Florida: Searching for Memories in South Walton Beaches

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Miramar Beach Chairs in South Walton Florida.
Miramar Beach Chairs in South Walton Florida.

In Search of the Old Florida in Walton Beach

A traveler ruminates about her return to the beaches of South Walton, Florida

By Anne Braly

Twenty-five years had passed since I last set foot in the panhandle of Florida, and what I found was bittersweet. Gone were many of the thick stands of pines that once towered to the sky. In their place were homes painted in the hues of a Crayola box: a pastel paradise of homes painted in pinks and blues with white picket fences bordered by pearl-white sands and emerald green seas.

Once, there had been just a handful of restaurants. Now every culinary option is possible. A gastronome’s dream it is.

Driving down the 16-mile stretch of Highway 30A, which reaches from Mirimar Beach at its most-western point to Inlet Beach in the south, I find myself intrigued, gawking at all the newness as one town melts into a another.

If you miss small signs posted at each town line, you may not know the difference between WaterColor and Seaside. Or Rosemary and Alys. All delightful names with architecture that teases out the personalities of each planned community.

Grayton Beach State Park Fence in Sand.
Grayton Beach State Park Fence in Sand.

On the hunt for “Old Florida”
Gone are the mom-and-pop motels that once sprouted along the oceanside highway like sea oats, their “no vacancy” signs flashing red during high season. In their place stand palatial, modern hotels and condos, either sprawling across the sands or, if built before height restrictions were enforced by the local government, reach toward the sky.

So is the Florida of old still hiding among the palms and pines? The answer isn’t an easy one. You have to do some digging.

Goatfeathers Restaurant South Walton FL.
Goatfeathers Restaurant South Walton FL.

Once my eye is tamed to such, I begin seeing flashes of old Florida everywhere. The most convenient place to experience it is at one of the state parks where you’ll find it in its natural state, its dunes and wildlife, along with sugar-white beaches forever protected.

There there’s Dune Allen Beach where, right along the highway and tucked between two massive condo complexes, I see a small, one-story house so typical of those from the 1960s. It’s hard to believe that, with its oceanfront location–the Gulf of Mexico stretching out for thousands of miles in its back yard– some developer hasn’t snatched it up.

And then it happens again as I continue my drive into Santa Rosa Beach: Goatfeathers. A funny name for a restaurant full of funk and flavor. I enjoyed bringing my kids here when they were young, so you can only imagine my surprise when I find that it is still there.

The area boasts so many new restaurants, such as Havana Beach Bar and Grill inside The Pearl, a $400-per-night swanky boutique hotel at Rosemary Beach. The menu is a pure inspiration of Cuban and Southern fusion; or Whiskey Bravo along the highway at Seagrove Beach where some say the shrimp and grits are the best to be found.

I pull into Goatfeathers for a classic fried shrimp po’boy, then continue my way east, looking for more signs of life as it had been when this area was more suited to nomadic retirees looking for a warm place to hibernate over the winter than the kind of place it is now: one full of life for families and couples, old and young.

Grayton Beach

Grayton Beach appears out of nowhere. This is a beach that was retro before retro was cool. Sure, it’s seen its share of development, with modern structures wearing their refreshing pastels. But I get off the beaten track and find the homes I’m looking for, their old cypress sidings now swathed in handsome grey patina.

A not-to-be-missed trip to Grayton includes an evening at The Red Bar. It doesn’t look like anything more than an old barn if you drive by unaware. But it’s here you’ll find eclectic decor and a menu of crab cakes and crawfish. It’s been a local favorite for years. A jazz band plays nightly, and after the dinner crowd goes home, the party gets going.

My tour back in time continues with one last discovery in mind. I’d already heard that the old house I’d stayed in as a child at

Beach Lady at Grayton Beach.
Beach Lady at Grayton Beach.
Rosemary Beach - The Pearl hotel.
Rosemary Beach – The Pearl hotel.

Seagrove Beach had been torn down years ago. But I was wondering about the hotel/condo complex I’d brought my children to decades ago: Hidden Beach Villas. Surely it would have been razed be a forward-thinking developer.

But there it is: A beacon in a fog of newness calling out to me: “I’m still here.”
I slam on my brakes, pull into the parking lot of the squatty two-story building and text my daughters a picture. “Remember this place?” I ask. “Fondly,” my oldest daughter replies. My job complete. I found the Florida of old.

From old to new

But for all my wanderings to experience “Old Florida,” one thought kept tapping at my brain. It was beautiful, yes. And it still is. But after a few days, life became monotonous for the kids and not much of a vacation for parents trying to entertain them. That’s not the case now. Progress can be a good thing.

There’s Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin with its multiple shops and restaurants; and for kids, a carousel, ropes course and zip line. The Artist Collective at Grayton Beach shows the creative edge of the community. And food trucks roam the highway shifting from donuts at dawn to hot dogs and Key Lime pie pops well into the evening. At night, restaurants like Fish Out of Water offer al fresco dinners overlooking an amazing sunset over the gulf waters.

City planners did a good thing when it became apparent that change was on the horizon. By keeping state parks, limiting building heights and providing sufficient public access to beaches, it’s still possible to find the Florida of old living comfortably with the active lifestyles that carry over from one beach to the next.

A vacation of sunning with a good book just doesn’t “do it” for many. We demand more, and the beaches of South Walton deliver.