Pastel yellows, pinks and purples streak the evening sky, while silver glazes the Gulf of Mexico’s turquoise waters. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the hues diffuse and blend into each other like a serene watercolor painting.
With this scene as its backdrop, it’s no wonder that the newest community on northwest Florida’s coastal road, Scenic 30-A, has adopted a name that captures the Gulf Coast’s rich palette – WaterColor.
This is a region of the world where man and nature gently co-exist. A dozen residential resort villages hug the 26-mile coast known as Beaches of South Walton. Cradled between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay, these low-rise planned communities enjoy crowd-free beaches rimmed by protected parklands.
It’s this relaxing mix of residential comfort and nature’s bounty that lures my husband and me to WaterColor. The region doesn’t disappoint, and for the next several days, a spacious townhouse with a wraparound porch becomes our home.
Our first priority is to experience the area’s incredible beaches. Getting to the beach requires crossing Scenic 30-A at a stop sign, but once we cross a footbridge that spans the dunes, we enter a natural world serenaded by waves.
Dazzling white sand edges crystalline emerald water. Ground through millennia from brilliant quartz, the sand squeaks underfoot. Because an underwater shelf traps items carried by incoming tides, flotsam and seaweed rarely taint the pristine coast. For the same reason, few shells reach the shore, so instead of beachcombing we watch the dunes’ tufted sea oats dance in the breeze.
After our beach walk, we scope out the rest of the resort community. In Cerulean Park, groundskeepers shoo away “Capone,” a great blue heron boldly feasting on koi in the park pond. “He’s a protected species,” one of them tells us, “so the most we can do is shout at him.” Not even the floating plastic alligator head with red beady eyes scares him. A water canal bordered with blossoming flowers stretches from the pond to the marina on Western Lake. Slash pines, so named because their trunks were once cut to extract turpentine, rim this coastal dune lake. At the boathouse, cyclists mount bikes to ride through pinelands, and canoeists cast off from the pier. We slip into kayaks to explore the calm lake.
Only a berm of sand separates it from the gulf. The periodic intrusion of saltwater causes the lake to be brackish (salty) near the shore, but sweet farther inland. Depending on their location, anglers may reel in a saltwater red snapper or freshwater brim.
WaterColor’s western border abuts Grayton Beach State Recreation Area, one of many parks that provide protected habitat for native species. Because 40 percent of Beaches of South Walton’s land area is state-owned and restricted from development, recreational trails abound. Hiking and biking paths wind through such diverse natural settings as sand hills, pine flatlands, cypress ponds and dunes.
That afternoon we visit Eden State Gardens, a former timber baron’s estate that hugs Tucker Bayou. Massive live oaks grace the lush grounds. Designated “live” because they leaf through all seasons, the trees cast a welcome shade. As we picnic alongside the bayou, we bask in the serene setting. In contrast, from the 1890s through World War I, the waterfront whirred with workers loading Gulf Coast lumber on barges for shipment to Pensacola and points beyond.
During a tour of the residence, we learn how the last owner reconstructed the house to showcase her collection of family heirlooms and antiques. Impressive original Louis XVI court furnishings adorn the living and dining rooms. Upstairs, the guide unscrews a bed post’s pineapple-shaped top and places it on the pillow as he describes how 19th-century houseguests typically stayed for months. “Putting the pineapple on your pillow was the hostess’s polite way of telling you it was time to leave,” he explains.
Coastal Critters and Dune Lakes
Later that week, we explore trails lacing diverse vegetation of Topsail Hill State Preserve, a three-mile span of undeveloped coast. Inland, paths penetrate pine forests–a habitat for possum, armadillo and white-tail deer. Nearer the shore, salty sea spray has stunted the trees. A variety of flowers, including golden aster and yellow buttons, hugs the dunes.
Our naturalist guide, Jim Moyers, points out tracks in the sand, no bigger than the impressions of rain drops, made by Choctawhatchee beach mice. Although their tiny size suggests insignificance, these endangered critters help supply the dune’s food chain.
A channel of water fringed with beach grass flows from Lake Morris to the shoreline. Jim explains that about six times each winter high water in the canal combined with high surf breaks through the berm separating the lake from the gulf. “When it pops off,” he says, “it’s like a gully wash.”
The day of our departure, we stroll the shimmering white beach one last time. Green stalks of sea oats stretch to a pastel blue sky. As the gulf deepens, emerald waters darken to turquoise and then cerulean. Nature paints yet another memorable watercolor.
If You Go
The Beaches of South Walton, which include 13 resort villages, cover a 26 mile-stretch between Destin and Panama City on Florida’s panhandle. Air service is available through the Fort Walton and Panama City airports.
Lodging, activities and dining information: From cabins to villas, Beaches of South Walton offers a variety of accommodations. Great dining options abound. For a brochure and assistance call 1-800-822-6877 or visit www.beachesofsouthwalton.com. Information about WaterColor’s lodging options is also available by calling toll-free 1-866-426-2656 or visiting www.watercolorflorida.com.