The pristine beaches of South Walton in Northwest Florida are among the whitest and most homogenous in the world. The quartz-rich sands skirt the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s the 16 tiny communities strung together along the 28-mile scenic coastal highway 30A that lure the most visitors. Locals here are passionate as any about their community, and any one of them will tell you it’s the best place to live and work in America.
The lure of groups and incentive/meeting planners to South Walton is simple says Pamela Watkins, director of sales/special events at Visit South Walton. “With the Gulf of Mexico in our backyard, 16 distinct beach neighborhoods to choose from and an eclectic mix of accommodations and meeting facilities, South Walton is the perfect beach destination for meeting attendees.”
Near the eastern end of the chain is Rosemary Beach, a quaint European-style hamlet with a West Indies vibe. The Pearl is an ultra-chic and trendy boutique hotel overlooking the Emerald Coast and the village’s 10,000-sf Western Green. Perched above the green, the rooftop Sol Luna Gulf Lounge is a great spot for views, cocktails and small plates from the wood-fired oven. It is here where creative thinkers can cast their nets. This is the place where sky becomes sea and anything becomes possible.
The lofty 55-room gem is equipped with Apple TVs, complimentary iPads while in residence and a fully integrated guest services app. Total indoor meeting space is 3,200 sf.
Guest rooms span the gamut of luxury from Traditional rooms with plush one king or two queens, to Cabana rooms with private poolside and spa areas, to gorgeous Rotunda suites that overlook the Gulf of Mexico. The Pearl Suite also includes outstanding Gulf views with the addition of an exclusive observatory room for people watching on Main Street.
Local photographer Tommy Crow adds the passion of Cuba’s capital city to the Pearls’ sizzling Havana Beach restaurant. A photo of a vibrant electric blue 1950s vintage cab welcomes you as you pass the handcarved mahogany bar. We were lucky to meet Crow and listen to him discuss the photos that adorn the walls. His 1,500-sf studio sits directly across the street and is available for private events. The salsa music combined with the locally sourced Creole, Cajun and Cuban cuisines generate a high-energy atmosphere on this opening night.
The restaurant seats 150 pax with buyout options available. We dine in the semi-private Hat Room, a more intimate setting with seating available for 32 guests. According to Executive Chef Michael Guerra, roughly 80% of all of the restaurant’s items—including fish, vegetables, herbs, honey, butter and ice cream—are locally sourced.
“One of my favorite dishes is the sustainable Gulf red snapper we get from Harbor Docks fishery,” Guerra says.
Many of us promptly order the red snapper and we’re extremely pleased with the delicacy and freshness.
The Pearl also partners with Nordaq Fresh, a sustainable water-filtration service that eliminates the need for bottled water.
“If we don’t support our local businesses and those businesses making an effort to keep the planet healthy then we can’t expect to have these options in the years to come,” explains Guerra. I love this guy.
WATERCOLOR INN & RESORT
The pastel houses and vintage Airstream trailers scattered west on 30A give a warm welcome to visitors from Santa Rosa Beach, a 499-acre community. Santa Rosa Beach has gained popularity due to neighboring Seaside, the backdrop for The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. Santa Rosa’s newly renovated 66-room luxury WaterColor Inn is a home away from home for the next leg of our group’s journey.
WaterColor has 7,000 sf of indoor/outdoor meeting space including a boardroom, the elegant Goldenrod ballroom, three breakout rooms, and the 3,600-sf Lake House and catering kitchen that opened in September. There is such comfort and serenity in my cabana-style guest room. Plump sea foam green pillows adorn the bed and couches. A smooth white wainscoting surrounds a shower that is reminiscent of a pilothouse with its head height glass windows that offer a view of the aquamarine waters just beyond the balcony. It is hard to leave when WaterColor’s Director of Group Sales, Kelly Galloway, invites me to tour the property and dine.
Our group of inspired weekend foodies work together with our private chef from the resort to prepare a menu using ingredients from local farmers markets. Selections are prepared in the hotel’s signature Fish Out of Water restaurant, the lobby lounge’s Gathering Spot & Sushi Bar and BeachClub Grille.
Chef Lawrence Klang is a miracle worker for the local farmers and fishermen in addition to being a talented chef. Dining in Fish Out of Water’s 20-seat private dining Wine Room, I savor each morsel of the beet ravioli with bottarga, pistachio, lemon and chives. The red snapper, sweet potato gnocchi and seasonal veggies are a delight for any palate. Samplings of chocolate souffle, panna cotta, assorted gelatos and strawberry shortcake were sinfully delicious.
“The menu changes often based on what we get from our local farmers,” Galloway says.
A few blocks away, the Bike Barn and Boat House sit on Western Lake, one of the many picturesque on-property dune lakes. Canoes, kayaks and YOLO boards for stand up paddle boarding are available at the Boathouse with bicycle rentals of all sizes at the Bike Barn. Connect with Yoloboard Adventures onsite for watersports and teambuilding activities.
I enjoy the complimentary bicycles that abound in and around Seaside. A short peddle for a smoothie from the Raw & Juicy Airstream is thirst quenching and a healthy way to start my mornings. This peaceful and safe community is also ideal for planners bringing families.
SANDESTIN GOLF & BEACH RESORT
My evening at Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort begins with a reception on the stately southern brick porch patio surrounding the elegant back entrance of the hotel. Strolling minstrels accompanied by waitstaff in formal attire serve classic rum swizzles and sidecar cocktails.
The Southern hospitality gives way to a splendid evening on the great green lawn of the Grand Sandestin hotel, just a smidgeon of the 2,400-acre resort with 65,000 sf of available meeting space.
Chef Jay Kirwan takes time from his busy kitchen to entertain us in an impressive penthouse suite overlooking Choctawhatchee Bay—one of Sandestin’s 1,300 rooms. We eagerly await Bananas Foster and its mouthwatering blend of bananas, vanilla ice cream, buttery brown sugar, dark rum and banana liquor. More dark rum and extra bananas is Kirwan’s preference.
Breezing through the resort on a golf cart brings me to the village of Baytown Wharf where an endless array of team building activities is made possible through volleyball, kayaking, boogie boarding, paddle boarding, wave running, sailing and zip lining across the lagoon. Golfers flock to Sandestin to play on championship courses designed by the famous Jones brothers, considered the finest in northern Florida.
I’ve never tried YOLO boarding before. I slowly climb aboard the 12-foot paddle board, and soon enough, I’m experiencing an incredible moment coinciding with the realization that I’m standing on water.
“It is a matter of staying in the moment and simply focusing on what you are doing that makes this possible,” says Jeff Archer, co-owner and founder of YOLO. “Nearly everyone can do this.” Cheers and encouragement from all of the team members help motivate beginners to overcome their fears as they paddle around the bay in the soft warm light.