What It’s Like to Live in a … Beach Town in Northwest Florida

A mix of beach towns and building-height restrictions along much of this stretch of coast gives the area a laid-back feel.

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.) 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.

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 downtown 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.
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11 Town Hall, one of the featured rental properties from Rosemary Beach

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-floor, 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.
northwest florida beaches, where to live northwest florida
The Watercolor Inn on Santa Rosa Beach. Watercolor Inn

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.

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