Embrace Something Unknown – There Are Treasures All Around Us
by murray balkcom
Published by Thicket Magazine (Mar/Apr 2009)
In our special little beach area of Florida’s Emerald Coast, tucked away between Destin and Panama City Beach, vacationers are often seen with a big question mark in their eyes. Where do we stay, where will we eat, where should we shop, what should we do to entertain ourselves for a week? Our area, known to many as “The Beaches of South Walton” is special, but the reasons why it is special, comes with some downsides to those who are only visiting on occasion. That downside, which we locals rather enjoy, is that we are not your “normal” town, filled with big-box stores, crazy dance clubs, and chain restaurants. If you want that, a short drive to Destin or Panama City Beach will complete that void in your life while you are at the beach. Recognizable chain restaurants and big box stores offer comforting expectations to customers, while a person who has never heard of Sally’s in Blue Mountain Beach, has no clue that Sally’s has the absolute-best fried chicken they will ever eat. I’m writing to save you a little time and erase that question mark from your eyes, while on your brief vacation to our beach. This special place has many hidden gems, and I wish I had enough space to review them all, but I am going to highlight a few. Remember that everyone has their own favorites, and I just offer one local’s opinion. I highly recommend all of the places on this list, but please remember to embrace the unknown – you may find your own hidden gems. For more information on what to do, where to eat, or just to meet some other lovers of our area, www.SoWal.com offers much input from many people — locals, second-home owners, and visitors. Be sure to sign in (free) and look in the “Forum” section. It is the best resource for all there is to know about this stretch of paradise.
My list of 10 hidden gems follows (in no particular order), and I highly recommend all of the places on this list, along with encouragement to find your own secrets on the Emerald Coast. For more information on what to do, where to eat, or just to meet some other lovers of our area, visit www.SoWal.com. It features input from many people: locals, second-home owners, and visitors. Be sure to sign in (free) and look in the “Forum” section. It is the best resource for all there is to know about this stretch of paradise.
1 Whether you are surf-fishing from the beach or chartering a small boat from Grayton Beach to take you out to deeper water, there are plenty of fish to be caught. A great source for fishing supplies, charter boat reservations, kayak sales and rentals, as well as bicycle rentals is Yellowfin Ocean Sports, with two locations along Scenic Highway 30A.
2 In the architect’s dream community of Rosemary Beach, you’ll also find a great place for casual and gourmet foods. Wild Olives market, café, and deli is also a place to people-watch as you sip a glass of wine, beer, or even an imported lemonade.
3 Kayaking on one of the 15 rare Coastal Dune Lakes, or in the Gulf, should not be missed. Western Lake is one of the largest Lakes and perhaps the easiest to access, and you can follow it all the way to Grayton. For a guided kayak tour and nature walk, make your reservations with me, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Matt Labo at Blue Sky Kayak Tours.
4 The comfy Italian restaurant Trattoria Borago mixes classical and traditional Italian dishes with robust portions. You cannot leave without trying one of their fabulous specialty martinis—they also have a great wine list. Borago is open for dinner only, and reservations are strongly encouraged, as this gem was long ago discovered by locals and visitors alike. www.BoragoRestaurant.com
5 My favorite hidden gem in South Walton is unknown to even many locals, but slowly they are discovering it. Hibiscus Coffee and Guest House, nestled under the live oaks of Grayton Beach, offers a romantic getaway and delicious vegetarian breakfast. Be sure to get a hug from Cheri!
6 The 20-mile stretch of Hwy 30A in South Walton has a multi-use paved path running parallel to it, providing a great way to burn off some of that delicious food and take in the scenery. There are also miles of trails to hike or bike in the Point Washington State Forest. Bring your own bikes, or for rentals, sales, trail maps, or full-service repairs, give the guys a call at Big Daddy’s Bikes and Beach Sports, located in Blue Mountain Beach. Free local delivery. www.bigdaddysrentals.com
7 Looking for a relaxing massage, organic groceries, smoothie, or just a friendly welcome? For the Health of It, located in Blue Mountain Beach, has it all. Locally-owned and operated, this store is one of the best treats around. It’s like a little Asheville at the beach.
8 After Hurricane Katrina tracked through New Orleans, the owners of the New Orleans restaurant, Fire, moved to South Walton, and many of their staff also followed. They reopened Fire, just north of Grayton Beach. Sunday brunch is a favorite of many locals, and I’m positive that it has nothing to do with the bottomless glass of champagne that comes with the meal!
9 Raw and Juicy, located directly on Hwy 30A in Seaside, is a great source of some of the best fresh organic juices and smoothies and delicious raw foods made to order while you wait. You will begin to feel healthier just waiting in line. Look for the small silver Airstream trailer near the Post Office overlooking the amphitheater.
1 0 If you are looking for that intimate evening and a great dining experience, make your dinner reservations at Café Tango. I have too many good things to say about this place, and not enough room to write them all. I will guarantee you that you will remember Café Tango long after you leave the beach. Reservations strongly encouraged. Located near Blue Mountain Beach just off of 30A on 14 Vicki Street.
For more to do at the beach, see Murray Balkcom’s guest blog at ThicketMag.com.