One-hour flights or an easy drive have long attracted second-home buyers from the South to Northwest Florida. (Don’t be surprised by the occasional “y’all” and “ma’am” and cuisine with a Southern spin.) A mix of beach towns and building-height restrictions along much of this stretch of coast gives the area a laid-back feel. Pine trees outnumber palms here, and wind- swept dunes punctuated by sea grass add elevation to the shore—something you won’t see south of Clearwater Beach.
The May opening of an international airport in Panama City along with direct flights from four new cities have opened Northwest Florida to a flood of newcomers. Even with the recent news about the oil spills in the Gulf, the area is alive and kicking. Realtors and local businesses continue to expect a boon to the area that hugs the Gulf of Mexico northwest from Port St. John to Fort Walton Beach and counts two scenic highways—98 and 30A—along its path. Real-estate agent Hugh Smith predicts that even more retirees and second-home buyers, especially those from big feeder markets, are going to discover Northwest Florida. “We have lots of things to do.”
Living in Port St. Joe
This part of Florida has discernible seasons. You’ll feel a nip in the air come December, but those 60- degree daytime temperatures only last a few months. High season here is summer when temperatures hover around the 80s and 90s and attract family vacationers like Atlantans Amy and Jeff Nickels as well as their 5-year-old son, Derek. “I told Jeff if he wants to see us this summer, he has to come to the beach,” she jokes.
The Nickels’ new home was completed in November in WindMark Beach, a community in historic Port St. Joe with four miles of beachfront, a Village Center offering shopping and dining as well as meandering boardwalks—a Nickels family favorite. They also enjoy exploring Port St. Joe’s down- town and noshing at Joe Mama’s Pizza and the bayfront Dockside Café, but count WaterMark’s Great Southern School of Fish Restaurant, with its signature seafood grits, as the best local dining. “It has the most beautiful view of the water, great for watching the sunset,” says Amy.
Homes here echo the region’s century-old architectural vernacular—tin roofs, open breezeways and wooden front porches. The Nickels designed their home with lots of windows, decks and screened porches. “We’re close enough to the beach to walk and not be mad if I forget something and have to go home,” says Amy.
- Port St. Joe Facts — Population: 3,551 | 22 miles west of Apalachicola, 39 miles east of Panama City | 2,020 acres, 1,552 homes planned, four miles of Gulf in WindMark Beach | Five feet above sea level.
Living in Rosemary Beach
Two-lane 30A leads east to Rosemary Beach, a New Urbanist community where residents design their signature scent at Pish Posh Patchouli’s; linger over seafood and a Pearl pomegranate martini infused with a white-lavender-citrus teabag at the all-new Restaurant Paradis; or even check out the Aveda spa. Nothing’s more than a five-minute walk, including the beach, so traveling by bicycle or on foot is most preferred.
Rosemary Beach also benefits from its prime location. Walton County’s zoning regulations prevent buildings in excess of 50 feet or four stories along its 18-mile sweep of Gulf, keeping the focus on the water. The community offers a dozen styles of homes—from single-foor, apartment-like flats above businesses in the town square to the sprawling beachfront estates, many with quaint 400- to 1,000-square-foot detached carriage homes that are often placed on the rental program. No two homes in Rosemary Beach are alike, and many feature Dutch and West Indies-inspired architecture.
- Rosemary Beach Facts — Named for the rosemary that grows along the dunes | 107 acres | 2,300 feet of Gulf frontage and dunes as tall as 30 feet | Two greens and five parks, including a butterfly park | 2.3-mile fitness and walking trail.
Living in Santa Rosa Beach
Atlantans Julie and Chris Johnson spent so much time visiting friends at the 499-acre WaterColor in Santa Rosa Beach that they decided to buy after overhearing “folks at the pool talking about the great deals on lots.” Their home, purchased with another Atlanta couple and Julie’s parents, was completed in 2008 and designed with multiple master bedrooms. “This part of Florida is so unique,” says Julie. “We love the crystal white-sand beaches and the water. My husband likes fishing, biking and kayak- ing. There’s also a diversity of cuisine and nightlife [with] fun bars like the Red Bar in Grayton Beach. We’ve never had a bad night there.”
Now that the couple has children, Jacob, 5, and Benjamin, 2, they tend to opt for quieter pursuits such as the Old Florida Fish House in Seagrove Beach and date nights at the reservations-required Café Tango in Santa Rosa Beach. “WaterColor has all the modern convenience, yet it’s not congested or touristy like the bigger cities,” says Julie. “It’s peaceful. I always exhale gently when I pull in the driveway.”
- Santa Rosa Beach Facts — Population: 6,210 | Bordered by the 15,000-acre Point Washington State Forest, which offers 10 miles of trails | 18.6 miles of paved paths along 30a | WaterColor: about 1,000 homes planned for 499 acres between the Gulf and a coastal dune lake.
Real Estate: What Your Money Can Buy Now + Coastal Northwest Florida
First-quarter sales of existing homes along the 30A corridor rose 39 percent compared to sales in 2009. Prices, down as much as 50 percent from the market’s peak just four years ago, are helping drive sales. Our top picks among recent listings:
- Santa Rosa Beach — Lot prices at WaterColor start around $92,000 and can top out at around $500,000—just $19,000 less than a recently listed three-bedroom cottage with hardwood floors as well as two front porches. Summersweet Place in WaterColor’s Crossing District even offers three-bedroom cottages with 2,270 to 2,610 square feet starting near $500,000. For more info contact Huff Development, 850.897.6464.
- Rosemary Beach — Prices drop about $100,000 per block from the water for smaller single-family homes. Recent listings ranged from $1,995,000 for a newly remodeled three-bedroom, two-story Gulf-side home located on the boardwalk with an open courtyard and large interior to $2,195,000 for a grand Gulf waterview three-story, five-bedroom dwelling with wraparound porches. For more info contact Gary Gibson, Rosemary Beach Realty, Inc. 850.278.2000.