, is easy to reach. The nearest airport is Okaloosa County Airport at Fort Walton Beach, which has regular service by ASA/Delta Connection, Comair, Continental Express Jet, USAir Express, and Northwest. Rental cars are available at the airport.
For more information on Seaside, check the website at www.seasidefl.com or phone 1-888-SEASIDE. For information on activities in the area, check www.beachesofsouthwalton.com or phone 1-800-822-6877.