In the south, as it relates to golf, we know all about Pinehurst, Myrtle Beach, Kiawah, Sea Island and the RTJ Trail. And in Florida, stealing a majority of the ink, it’s TPC Sawgrass, Trump Doral, Streamsong and other high-end resorts, such as The Breakers.
Tucked into the Panhandle of the No. 1 tourism state in the country, and flying below the radars of avid amateur golfers all over the world, is South Walton. It was a five-hour drive from Orlando, up and over to a stretch of 26 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast, made up of 16 beach neighborhoods that have quietly been cultivating a culture of art, food, golf and various forms of exploration.
There are year-round festivals surrounding 13 courses, four state parks, a state forest, 60 art galleries and over 200 restaurants. There are a wide variety of lodging options, and temperatures that range from mid-60s, to low-90s. In the spring and the fall, average highs are always around 80 degrees. The beaches are notorious for sand so fine that it squeaks under your bare feet.
In a four-day trip to South Walton, I paddled and putted, biked and Jeeped, cooked and created glass art.
No shock, that in South Walton, a company called YOLO is flourishing on sand and on water. Over a decade ago, Jeff Archer, sensing the emergence of the sport of paddleboarding, decided to capitalize on, not only the calm waters of the Gulf, but also the intercostal waterways and the 15 coastal dunes lakes. If “You Only Live Once,” as Archer explained, then living in South Walton offers a good life. Only a few years ago, Archer expanded his business to include beach bikes with specially designed frames, tires and amenities to allow his customers to maximize the returns from their investment into their health and natural surroundings.
Which could also be the theme of the culinary efforts of top chefs, who are migrating south from spicy cities, such as New Orleans. Chef Kevin Korman provided a private meal in the Alys Beach development, where the Bermuda architecture, set amongst towering palms, was a sweet setting for snapper two ways (ceviche verde and Malaysian glazed), quail, and a tart of three chocolates, coffee and vanilla ice cream, all covered in mocha sauce.
Rolling to the car, I couldn’t help but think Archer and chefs like Korman are working in conjunction to provide locals and visitors the types of meals that inspire a bike ride AND a paddle.
As for the golf, I played 54 of the 213 holes in South Walton. Raven, Burnt Pine and Camp Creek could hold their own with any Floridian resort. From conditioning to service, setting and playability, all three are popular for any handicap, which makes South Walton ideal for golf trips consisting of families, couples or a large group of buddies.
The Raven Golf Course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., and has hosted a Champions Tour event. In what Jones referred to as “modern traditional,” the sixth hole is a par 3 with an island green. And who doesn’t like an island green?
Burnt Pine was built by Robert’s brother, Rees Jones. You’ll be using your camera phone as much as you use your wedge as you make your way thru the back nine and along the Choctawhatchee Bay. Chock-ta-what? You’ll see.
And no golf trip to South Walton is complete without at least one round at Camp Creek, a secluded and serene Tom Fazio design that offers a view of each green from every tee box.
Lots of artistic feel to the golf, but off the course, you can’t drive a block without passing one of 60 art galleries and studios, many of which offer classes. I stopped in and spent time with Mary Hong, who has built a portfolio and studio full of glass collages, or “shard art.” Hong—like other artists, chefs, local fitness enthusiasts and golfers—is utilizing her surroundings to not only create a product of passion, but she’s making a lifestyle and career for herself and her family.
Who doesn’t like an island green, I asked? No one will appreciate the island green I made of shard glass, which is hardly art, but I’ll find a place for it on a wall in my Orlando apartment. If nothing else, it’s will be my looking glass, and a reminder, to get back to South Walton.
With local artisans and influencers such as Archer, Korman and Hong, surrounded by golf built by names like Jones, Fazio and Norman, South Walton is making some noise in the world of travel and destinations. And it’s a lot louder than the squeaky sand.