Unlike densely populated South Florida or theme-park epicenter Orlando, the western panhandle of Florida has no big cities, and trendy nightclubs are few and far between. The region is not exactly sleepy, with plenty of golf courses and resort developments, but for many years it hasn't drawn much attention from second-home buyers beyond nearby Louisiana, Texas and Alabama.
Not so any longer. Attracted by some of the best values in Florida (not to mention some of the state's most acclaimed beaches), buyers from all over the USA and Canada are heading to south Walton County. A new international airport scheduled for 2010 may bring them from even farther.
The main selling point is sand, so soft and white locals call it "sugar sand." The 26-mile stretch of coastline that constitutes the beaches of south Walton County has 14 towns or communities — including Seaside, the locale for the fictional picture-perfect town in the film The Truman Show. All 26 miles have been certified "Blue Wave Beaches," an environmental seal of approval from the Clean Beaches Council.
The entire strip is on a narrow peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. More than 40% of the region is owned by the state and protected from development. There are numerous state parks and preserves, as well as an extensive network of protected sand dunes. All of it is linked by more than 200 miles of bicycle paths and hiking trails. But the landscape is not all nature: The strip has about a dozen golf courses.
The 14 communities are each distinct — some gated, some not; some planned, some evolved. The best known are Sandestin, Seaside, WaterSound and WaterColor. Among them, they contain an array of restaurants, art galleries, shops and recreational facilities. Most have a mix of houses, townhouses and condos. Prices also are diverse, from just over $100,000 to several million dollars.
"Compared to south or central Florida, we have a huge variety of product with a large number of affordable homes," says Joe Bracciale, director of real estate sales at Sandestin.
A look at three south Walton County neighborhoods
• WaterColor. This 500-acre mixed resort and residential development (watercolorflorida.com), designed in traditional Southern style, includes a boutique hotel, spa, beach club, marina, shops and restaurants. Residents also have access to a nearby Tom Fazio golf course. Home sites range from $96,000 to $1.5 million and houses from $575,000 to $4.6 million. The master plan calls for 1,140 homes.
• Sandestin. This huge development (sandestin.com) contains 30 subcommunities on 2,400 acres with thousands of homes and condos, some in high-rises. It also has four golf courses, a tennis club, spa, marina, 7 miles of beach and coastline, a shopping center, pedestrian retail village, 20 restaurants and several hotels. Condos begin as low as $129,000, and houses run as high as $3 million to $4 million, but "the majority of our residences are in the $250,000-$600,000 range," says Joe Bracciale, director of real estate sales.
• Town of WaterSound. A sister property to WaterColor, this development (watersoundbeachclub.com) includes three neighborhoods, all designed in an architectural style inspired by Nantucket. WaterSound Beach is a gated, 256-acre beachfront community with mostly private homes. It has lots from $275,000 and houses from $865,000. WaterSound West Beach is a 62-acre coastal community surrounded by protected land with fewer than 200 home sites. Lots begin at $159,000 and houses at $699,000. WaterSound, on 1,400 acres, has the most residences planned, more than 1,200, and the most amenities, including a golf course and extensive trails. Lots start at $59,000 and houses from $459,000.