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Beaches of South Walton better than ever during fall season

ROSEMARY BEACH, Fla. - I haven't been to the beaches of South Walton in months, and what a difference a couple of months makes.

The staggering growth that communities such as Seaside in Florida experienced 20 years ago is now happening in places like the Watersound community, Seacrest Beach, Inlet Beach and Rosemary Beach. Even though they have been around for some time, it seems that these beach communities have been dropped onto the Florida Panhandle map overnight.

On most of my visits to the beaches, I would stay in Santa Rosa or the still-growing Watercolor development. Most of my time was spent strolling through nearby cute shops and the fine grocery store in Seaside, which was the picturesque setting for the Jim Carrey film "The Truman Show."

This time, I devoted the bulk of my visit to Rosemary Beach, which I believe is the brand-spanking-new sibling to Seaside. About 10 miles to the east of its older "sister," Rosemary Beach is, at the moment, peaceful and attractive. Built on the ideal of Norman Rockwell's America that Seaside knows so well, Rosemary Beach takes that theme even further with its unique blend of living quarters.

The Rosemary Beach Cottages and Carriage Houses, where I stayed, combines the Rockwell feel of a tightly knit community with a Caribbean-inspired decor. When I arrived after my six-hour journey, I hypothesized that the planners were going for a Mediterranean style. Beautifully designed and decorated homes with connected garages were set among narrow streets, reminding me of an Italian villa instead of a town in northwestern Florida.

"What makes the cottages so interesting is that Rosemary Beach hired several architects with their own style to design it," said Tracey Louthain, public relations and promotions manager with the Beaches of South Walton.

Breath of fresh air

It seems as though Rosemary Beach is an oasis from the madness of everything going on outside of it, including the hectic U.S. Highway 98. As soon as we settled into our carriage house, I quickly discovered the community's dedication to physical activity; there's easy access to the many boardwalks, footpaths and bike trails.

We ordered some bikes from Bamboo Beach and Bicycle, a well-stocked rental facility. Overall, the bike tour was exhilarating, excluding the daytime construction traffic. I frequently found myself vying for space with tractors and pickup trucks - not a fun thing to do when you're riding on a tandem bicycle with a 7-year-old. Undoubtedly, all that construction will pay off with a world-class hotel and more shops. Despite the maneuvers on the bike, it still beat all of my previous rides through the crowded areas of Seaside.

Shopping the

old-fashioned way

Rosemary Beach's town square was the most welcome sight of our ride. As we parked the bikes, I was awestruck by the gorgeous façade of the grand building that houses the town's merchants. Shops with names like Shabby Slips and Flavours of France are excellent for browsing on a lazy afternoon.

The Tracery was one of my favorite shops. It held an afternoon wine sampling accompanied by an artist who produces unique pillows. It was the talk of the day.

"We do these 'wine and pillow talks' every now and then," the artist said as she poured my wife and I a bold glass of chardonnay. Needless to say, we had to walk off our "samples" as our daughter begged us to visit GiGi's, an upscale children's clothing and toy store.

At night, it was a treat to explore Rosemary Beach in the cool, crisp air filled with the sound of the Gulf lapping at the shore. After attending an outdoor concert in the St. Augustine Green, a reserved piece of greenspace, we strolled over to Blue by Night, a cute bistro where we dined on a late supper of hearty salad. It was the perfect nightcap to a fantastic autumn visit.

- Editor's note: Lodging was provided by the Beaches of South Walton and Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental.