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The seaside Panhandle communities - planned and natural - capture the spirit of lazy summers long past.

An empty rectangle lot of fine white sand sits just to the east of downtown Seaside. It's crowded with sea oats and a "for sale" sign amid what looks like blossoming purple sage, all against a backdrop of the emerald water for which this area is known. - The lot elicits mixed emotions in me as we huff by on our Pee-wee Herman-style beach cruisers. First, a little unfilled space in this construction-crazy town is a good thing. How lovely to find a square of calm in the real estate boom towns of the coastal strip collectively tagged the Beaches of South Walton. - Second, I want that empty lot. Bad.

Sure, we live in our own beachy paradise in the Tampa Bay area, but the Beaches of South Walton are special. The area constitutes a 26-mile stretch of shoreline, containing 14 Panhandle beach communities sandwiched between Destin to the west and Panama City Beach to the east.

Pristine and environmentally sound, these beaches offer pure, clear water, sugar-white sand and meandering coastal dune lakes that add to an already unique and varied topography. It's the only place in the country to receive "Blue Wave" Environmental Certification from the Clean Beaches Council for its entire stretch of coastline.

But it's not the beach that makes the area different. It's the towns.

A bit like Disney for adults, the idea of "New Urbanism" has taken hold with the creation of compact, walkable, mixed-use communities. Each flawless, low-rise waterfront cottage is in synch with its neighbors. The common green space is meticulous, and the downtowns exist as some utopian experiment in mutual respect and civic conviviality.

Some of these communities actually developed organically; others were masterminded by architects and savvy developers. Riding from west to east on the wide bike path along Scenic Route 30A, we pass through them all. Seascape, Miramar Beach, Sandestin, Dune Allen, Santa Rosa Beach and Blue Mountain - all quaint, comfy beach communities. Then we hit Grayton Beach, the oldest town between Pensacola and Apalachicola. Settled in the early 1900s, it is a tree-lined beach community of old cypress cottages and small, narrow streets. There we find a great hangout called the Red Bar and a glorious state park.

I glide on through the swanky, newer towns. Only a few years old, WaterColor features stylized Cracker-style buildings in cheery greens and blues, all clustered around five public parks and the 60-room WaterColor Inn. The next town over is Seaside, with its pastel Victorian-postmodern homes and cottages organized around a town square with an outdoor amphitheater, galleries, restaurants and boutiques.

You either love these organized towns, using words like "charming" and "picturesque," or you hate them, slinging around the word "contrived" and grumbling about how they look like movie sets. Technically, you'd be right: The Truman Show was shot at Seaside.

Farther east, Seagrove Beach and Seacrest Beach feature some incongruously fancy new construction, and the towns of WaterSound and Alys Beach are entirely works in progress, with cranes and cement mixers crowding the otherwise serene beachfront.

At nearly the easternmost edge, we reach my favorite community, Rosemary Beach. Like Seaside, it's completely planned in a very narrow architectural idiom, but here natural earth tones on Caribbean-inspired homes are connected to the shore by boardwalks and footpaths. It's all loosely Dutch Colonial/West Indies style, including the town square and the "eternity pool."

It is at Rosemary Beach that I stake out my piece of real estate, if only for a few days of beachside relaxation.

Beach history

Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez landed along the Emerald Coast in 1628 to find himself a cool drink of water. The Creek Indians chased him and his men back to the boat, thirst unslaked.

Until just 50 years ago, this stretch of coast remained unsettled. That was when the St. Joe Co., which still owns a lot land around here, began focusing on real estate development over making paper.

The development has been careful and deliberate, partly because of a man named Robert Davis, who in turn owes a lot to his grandpa, J.S. Smolian.

It used to be that Americans retreated during the summers to simple beachside cottages. Every day, after you got your sunburned hide up off the porch, you biked or walked into the town center to take in a movie or get the local gossip and an ice cream.

In 1946, Smolian bought 80 acres near Seagrove Beach with this vision floating in his mind - a utopian summer camp for his employees. His grandson, Robert Davis, was smitten by the same vision, growing up to become a developer in Miami in the 1970s.

Still, the sweet multigenerational seaside summer village eluded them. Davis infected Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk with his gentle dream, and they built in their minds a fantasy town based on the northwest Florida architectural model of wood-frame cottages with peaked roofs, deep overhangs and big windows for cross ventilation. They traveled through Florida with sketch pads and eyes wide open to see broad straw hats on sun-lazy vacationers, white picket fences, screened porches and shiny metal soup pots steaming with fresh crab and just-harvested clams.

Then they made it real in the early 1980s with the town of Seaside, and new construction in the area has followed suit ever since.

