ROSEMARY BEACH, Fla. - It's almost morning, and the birds know it. There is a symphony of chirping, tweeting, warbling, and trilling. Gulls jostle over scraps of fish. Then, the water catches fire with the rising sun, and I can see the Gulf of Mexico cresting, collapsing. Beyond the scrawling signature of the shoreline, a wake chases a fishing boat, and far beyond is the almost imperceptible horizon of sky and sea.
About 10 miles to my left, I see the high-rises of Panama City; to my right, even farther away, are the high-rises of Destin. In between, nothing but sugary beach.
A collection of 16 sleepy shore towns strung along Scenic Highway 30A on the Florida Panhandle, South Walton Beach is not the Florida of Disney World or Miami Beach. There are no fast-food emporiums, chain motels, theme parks, water slides, bungee jumping sites, or miniature golf courses. In their stead are four state parks, a state forest, an 18-mile bike path, rare coastal dune lakes, mom-and-pop businesses, and locally owned galleries, bookstores, and eateries.
And some of America's most beautiful beaches.
The surf is gentle and the water shimmers in shades of blue and green, like emerald meadows. But the sand is what amazes new visitors. The color of snow and consistency of talcum powder, it was formed when quartz crystals were carried here by streams flowing from the Appalachians, then pulverized by the surf and bleached by the sun.
A four-story height restriction has been imposed on all buildings, and many of the residences are low-slung bungalows built to withstand hurricanes and dating to the 1950s. The newer communities - Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach, Water Sound, Seagrove, Seaside, Watercolor - have distinctive architecture. They are designed on principles of New Urbanism: small enough to be walkable, business districts no more than five minutes away, homes close to the street with picket fences and front porches, no lawns.
About 40 percent of South Walton Beach's land is protected as either state forest or state park, and one of the best is the 1,100-acre Grayton Beach State Park, where I watched an osprey circle over Western Lake, then suddenly dive feet-first, its eyes sighted along its talons, into the water. It grabbed a fish by the head and flew off to its nest. Many ospreys are here, and their presence is considered an indicator of the health of an ecosystem.
The park has a self-guided nature tour through the towering dunes, pine flat woods, holly, oak, magnolia, and sea oats. Western Lake is one of 17 coastal dune lakes, found nowhere else in the U.S. Most of the time, these lakes are separated from the gulf by 30-foot dunes, but several times a year, meandering streams are formed that connect the lake and the gulf, creating a unique ecosystem.
South Walton Beach is dotted with unexpected gems, none brighter than Eden Gardens State Park. It's the estate of a former lumber baron whose 1895 Greek Revival mansion is surrounded by live oaks bearded with Spanish moss, including one giant specimen recently determined to be 600 years old. Its white columns and verandas give off a Gone With the Wind aura.
From a rocking chair on the porch, I awaited the start of the tour by taking in gorgeous views of Choctawhatchee Bay and Tucker Bayou and imagining straw-hatted men and hoop-skirted women sitting here next to me 100 years ago, sipping iced tea.
The guide told us that a New York woman bought the mansion in 1963 to house her extensive collection of antique furniture. At the entry was a table with an angled mirror near the bottom - "a petticoat table," the guide said, "because it allowed women to check to be sure their petticoats weren't showing."
In the town of Seaside, my sense of smell came out joyfully as I approached Airstream Row, consisting of food trucks packed tightly along 30A - Wild Bill's Beach Dogs, Frost Bites, the Meltdown. And Barefoot Barbecue, where I ordered a "hormone-free, antibiotic-free, steroid-free" half-chicken slow smoked over pecan wood. Barbecue sauces included Hang Ten, Wipeout, Pipeline, and, my choice, Hot Lava.
A local favorite heavily recommended was the Red Bar in Grayton Beach - hard to find, but worth the effort. It's dimly lighted with, of course, red bulbs; every inch of wall space is plastered with movie and concert posters, beer ads and cartoons. I looked up, and the ceiling is also covered. Aerosmith 1974. Frank Sinatra 1948. Michael Jackson Dangerous. Luciano Pavarotti La Traviata.
I sat on a red cushion at a red table lighted with a red candle. The waiter brought the menu on a three-foot high chalkboard. He recommended the fish and chips, but my stomach was rooting for the seafood gumbo, so I complied. No regrets.
There's a lot more than seafood shack dining in South Walton Beach. At Edward's in Rosemary Beach, I sat at the chef's counter and looked into the open kitchen, where Chef Ed Reese and three sous-chefs labored with remarkable efficiency. I watched orders come in and meals go out in a kind of culinary orchestra of scraping, clattering, and sizzling. When I ordered the grilled grouper, Ed nodded his approval.
At the Mary Hong Studio Gallery in Grayton Beach, Mary herself inspected the work of 16 students seated at folding tables, wearing rubber gloves, and staring intently through safety glasses at whitewashed wooden boards that were being fashioned into fish, birds, and trees using shards of broken glass.
"Every morning when I come in," she said to me, "people have left all kinds of glass on my doorstep - chunks of mirror, clear glass, shower doors, windshields, wine bottles, light bulbs, coffee mugs, ash trays, test tubes . . . "
Once a week, Hong offers a "paint with glass" class in her trademarked style of glass collage. Her own mosaics of recycled glass are prized throughout the Florida Panhandle, and last year she was named South Walton Beach's Artist of the Year.
There are more than 60 galleries and studios in South Walton Beach, many offering classes and open-studio days when you can watch the artists work.
One day, I crossed the long bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay and headed for DeFuniak Springs, a sleepy town of 5,000 just off Interstate 10. I took a one-mile walk around Lake DeFuniak, ringed by Victorian homes whose turrets, columns and gingerbread trim recall a time when labor and materials were cheap, no architectural detail too elaborate.
I found a general store with a candy counter overflowing with Turkish taffy, cinnamon sticks, Bit-O-Honey, atomic fire balls, Good & Plenty, and Necco wafers. The shelves were stocked with long-ago items such as wooden toys, kerosene lamps, Moxie soft drinks, harmonicas, and Argo laundry starch.
From behind the counter stepped a courtly octogenarian in a white apron and green eyeshade. "A few years back, Brenda - that's my wife - and I moved back to our hometown after 35 years," he said. "We wanted to preserve some of our heritage and at the same time be prosperous in the community. So we decided to re-create this old store."
Was there a restaurant in town where I would get fried green tomatoes, I asked.
"No," he replied. "There used to be, but it closed. You know most people these days don't know how to make them . . . "
What followed was a 15-minute treatise on properly preparing fried green tomatoes, which he neatly summed up at the end, in case I wasn't listening.
"So, remember: Slice them thin, or they get watery. And don't deep fry. Do them in a skillet."
A wide range of accommodations are available: beach houses and cottages, hotels, motels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, and condominiums for couples, families, and larger groups. Many are individually owned.
For housing information: www.visitsouthwalton.com/where-to-stay
For general information on South Walton Beach: www.visitsouthwalton.com/about