10 things not to miss in the panhandle
10 not to miss in Florida Panhandle
By PAULA CROUCH THRASHER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 10/15/06 You can't visit the northwest Florida Gulf Coast without wriggling your toes in the powdery white sands and splashing in the clear turquoise waters.
But the pristine shore is not the only draw in the 14 communities of Beaches of South Walton — especially in the fall when the weather is so agreeable and hurricane season has been kind.
Orient yourself to the area by taking a slow drive along Scenic Highway 30-A — preferably in a convertible. Stop when something strikes your fancy (and plenty will) as you traverse the 26-mile stretch between Seascape, Walton County's westernmost coastal town, and Inlet Point, where the highway rejoins the Emerald Coast Highway (U.S. 98).
In between, traveling west to east, are the beach towns of Miramar, Sandestin, Dune Allen, Santa Rosa, Blue Mountain, Grayton, WaterColor, Seaside, Seagrove, WaterSound, Seacrest and Rosemary. You'll see everything from Old Florida charm to polished planned communities.
It's hard to narrow down the must-do experiences, but our 10 suggestions provide a good taste of what 30-A has to offer.
1. Get off the beaten track and explore the ecosystem of the Choctawhatchee River and its estuaries with someone who knows the territory — someone like Walton County native Truett Senterfitt of Choctawhatchee Delta Tours (850-585-0445), who leads tours from his fishing camp at Black Creek Lodge. Senterfitt is one of 11 tour operators who've completed the county's Nature Based Certification Program. Gliding through the dark water in a fishing boat, he points out egrets and bald eagles and their nests, tupelo trees (from whence the honey comes), mullets flip-flopping at the water's surface and alligators and turtles sunning on the shores or fallen logs. Stop for lunch at The-3-Thirty-1 (850-622-3335, www.the3thirty1.com), overlooking Choctawhatchee Bay at the bottom of the U.S. 331 bridge. The fantastic Bloody Marys — loaded with olives, limes, pickled green beans and a rib of celery — are practically a meal in themselves.
2. In the fall, the sun sets over the water instead of the trees, so it's a particularly dramatic few minutes as the orangey orb melts into the sea. A good place to watch is from a bar-stool perch at Bud & Alley's Tarpon Club, a rooftop bar in Seaside, where a bell is tolled loudly when the sun dips below the horizon. Patrons predict the exact minute, writing their guesses on a chalkboard, and the winner gets a free drink to nurse while watching the blue sky turn pink and purple. Be sure to order a smoked tuna dip for the table. It's first-come, first-served at the bar, but the rustic-chic Bud & Alley's, a fine dining restaurant that has consistently raked in awards since opening in 1986, takes reservations at 850-231-5900. www.budandalleys.com.
3. Rent a bicycle (or stay at a resort such as WaterColor that provides complimentary bikes for guests' use). It's a great way to check out the neighborhoods. At times, there seem to be more bicycles than cars. The paved Timpoochee Trail runs alongside much of 30-A. The terrain is flat and the few "hills" won't take too much heavy pedaling. Bike rentals are widely available — mostly fat-tire cruisers with ample seats for ample behinds and no gears to worry about. You might see a Lance Armstrong wannabe buzzing past you, but most folks pedal leisurely, sometimes with a kiddie trailer attached. You might even see a bicycle built for two or a pedal-powered surrey.
4. Kick back during a tranquil paddle on one of the area's rare coastal dune lakes. Kayaks, canoes and other craft can be rented at the WaterColor Boat House on the 220-acre Western Lake. It's a nice way to spend an hour or so in a serene and beautiful setting far from the roar of motorized craft. Expansive dune systems ranging from 10 to 30 feet separate these lakes from the gulf. Because these biologically diverse lakes can cut winding passages to the gulf, salt and fresh water mingle and exchange, creating distinctive ecosystems.
5. Raise a glass at the funky Red Bar, pretty much an institution in Grayton Beach. Posters — many of foreign films — paper the walls, kitschy touches are everywhere and yeah, there's a lot of red in the former general store in the cozy downtown. The bartenders are friendly and seem to know everyone who comes in. While there are plenty of "regulars," this is a destination bar like, say, Sloppy Joe's in Key West. Take a seat at the bar in the narrow room between Picolo's (the restaurant) and the music lounge filled with comfy couches. Plan to visit when Grayton Beach-based bluegrass fusion band Dread Clampitt is playing (upcoming dates: tonight, Monday, Oct. 23, Oct. 29-30). But if the Red Bar Jazz Band is playing, you won't be disappointed. The chalkboard menu is short but sweet with dinner entrees such as sautéed shrimp and crawfish over pasta, seafood stuffed baked eggplant and panne chicken. By the way, no credit cards. 850-231-1008, www.theredbar.com or www.graytonbeach.com/redbar.html.
