Miles and miles of white sand, crystal blue water and fun for the whole family might be the reason you will travel to South Walton, but after visiting I know that Florida’s beaches will be only one reason on a long list of many that will have you going back.
South Walton is located in the northwest (panhandle) of Florida, just a short plane ride or road trip from almost anywhere in Texas. Yes, there are sleepy little beach towns ready for tourists, souvenir shops and chain restaurants that cater to families with young children. There are also thriving artist communities creating groundbreaking and nationally acclaimed art and festivals for every season.
After arriving and checking into the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, I was greeted by the crystal blue water and white sand of Miramar Beach, as well as two enormous pools – what a way to start the weekend. At the beach, a waitress (also known as a “sand kicker”) popped in to take my order from one of the nearby hotel restaurants. I’d heard rumors about the scrumptious gourmet hotdogs from Picnix Poolside Menu, and I wasn’t disappointed – delicious!
After the beach, I freshened up and headed downstairs for dinner at Sandcastles Restaurant and Lounge to meet with Francisco Adaro and his wife Brooke Gonrarek to talk about the art scene in South Walton and get a peek at Adaro’s newest paintings. “South Walton has always been an artist’s community. It is so supportive and inspiring, so if you have talent and you work hard, you can make it here as an artist. It is one of the few places where an artist can do that,” said Gonrarek.
After a quick meal at The Coffee Shop, I headed out to explore Grayton Beach, a small artist community located about 30 minutes from Miramar Beach. My first stop was the Mary Hong Gallery, and her famous recycled glass art. What was even more exciting is that I got to create glass art in her Shard Shop next door to the gallery. I spent the next few hours carefully laying down glass and trying to make something beautiful.
In this charming little pocket of Grayton Beach, the streets were lined with cottages turned into shops, galleries and restaurants. It was obvious that inspiration and community were two things valued by most artists in South Walton, including Chandler Williams, owner of Modus Photography. His gallery walls are covered with stunning portraits and scenes from all over the world. “I travel the world with my camera, but it is always easy to come back to South Walton. The artist community here is like no other,” said Williams.
My afternoon of art wore me out, but after a restful nap in my room I was ready to dine at Seagar’s Prime Steaks & Seafood. Dinner is actually an understatement for what unfolded that evening, it was more of an event that my taste buds won’t soon forget. Seagar’s is the only AAA Four Diamond steakhouse in the Destin area and, after a meal there, I seriously considered moving to South Walton.
Relaxation was the name of the game on day three – I woke up just in time to get a quick workout in before my spa day at Serenity by the Sea Spa. After my massage, I took in the aromatherapy rain shower and then had a dip in the whirlpool. I wasn’t ready to go, but the beach beckoned.
Dinner on the deck at Barefoot’s Beachside Bar & Grill was followed by a sunset trip to Alys Beach for the Digital Graffiti art festival. During Digital Graffiti, just one of the more than 300 special events and festivals in South Walton, the serene and upscale beach community of Alys Beach is taken over for the three-day festival, where digital art is projected on all of the homes and open spaces. Artists from all over the world apply and are chosen a full year in advance to participate. “I love being a part of Digital Graffiti, I get to meet artists from everywhere. And Alys Beach is perfect for this festival because of the landscape and architecture of the buildings, especially because they are white,” said Digital Graffiti artist Luenza Adams.
When the lights and the festival goers went to bed, so did I.
I woke up with the sun on my last day in South Walton. I was grateful for the in-room dining option at the Hilton Sandestin because I had to figure out how to get all the great art I bought into my suitcases. My perception of Florida had completely changed— before my trip, I knew the beaches were the mainstay of Florida culture, but now I know it has so much more to offer its visitors.
Gabi De la Rosa lives in Houston with her husband and three children. You can usually find her at a great local restaurant or out exploring HTX with her family.
Cover photo: The Hilton’s yellow umbrellas are a welcoming site on the beautiful beach. Photo courtesy Hilton Sandestin