By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser Jr.
Late Fall may be the perfect time to visit the Florida panhandle beaches; the crowds evaporate after Labor Day and the weather turns cooler and breezy. The cooler temperatures lure visitors to venture beyond the air conditioned resorts into Florida’s great outdoors. South Walton County, Florida, provides a variety of outdoor experiences in settings that range from opulent to unspoiled.
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 2400 acres just east of the town of Destin, includes more than seven miles of beach and bay front property. In addition to homes, rental units, restaurants, nightclubs and a marina, the resort includes the Jolee Island Nature Park, an oasis from the hubbub complete with treehouse.
Nearby Topsail Hill State Preserve, 1600 acres on Highway 98, is an unspoiled bit of Old Florida including a rare coastal dune lake. These freshwater lakes, tucked behind dunes, are found only in Florida, Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand. The area is an important habitat for the endangered beach mouse. On a sunny fall morning, ecologist Sandra Sneckenberger entertained a group of visitors to the park’s boardwalk with a look at a mouse burrow and a description of how park employees capture, study and release the little rodents. While she talked, dozens of orange butterflies fluttered about, feeding off the goldenrod that blooms throughout the dunes. Hal Rhodes, head of the community support organization Friends of Topsail Hill, says that butterflies are found nearly year-round in the area; spring brings the blue Spring Azures and the yellow Cloudless Sulphurs. The park hosts orange Gulf Fritillaries in the summer, and fall sees the spectacular orange Monarchs passing through on their migration to Mexico.
Farther east, Eden State Gardens and Mansion, an elegant Greek Revival house and grounds off highway 98 overlooking the Choctawhatchee River has huge live oak trees sheltering camellias and roses as well as the park’s own butterfly garden.
Scenic Highway 30-A, off Highway 98 between Destin and Panama City, boasts natural attractions including Deer Lake State Park which features, in addition to a lake, massive dunes and a beach.
The area’s elegant resorts also provide opportunities to commune with nature.
In 2002, Rosemary Beach, the new traditional Panhandle town located on Scenic Route 30A, added a Butterfly Park. The design team consisting of garden designer Stephen Poulakos, horticulturist and designer Randy Harelson and entomologist and butterfly specialist Akers Pence first identified the pretty orange Gulf Fritillary as the type of butterfly visitors would be most likely to see. The team then outlined the life cycle of the butterfly and put in plantings specially designed to appeal to it.
Farther west on 30-A, the WaterColor Inn and Resort includes natural spaces amid its landscaped grounds. Cerulean Park, the resort’s central gathering place, features a koi pond and tree house and is a popular spot for picnics. The gardens include butterfly host plants along a narrow canal which connects with the pond at the south end of the Park. WaterColor’s recreational offerings include canoes, kayaks and bikes available from the BoatHouse. There’s an extensive woodland trail system on the property and Walton County’s C-30A Bicycle Trail provides access to nearby state parks. Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, right next door, offers an ideal opportunity for exploring a stretch of unspoiled Panhandle complete with towering dunes and secluded lakes.
For more information on exploring nature in South Walton County, check the website at www.beachesofsouthwalton.com