Latinas Who Travel: Exploring South Walton, Florida

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 for sure 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 part (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, festivals for every season, and acres and acres of state parks to explore by hiking, biking or even horseback riding.

Day One

Courtesy photo: Hilton Sandestin

The closest airport to South Walton Beach is the Destin/Fort Walton Beach Airport (DTS), which is actually Eglin Airforce Base, one of the few military bases in the nation that also has commercial airline services. The airport is about a 30-45minute drive to the beach areas and I had to continuously remind myself that I wasn’t in Texas because the pine and oak lined roads are very reminiscent of the eastern part of the Lone Star State.

After arriving and checking into the Hilton San Destin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, I decided to take in the view from my balcony. I was greeted by crystal blue water and white sand of Miramar Beach, as well as two enormous pools – what a way to start the weekend. It was obvious that the rooms at the Hilton San Destin were designed with families in mind. The Junior Suites have bunkbeds, a large sitting area with a sleeper sofa, two vanities and even a microwave – perfect for a traveling family.

Getting my toes in the sand was high on my list of things to do, so I got beach ready and headed down to rent my beach set-up. There is no mistaking Hilton’s yellow umbrellas, and I was happily ensconced and ready to relax in a matter of minutes. A cheery waitress (also known as a “sand kicker”) popped in to check on me and offered to take my order for one of the nearby hotel restaurants. I’d heard rumors about the scrumptious gourmet hotdogs from Picnix Poolside Menu, so I ordered one and wasn’t disappointed – delicious!

Courtesy photo: Hilton Sandestin

To make room for dinner I decided to take a walk down the beach. I simply couldn’t get over how white the sand is and learned that unlike the sand on Texas beaches, the sand in Florida is made from quartz which came down from the Appalachian Mountains at the end of the last ice age. I was also impressed at how clean the beaches are – not a piece of trash for miles.

After freshening up I headed downstairs for dinner at Sancastles 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 sneak peek at Francisco’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 talking with the couple and seeing Adaro’s art for the first time (and wanting to purchase all of it), I couldn’t wait to see more over the next few days.

Day Two

Courtesy photo: Hilton Sandestin

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. Along the way I kept my eyes out for the famous Florida Black Bear that lives in the forests and wetlands of Florida. Although I never spotted a bear, I did take in the beautiful forests as more than 40% of the land in South Walton is protected from development.

My first stop in Grayton Beach was the Mary Hong Gallery. Although I knew she was famous for her recycled glass art, I was overwhelmed at how beautiful it was. What was even more exciting is that I got to create glass art in her Shard Shop next door to the gallery. I spent then next few hours carefully laying down glass and trying to make something beautiful – it was not only relaxing, but inspiring, as well.

This little pocket of Grayton Beach was so charming, the streets were lined with cottages turned into shops, galleries and restaurants. I popped in to the Saczynski Gallery to talk with Andy Saczynski, South Walton’s 2013 Artist of the Year, but first I had to take in the shapes and sounds of his gallery. His work is eclectic, colorful and full of life – there is something for everyone to enjoy.

“It is awesome to be an artist here in South Walton, it is a very inspiring area and there are a lot of unique artists sharing ideas. I have always lived around here and have always been inspired by the natural beauty and the unique feel of the area,” said Saczynski.

It was obvious to me 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 beautiful 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,” 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. Steak so juicy and tender you think it is made of butter, sea food so fresh it still tastes of ocean, and dessert that will make you groan with pleasure. Seagar’s is a must on your South Walton itinerary, friends.

Courtesy photo: Hilton Sandestin

Day Three

Relaxation was the name of the game on day three – still full from my meal at Seagar’s I woke up just in time to get a quick workout in before my spa day at Serenity by the Sea Spa. The spa has been named “Best of the Emerald Coast” for the last nine years, and I was excited to see what my day of relaxation had in store. I started out in the zero gravity chairs in the oversized lounge and then had a wonderful Swedish massage. 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. Everyone I met all weekend asked me if I was going to Digital Graffiti and was genuinely excited for me when I said I was, so my expectations were high for the art event. Digital Graffiti is just one of the more than 300 special events and festivals in South Walton. Every season and every interest in represented with a special something all its own.

Alys Beach, a serene and upscale beach community, is beautiful on its own, but when digital art is projected on its white walls – it becomes breathtaking. The entire community 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 a festival because of the landscape and architecture of the buildings, especially because they are white. It is such a small and intimate location – often, festivals like this are in large cities where you are walking down alleyways and such, but this is great because it is small and enclosed,” said Digital Graffiti artist, Luenza Adams.

When the lights and the festival goers went to bed, so did I.

Day Four

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, because although I knew the beaches were the mainstay of Florida culture – it has so much more to offer its visitors. As I took in my last view of the Emerald Coast, I knew that it would not be my last trip to the area, there is decidedly more to explore.

Cover Image Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo Hilton Sandestin

Excerpts from this post appeared in Texas Lifestyle Magazine

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