Just sitting on the beach puts a smile on our faces. There’s something special about warm breezes blowing across your cheeks, breathing healthy gulps of saltwater air, listening to waves crash against the shore and seeing the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico tickling the sugar-white sand.
|From left: Classic architecture along Santa Rosa Beach's Odessa Street; a ramp accessing one of the South Walton beaches; Barbara browsing in Justin Gaffrey's studio.|
One of our favorite places to vacation is Walton County in Northwest Florida. More than 40 percent of Walton County is state parks and forests, and it’s home to more than a dozen rare coastal dune lakes. Located along the Florida panhandle between Destin and Panama City is a collection of 15 communities known as the “Beaches of South Walton.” The casually upscale area spans 26 miles.
South Walton has been attracting visitors for decades, and the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport makes it even easier to visit. Peak seasons are spring break, and from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Mild temperatures make it a favorite with “snow birds” (vacationers from northern states).
Getting to the beach is easy via three public access areas. Handicapped parking, accessible bathrooms, lifeguards and beach wheelchairs are available at Miramar Beach Access, Dune Allen Access and Ed Walline Access. Lifeguards are stationed there from mid-March until September 30. They assist visitors with beach wheelchairs from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. If you need a beach wheelchair when lifeguards are not working, contact the South Walton Fire District (850-267-1298) and arrangements can be made.
We tried the chair at Ed Walline. A ramp that looked to be two stories tall zigzagged down to the transfer area. The aluminum chairs have oversized wheels that can navigate on the sand, but are not allowed in the water. Someone has to push you, and it can be difficult when going up an incline, which is why it’s wise to stay within the designated area that the lifeguards are monitoring.
Where to stay
South Walton has 14,500 lodging units for rent. You can choose from resorts, hotels, condos, bed and breakfasts (B&Bs), homes and camping. Most units are owned by individuals and managed by resorts or real estate companies. Finding wheelchair-accessible lodging takes some hunting. We’ve found that many owners mistakenly assume their units meet ADA accessibility guidelines. Before making a deposit, ask specific questions to determine if an accommodation suits your needs.
On our recent visit, we stayed at the Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse in Grayton Beach. The 13-room property is in the heart of Scenic Route 30-A (a 19-mile road that runs along the coastline) and is less than a 10-minute walk to the beach. Our wheelchair-accessible room had a queen-size bed, roll-in shower, raised toilet with grab bars, and a sink with clearance for a wheelchair. Parking was on a concrete surface and ramps gave Barbara easy access. The best spot for sipping coffee and reading a book was on the front porch of the “Barn.”
B&B guests have breakfast next door at the Hibiscus Coffee Shop. Blackboards with the phrase “Be ...” are scattered around the café and each morning owner Cheri Peebles fills in the blanks: “Be Happy,” “Be Grateful,” “Be Relaxed,” “Be Persistent,” “Be Steadfast.” Cheri greets everyone with a smile and a hug, so even first-time visitors feel at home. (Hibiscus reservations: 850-231-2733.)
The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort is a 2,400-acre property on both the beach and bay front where you can rent condos, villas, town houses and a variety of hotel accommodations. Amenities include four golf courses, 19 swimming pools, 15 tennis courts, a 98-slip marina, water sports, children’s programs, a fitness center and a spa. The pedestrian village has shopping, restaurants and entertainment.
The Grand Sandestin is a condominium hotel with a Southern-inspired veranda surrounded by lush landscapes. Guest rooms offer either a kitchenette or full kitchen. We toured a one-bedroom unit. The bathroom had a roll-in shower and grab bars. The kitchen had open space below the sink and a built-in desk for wheelchair users. Resort guests get free rentals of bicycles, canoes, kayaks and boogie boards, and one hour of tennis court time. The free resort-wide transportation system includes wheelchair-accessible trams. (Sandestin reservations: 800-622-1038.)
Dining locales in South Walton suit every budget and many have stunning views.
For an upscale evening, try Fish Out of Water in Santa Rosa Beach. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the flagship restaurant of the Watercolor Inn and Resort. Try the Florida Hopper shrimp served with herb risotto, hen of the woods mushrooms and poultry jus. At Sandestin, enjoy food described as “French with New Orleans Flair” at Bistro Bijoux. Barbara ordered the free-range chicken, with roasted Yukon gold potatoes, cipollini onions, asparagus and wild mushroom broth. Jim’s petite filet mignon was sautéed in a black skillet and accompanied by a Bordelaise sauce. For dessert, save room for the vanilla bean crème brûlée.
A lifeguard recommended we try Pompano Joe’s Seafood House in Miramar Beach because the food is great, the ambiance is laid-back and the large menu has entree specials under $10. For breakfast, the Hibiscus Coffee Shop serves vegetarian selections. A special quiche and frittata are offered daily.
Part of the fun of South Walton is discovering unique places to indulge a sweet tooth or have an afternoon cup of coffee. Curl up on the couch at Amavida Coffee in Santa Rosa Beach — it’s an art gallery, wine bar, pastry shop and book store rolled into one. Over in Seaside, Queen Bee Cupcakes are sold from an Airstream trailer, or visit the Candymaker in Sandestin’s Village of Baytowne Wharf, where they make the delectable sweets on the premises.
South Walton is a magnet for artists. You can tour galleries and meet talented painters like Justin Gaffrey, 2005 Artist of the Year for the Beaches of South Walton. Gaffrey, who doesn’t mind if you touch the thick flowers painted on huge canvases scattered throughout his Santa Rosa Beach studio, uses more than 200 pounds of acrylic paint a month.
Workshops are held for a variety of interests, from basket making to song writing. Barbara tried a watercolor class with nationally recognized artist Sharon Long. For information go to www.beachesofsouthwalton.com (click on Events) or call (800) 822-6877.
Culinary arts and dinner are served at the Culinary Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach. We spent an amazing evening learning how to properly use a knife, roast pork tenderloin and flip shrimp like a pro. Chef Scott is an entertaining instructor and the staff made sure Barbara’s table height worked well with her wheelchair.
Seaside Repertory Theatre in Seaside mounts a full season of shows. During the summer months, plays appropriate for children are free.
The South Walton area is filled with one-of-a-kind shops such as Fusion Art Glass or Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery (which has one step). Every Saturday morning the farmers market is open in Seaside. Bargain hunters head for Silver Sands Factory Stores in Miramar Beach, the largest designer outlet center in the country.
Nature lovers can enjoy the state parks or the wheelchair-accessible walking paths. Special events include the Camellia Festival held in Eden Gardens State Park. If you stay at Sandestin, bring a fishing rod; they have a wheelchair-accessible catch-and-release program. We enjoyed exploring the boardwalks and watching for birds.
And of course, as we said at the beginning, there’s no better attraction than simply spending the day relaxing on the beach.
The Twardowskis live in Mandeville, La. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.