6. Drop by Big Mama's Hula Girl Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach — look for the storefront with the funky yard art, next to Sherwin-Williams — to see dimensional glass mosaics of fish and flora by Walton County's 2006 Artist of the Year Phil Kiser along with works of some 30 other artists. Artist/owner Debbie Weant-Lane's whimsy-filled gallery is a riot of color with works from folk art to oil landscapes. Browse around, then sit a spell with a glass of wine. 850-231-6201, www.bigmamashulagirlgallery.com.
7. Picnic in the shade under the moss-draped live oaks at Eden Gardens State Park in Point Washington. Drop by the Market at WaterColor or Modica Market in Seaside for provisions, then drive out to this 163-acre state park on Tucker Bayou. The park off County Road 395 and U.S. 98 was once the home of lumber baron William Henry Wesley and his family. Tours of the 1895 mansion — which was lovingly furnished with antiques and family heirlooms by Lois Maxon, who purchased the estate in 1963 — are offered on the hour 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays. Maxon donated Eden Gardens to the state in 1968. Stroll through the garden trail and wander through the grassy lawns that stretch from the mansion to the bay, and linger at the reflection pool. You can even fish off the dock. 850-231-4214, www.floridastateparks.org/edengardens.
8. Dine and dance aboard the Solaris. We boarded this handsome 125-foot-long, three-deck yacht at Sandestin's Baytowne Marina just in time to catch one of those amazing South Walton sunsets. Soon after being seated at our window-side table for two, though, we scurried upstairs to have drinks and catch the bay breezes in the dying light. Our waiter kindly came to fetch us when the food started arriving. After a shrimp cocktail starter and salad course, the meals arrived: grouper and shrimp with dill butter and Frangelico sauce and pepper-crusted tenderloin of beef. But the real fun begins when the house band Harmony — Gwen Hall and David Hall — cuts loose and partyers hit the dance floor. The three-hour dinner cruise is $65 for salad, entree, dessert and iced tea. A two-hour Autumn Tides Jazz Cruise on Nov. 5 features a New Orleans-style buffet and live jazz for $50 a person. 850-650-2519, www.sunquestcruises.com.
9. Indulge in a fine-dining experience. You can hardly go wrong in this department, as there are many excellent restaurants in the area. My faves are the innovative Fish Out of Water overlooking the gulf on the second floor of the WaterColor Inn, and chef-owner Johnny Earle's tried-and-always-true Criolla's on 30-A in Grayton Beach. Expect to spend at least $50 a person not counting beverages.
At Fish, where the cool neutral decor evokes a casual elegance, we chose two winning appetizers, a classic Caesar salad and Apalachicola oyster soup (studded with sweet corn), followed by local gigged flounder with parsley risotto, cultivated mushroom and lemon nage, and Lowcountry shrimp and grits (Anson Mill Organic Grits with local shrimp and country ham). Both are great examples of chef Philip Krajeck's straightforward but tongue-tantalizing preparations of fresh gulf seafood. 850-534-5050, www.watercolorinn.com/dining_fish.asp.
Flavors pop boldly at Criolla's, known for Earle's freewheeling (but successful) combination of ingredients. Fresh gulf mahi-mahi, roasted and rubbed with a mango and coconut pesto, was served with braised bok choy, Brazilian red rice finished with a roasted corn and conch sofrito and truffled jicama slaw. We also were wowed by the menu's new snapper dish: plantain-crusted red snapper, pan roasted and served with a Cuban sauté of baby corn, ripe tomatoes, smoked pork sarchica and fresh herbs — oh, and finished with rhum vanilla beurre blanc. 850-267-1267, www.criollas.com.
10. You don't have to wait until February to celebrate Mardi Gras at the Village of Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin, where you can have a New Orleans experience any night with the Mardi Gras package, offered through Memorial Day. You'll get accommodations in the Village, Cajun cuisine at Acme Oyster House, and two tickets to dance, dance, dance at John Wehner's Village Door (formerly of Bourbon Street). Packages start at $211 through Oct. 28, from $175 Oct. 29-March 1, depending on season. Call 1-800-470-7389. Even if you're staying elsewhere, you can get the Big Easy vibe on a fun date that starts with drinks at Fat Tuesday's, followed by dinner at Acme and dancing at the Door, which has live music Wednesdays-Saturdays by the Dream Band and a DJ on Sundays-Tuesdays. www.sandestin.com (click on Village in the menu on the left).
By kurt in forum All About SoWalReplies: 49Last Post: 06-18-2006, 08:23 PM