More than a generation ago, the hundred-mile stretch of the Florida Panhandle from Pensacola to Panama City was a somewhat-secret paradise, a stretch of sugar-white beaches and rustic fishing towns where savvy travelers found great value and solitude. Then came an influx of sunbathing hordes, most of whom drove down from neighboring states, and what had been called the Emerald Coast became better known as the Redneck Riviera. Towns such as Destin, for example, grew into bustling centers of leisure activity, both high- and low-end. Today, fishing vessels, yachts and cigarette boats flow in orchestrated movements through its harbors; hotels and condo towers vie for waterfront exposure; and themed restaurants with garishly large and colorful signs command tourists’ attention.
But twenty miles east of Destin, along a slender strip of Highway 30-A, much of the original allure of this region has been preserved. Here you’ll find a string of small beach enclaves and carefully planned New Urbanist developments where it’s still possible to have an intimate correspondence with sun, water, sand and sea air. Driving through portions of this serene stretch, you’ll be awed by the almost surreal dunes that could easily be mistaken for a high-plains prairie dusted with snow. And best of all, it is now home to a bevy of superb golf courses, many of which are situated right next to the distinctive green coastal waters, whose color comes from the white quartz sand lying beneath the crystal-blue water of the Gulf.
You can fly directly into the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area through Okaloosa Regional Airport, or fly into either Panama City (forty-five minutes east) or Pensacola (ninety minutes west). The best place to stay is at the five-year-old development of WaterColor on Highway 30-A in Santa Rosa Beach, adjacent to the planned community of Seaside, where The Truman Show was filmed. Check in at the boutique WaterColor Inn, designed by the acclaimed architect David Rockwell and rated by TRAVEL + LEISURE as the seventh best hotel in North America. Each stylishly furnished room has a balcony overlooking dunes and sea; even the showers have windows, so the Gulf of Mexico is never out of sight. Be sure to pick up your complimentary bicycle for tooling around.
Once you settle in, drive five miles down the road to WaterColor’s sister enclave, WaterSound, where you can ease into your game at the Walker Course. It’s an innovative ten-hole par-three course designed by Davis Love III that can also be played as a six-hole loop of par threes, par fours and a par five. Situated just paces from the town square, it’s meant to be an open, multiuse area, so don’t be surprised to encounter dog walkers, children and various other folk.
For dinner, cycle or drive a few minutes to the Red Bar & Picolo’s Restaurant, a beloved seafood shack in Grayton Beach. The day’s menu—invariably featuring fresh fish—comes on a chalkboard, and the bar, playfully hung with drums, a guitar and a plastic Santa, buzzes with laughter and live jazz.
Rise early and head eight miles east on 30-A to Camp Creek Golf Club, the region’s premier course (available only to members and guests of WaterColor and WaterSound). The Tom Fazio design roams through wind-stunted vegetation with wide fairways and enormous greens that mirror the flanking dunes. When the routing ventures into a forest of pines on the back nine, it loses none of its steam thanks to a perfectly balanced string of holes that include a reachable par five, a short par four, a midlength par three and a rousing 474-yard par four.