By the Seaside

Environmentally friendly developments make Panhandle a different kind of Florida.

23rd May 2002


"This isn't your grandmother's Florida," said the man in the seat next to me on the flight from Atlanta to Panama City. Touching down in a state known for attracting spring breakers and retirees, it was easy to imagine scantily clad 20-somethings mixed with grandparents in golf carts. Yet this part of northwest Florida, referred to as the Panhandle, is a relaxing escape from city life - full of striking architecture, Southern hospitality and gourmet fare - all along some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the world.

Twenty years ago, a little planned town called Seaside, 27 miles west of Panama City, distinguished itself from other Florida destinations by its carefully planned architecture and urban design. What was once 80 undeveloped coastal acres quickly became an architecturally conscious alternative to high-rise condominium living, full of charming wood-frame cottages, picket fences and a town square. Seaside implemented its own design code, which, among other things, prohibits building structures above a certain height. Communities along the neighboring stretch of Route 30A have followed suit, resulting in a collection of towns that at times feels like

the set of "Leave It to Beaver." It's no coincidence "The Truman Show" was filmed here.

There are no strip malls, fast-food chains or asphalt parking lots. Instead, the communities along Route 30A boast old-fashioned grocery stores, toy stores and hamburger stands that make McDonald's and Blockbuster seem planets away.

Largely a second-home destination for Southerners from Alabama and Georgia, this area is slowly being discovered by vacationers from farther away. The developments along the nearby stretch of Route 30A that have followed Seaside's lead include: Rosemary Beach, a Pan-Caribbean complement to Seaside's more traditional Southern architecture; WaterColor, a community situated between the Gulf of Mexico and Western Lake, providing acres of footpaths, bike trails and beachfront; and WaterSound, a new development nestled on a brakish lake, one of the few lakes in the world where fresh water mixes with the ocean. Designed by Boston architect Graham Gund, WaterSound evokes Nantucket or Cape Cod.

It isn't necessary to invest in a second home or even rent one to enjoy this area of Florida; the Pensione in Rosemary Beach offers accommodations (starting at $98 a night) as does the WaterColor Inn. The difficult part of vacationing here is deciding how to balance beachcombing with shopping, hiking and exploring the oystering and shrimping hamlets that are only a day-trip away.

Seaside is an excellent place to start. Offering much more than T- shirts, key chains and postcards, the shops here sell one-of-a-kind items such as fancy flip-flops, hand-sewn handbags and herbal sea salts. Steven Brooke's book "Seaside," detailing the town's history, is as artistic as it is informative.

Seaside's open-air market, Perspicacity, is reminiscent of a European flea market, and its tables and stalls overflow with everything beach oriented. "Keenness of insight" is what the name means, and that's exactly what owners Daryl Davis and Mary Patton had when they designed this store across the street from Seaside's town center.

Just a few minutes' drive away, Rosemary Beach is home to Flavours of France, where owner Liz Hawley's idea of seaside decor involves wonderful overstuffed sofas and whimsical antiques.

In addition to shopping and sun-tanning, the natural wonders here beg to be explored. If you're lucky enough to catch the tides at the right time, the lakes near WaterSound mix with ocean water so that when the tide goes out, deep impressions in the sand mark the water's path like uninterrupted footprints. Bike rentals make it easy to get from this end of Route 30A to the other, where WaterColor's on-site naturalist, Jim Moyers, leads guided walks. In between, Deer Lake State Park lures tourists and locals who swear picnics are the best way to enjoy the sunsets.

As tempting as it would be to leave this stretch of Route 30A, staying put would mean missing out on a wildly different Florida experience. Little more than two hours away from WaterColor and Seaside, Apalachicola's no-frills oystering community seems as distant from Seaside's color-coordinated pastels and WaterColor's gracious hospitality as California is from Cape Cod. Yet Apalachicola, resting between a bay and national forest, boasts the best oysters in the area. Many locals would argue that they're the best in the world.

Boss Oyster is a small shack of a restaurant set against a strand of boat docks where oysters are served 16 ways. In addition to a half-dozen oysters chilled on the half shell, I ordered "Captain Jacks," served with bacon, jalapenos, hot sauce and cheese, then another half-dozen topped with crab meat, artichokes and monterrey jack. The oysters were so fresh it was as if someone fetched them from the water, shucked and served them within minutes. There was little to do on a

Sunday in Apalachicola other than eat oysters, although roaming around the shrimp boat docks resulted in a pound of fresh jumbos, packed and ready to take home.

Port St. Joe is a notable stop on the drive between Apalachicola and WaterColor, and its folklore rivals that of any town on the East Coast. Years ago, a member of the DuPont family broke away from his Delaware relatives and bought land in Florida. His goal was to own land in Florida amounting to an area greater than the size of Delaware, which he did, purchasing a paper mill in Port St. Joe, a town straddling the Eastern and Central time zones. Illustrating his power and ability to get things done, the renegade DuPont pursuaded government officials to move the time-zone line in his favor so he could get more hours from his workers. Today, passing the now- defunct paper mill signals changing from one time zone to the other, and much of the surrounding land is owned by Arvida, an ecologically conscious company that developed WaterColor and WaterSound, among many other properties in the region.

The only difficult part of a day in northwest Florida is deciding where to watch the sunset. The balcony view at Fish Out of Water, the casual but elegant restaurant at the WaterColor Inn, offers an excellent choice. The chef excels at everything from pan-seared tuna to a curry-dusted version of the native grouper fish, and the dessert menu is so enticing that the homemade apricot turnover and a plate full of miniature ice cream sandwiches both ended up in front of me. After a nightcap with the locals at the bar, I thought of what the man on my flight had said when I arrived here: He was right, this was not my grandmother's Florida. Oh, what a Florida she missed.

For more information, contact or 888-SEASIDE; or 800-527-8432; or 800-527-8432; or 800-736-0877.

© Copyright by the Boston Herald