White sand beaches are closer than you think Beaches of South Walton, Fla. By Cindy Richards

Cindy Richards/Chicago Parent Tess Fisher, 7, dons a fancy hat and fur stole for hight ea at the Magnolia & Ivy Tea Room.

Mention white sand beaches and aqua-blue waters and Midwesterners are most likely to picture a remote Caribbean island. At least I did before a trip to the Florida Panhandle.

Having visited, I now know that white sand beaches and emerald green waters can be had much closer to home. The 26 miles of the Beaches of South Walton, which traditionally have drawn tourists from surrounding states, are gaining notoriety farther away. The area-with a personality more closely aligned with its southern neighbors than with the rest of the state-is now the second most popular destination in Florida, behind Orlando and the lure of Mickey Mouse.

Panhandle impressions Our first taste of the Panhandle, however, did not provoke optimism as we drove from the Ft. Walton Beach airport through Destin. This resort community has a Wisconsin Dells feel to it-all overdone water parks, bungee-jumping rides and go-cart tracks. But, in much the same way Frank Lloyd Wright downsized his entranceways so visitors would be impressed with the spaciousness of his interiors, passing through Destin makes the Beaches of South Walton seem even more white, more bright and more monied than they might otherwise.

Known as the Emerald Coast, this stretch is a checkerboard of huge developments and pristine natural preserves. We stayed as guests of the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, near the western edge of Walton County.

This newer resort is in major expansion mode. Everywhere, the construction crews are working (even Saturday morning brought the roar of the power tools by 7:30 a.m.)

With both golf and Gulf accommodations, this resort is simply gorgeous. Its shopping and restaurant row, designed to mimic a fishing village, is just one small part of the 2,400-acre all-inclusive Sandestin. The resort offers an array of shopping options, a five-acre nature preserve, a stretch of that beautiful white sand beach as well as a marina with kayaks and jet ski rentals. My 7-year-old daughter got on the jet ski asking how often people fall off but soon was urging me to "go faster, Mommy."

All of the rental units are privately owned condos (the buildings are sold-out before construction ever begins) and rents range from a low of $90 a night in the off-season to a high of more than $800 during the summer. Our end unit, a two-bedroom, two-bath with a full kitchen, wrap-around deck and view of the Choctawhatchee Bay, rents for $140-$280 per night, depending on the season.

But Sandestin is only one of the developments that dot the beaches in Walton County. Each has its own personality. Grayton Beach has the feel of a one-time hippie hangout, now transformed into an upscale artists' colony. WaterColor, where developers appear to have spared no expense, is so environmentally friendly that it employs a naturalist to make sure the endangered Choctawhatchee beach mouse has a cushy life despite the bulldozers.

And then there's Seaside. If Sandestin and WaterColor are home to the new money, Seaside is old money. Everything virtually screams money in this beach community. (There are no towns here, the only governmental unit is Walton County, but each of the 13 areas carries the moniker of "beach community.") Real estate prices start at about $1 million and go up. Rents at a beachfront "cottage" can top $800 a night. So don't stay there. But drop by for dinner. The sunsets are breathtaking.

What to do Every resort community boasts a load of great restaurants and each offers an array of kid-friendly programming. In season-generally, spring break and summer-there are kids' clubs and kids' camps, family-friendly outings, even free children's theater performances in Seaside.

Our favorite stop, without a doubt, was the Magnolia & Ivy Tea Room at Sandestin, which offers high tea in high style. We donned fancy hats, mink stoles and white gloves (the high heels were just too uncomfortable) to sip tea and munch on finger sandwiches and high-calorie sweets.

If there is a caution, it is that the weather can be iffy. We were there in late October and it was 82 degrees and sunny every day. The next week, a front moved in and the temperatures dropped into the upper 60s and lower 70s which, admittedly, can seem quite warm when the December winds are blowing in from Lake Michigan. (The average winter temperature is 68; spring is 79; summer, 91 and fall, 80.) But when it rains, there is precious little to do in this outdoor mecca. It lacks the museums and other indoor attractions you might find in Miami or Orlando. When the weather outside is frightful, you're pretty much stuck in your very nice condo watching cable or shopping at the nearby outlet mall.

Getting there can be a little tricky, too. Unlike traveling to Miami or Orlando, there are no non-stop flights from Chicago to Ft. Walton Beach's Valparaiso Airport. For us, that meant changing planes in Memphis, which can be tough when you're traveling with kids. On the plus side, all the connections worked and we arrived on time, along with our luggage. Fares on Northwest and Delta are about $300 per person, even in the high-demand spring break season. If you have a big family (and a big SUV), driving is a possibility. It's about 16 hours on the road-three hours less than a drive to Orlando.

For information, visit www.beachesofsouthwalton .com.


Cindy Richards is the associate editor of Chicago Parent and mom of two.


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