In love with Rosemary

As with most of these communities, it's hard to avoid an old-fashioned-beach-retreat-through-rose-colored-glasses nostalgia in Rosemary Beach. Checking in at the Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company, we get our unit assignment, motor over, and ditch our car for the duration. Donning flip-flops, we head first to the Cabana Pool, one of five pools around town, for a dip. Refreshed, we're ready to check out the beach.

We make our way across a meandering boardwalk and down a wooden walkover to the sand: True to its name, the Emerald Coast's waters are like something from The Wizard of Oz. Some cynics say the bright color is the result of a pernicious blue-green algae. Not true. It's just very clear water, shown against super reflective white sand in the shallows that produces the green color. The deeper the water, the bluer it gets.

The color seems always in the background as we familiarize ourselves with the area - whether it's taking our rented sparkly turquoise bikes ($20 a day, complete with handlebar baskets) along the flat 19-mile paved bike trail of 30A or zipping in to try on sundresses in Seacrest Beach's little boutiques. We can see it between the trees as we navigate the rough terrain of the 10-mile mountain bike loop in the Point Washington State Forest (called the Eastern Lake Bike/Hike Trail) and again as we fumble through an early-morning tennis match ($12 for guests).

We paddle up to blue as we kayak the length of Western Lake, a coastal dune lake with osprey nests and Osceola turkeys on its banks. And at night, though we can't see it, it's the shushing of those emerald waters that lulls us to sleep in our little Rosemary Beach cottage.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or

You either love these organized towns, using words like "charming" and "picturesque," or you hate them, slinging around the word "contrived" and grumbling about how they look like movie sets. Technically, you'd be right: The Truman Show was shot at Seaside.


Where to stay

- For a list of beach houses, cottages and condos, www.beachesofsouth showcases properties, with rates, availability and photos of each, or call toll-free 1-800-822-6877. In most of these communities, daily rates start at around $200 for a small cottage, with weekly rates as high as $10,000 for a multi- bedroom unit.

- For camping, at the top of the heap is Grayton Beach State Park (357 Main Park Road, near the intersection of Scenic Route 30A and County Road 283), with little development and huge sea oat-covered sand dunes. Camping is popular, with 37 campsites and 30 cabins. 8 a.m.-sundown daily; $4 per vehicle, $1 per pedestrian or biker, $19 camping, $110 cabin rental. (850) 231-4210. If you visit in the fall, you may see monarch butterflies resting beachside during their migration to Mexico.

- Just a bit down the road is Topsail Hill State Preserve (7525 W Scenic Route 30A in Santa Rosa Beach). More than a century ago workers turpentined old-growth longleaf pine trees here; today it's 1,600 acres of stunning gulf-front pine forest, nature trails over tall sand dunes and two freshwater dune lakes. The park features an RV resort, tent camping and bungalows. 8 a.m.-sundown daily, $2 per vehicle, $1 pedestrian or bicyclist, $38 camping, $690 a week for the bungalow. (850) 267-0299.

Where to eat

Each community has its own cluster of restaurants, in a range of price points and culinary traditions. Go out of your way for these:

- At Criolla's (170 E Scenic Route 30A, Grayton Beach; (850) 267-1267, $26-$39), executive chef and owner Johnny Earles sends out "contemporary Creole-Caribbean," which translates as pan-seared gulf grouper with yellow corn, a black bean muneta, prickly pear mole and a Scotch bonnet-amped pineapple jam or maybe Aunt Irma's banana and pecan beignets.

- Bud and Alley's Restaurant (2236 E Scenic Route 30A, Seaside; (850) 231-5900, $12-$31) is a casual and unpretentious place to watch the sun set before tucking into a bowl of crawfish and andouille gumbo or tempura-fried softshell crabs with remoulade, or heads-on shrimp touched with garlic and shallot.

- Cafe Thirty-A (3899 E Scenic Route 30A, Seagrove; (850) 231-2166, $14-$38) is also casual, with a far-reaching wine list. The menu has broad appeal, with fancy stuff like pepper-crusted duck breast with grilled portobellos and roasted shallots. I'm content to just tuck into one of the wood-fired pizzas paired with a glass of Flowers pinot noir.

- Basmati's Asian Cuisine (3295 W Scenic Route 30A, Blue Mountain Beach; (850) 267-3028, $9-$28) is a full sushi bar and offers mostly Japanese-fusion dishes in a pretty dining room.

How to get there

- Car travel is easy along several primary feeders: U.S. 98, Highways 331 and 85, and Interstate 10. The beaches are just west of Panama City Beach along Scenic Route 30A.

- Tiny Okaloosa Regional Airport on Eglin Air Force Base is serviced by North- west Airlines, Delta, Continental and American Eagle. A 50-minute drive to the west, the Pensacola Regional Airport is still not huge, serving a moderate number of flights from AirTran, American Eagle, Continental, Delta, Northwest and US Airways. Delta has the most direct flights.