Thread: SoWal article - ajc.com
SoWal article - ajc.com
South Walton beaches: Fla. nature at its best
By PAULA HUGHES COURT
FOR COX NEWS SERVICE
Dawn rises softly on Santa Rosa Beach, casting a warm pink glow across the Gulf of Mexico. A lone, 4-foot-tall great blue heron stands motionless on the sand as gentle waves lap at its feet.
I reach in my pocket for my camera, but it's inside the condo, and I'm torn by indecision. Should I go for the camera and risk startling the bird? Or should I stay put and forget the photo?
Unable to take my eyes off the regal creature, I choose to enjoy the moment. The heron eyes me curiously but doesn't move. Minutes later, he calmly takes flight, his huge wings flapping as he turns to glide directly over my head.
I missed the photo, but I'm exhilarated. This is precisely the kind of experience I was hoping for when my husband, David, and I decided to visit the beaches of South Walton, a collection of 13 communities in the Florida Panhandle. It's an area known for what it doesn't have as much or more than for the amenities it does have — and there are many.
What you won't find are high-rise hotels, tacky T-shirt shops or roadside amusement parks. What you will find are miles of sand so fine and white swindlers sold it for sugar to unsuspecting customers during World War II. You'll find schools of playful dolphins frolicking offshore in crystal clear water and a peaceful, natural environment protected from overdevelopment by state and local officials.
"We know the environment is a huge draw for visitors, who prefer the waters and forests to wall-to-wall, high-rise condos," says Nancy James, president of the South Walton Community Council.
The council's efforts to preserve and enhance the area's natural resources were evident as we drove down 30A, a 26-mile stretch of two-lane road between Destin and Panama City. Expecting to see the usual chain hotels lining the coast, we instead found salt marshes, towering sand dunes and 17 lily-covered freshwater lakes.
These coastal ecosystems provide a haven for several endangered and threatened species including the bald eagle, gopher tortoise and red cokaded woodpecker.
Since 40 percent of South Walton's 53,000 acres are owned by the state, most of these fragile ecosystems are protected from development. All other development is regulated based on its effects on the environment. That's why you won't find a single grocery store on 30A or a gas station on every corner.
The miles of blindingly white sand and turquoise water of the Gulf of Mexico are still the area's top attractions. The sugar fine sand is composed of pure quartz crystal, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains over thousands of years. Like the barking sand beaches of Hawaii, the sand actually squeaks when you walk on it.
The gulf's translucent qualities occur because the water is filtered through the estuary of Apalachicola Bay. The estuary catches sediment or other impurities, leaving only pure water to flow into the gulf. The combination of bright sunlight and clear, shallow water creates an illusion of emerald water streaked with shades of turquoise.
"Why does the blue water always turn clear when I pour it into my pail?" my frustrated, 5-year-old daughter, Claudia asked day after day.
The week flew by too quickly. We lolled the days away relaxing on the beach and watching the dolphins play just offshore. Late one evening, we spotted a gigantic turtle floating in the surf while waiting patiently for nightfall. Under the cover of darkness, she crawled ashore, laid her eggs and returned to the water. The next day, local volunteers roped off the turtle's nest, which was less than 10 feet from our door.
Protecting the endangered loggerhead and Green Sea Turtles is a priority of the residents. Fliers are distributed to tourists asking that all outdoor lighting be extinguished at night to prevent turtle hatchlings from becoming confused and crawling away from the water. Even with increased public awareness, saving the endangered turtles is an uphill battle. Last year on a cloudy night, several disoriented turtle hatchlings crossed the road and dived into Oyster Lake by mistake.
With all the varieties of wildlife flying, swimming and crawling around, I was happy not to see one species in particular — sharks. I felt much better after learning Walton County has never had a reported shark attack.
For those who prefer hiking and biking to soaking up the sun, the area offers nature trails and bike paths. An 8-foot-wide, 18-mile-long bike path stretches from Blue Mountain to Inlet Beach, and miles of nature trails traverse the area's five state parks. Grayton Beach, named the best beach in the nation in 1994 by Stephen (Dr. Beach) Leatherman, offers an extensive self-guided trail system through the park's 1,100 acres.
After visiting several of the parks, we chose Topsail Hill State Preserve as our favorite. Named for the park's 25-foot-high sand dunes, the park has been identified as the most pristine and environmentally protected piece of coastal property in Florida.
A 15-minute hike carried us to the highest point for a view of the Gulf of Mexico, rare coastal dune lakes and cypress swamps. Five rare plants growing only in the Florida Panhandle can be found at Topsail, including the blue flowered Gulf Coast lupine. The park is also home to white-tailed deer, foxes, raccoons and coyotes, so keep your eyes open and don't forget your camera.
While most beach towns are combating a variety of problems stemming from uncontrolled development, the beaches of South Walton are setting an example for how a concerned community can strike a balance between growth and careful preservation of natural resources. It's heartening to know there might actually be an unspoiled beach environment years from now to enjoy.
Who knows, someday I might even get a second shot at that photo.
Re: SoWal article - ajc.com
I wish those northern city folks would quit writing about us. :mad:
03-20-2005, 12:52 PM #3
- Join Date
- Nov 2004
- Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States