The Unseen Florida

Spring break spots like Panama City, Destin, and the rest of the “Redneck Riviera” may get the lion’s share of visitors to Florida’s panhandle—and for travelers lusting for a little crowd-free romance, that’s just the way they want it.
Watercolor Sunset
POIGNANT INSPIRATION: Sunset on the Emerald Coast, in front of Watercolor Resort (Nathan Borchelt)
The Panhandle in Pictures

Embracing the romantic elements of travel typically means leaving the familiar behind. So your first stop en route to Watercolor, Florida, a 500-acre resort situated between the crashing waves of the Gulf of Mexico and placid surfaces of coastal lakes, may feel a bit too close to home. But as you exit the Panama City airport and drive through the suburban sprawl, the landscape shifts from chain stores and strip malls to small subdivisions of wooden houses mounted on stilts. The distinct scent of the ocean wafts into the car, and 45 minutes later you find yourself in a place that's both familiar and entirely different.

Attribute this refreshing disorientation to the beach itself. Composed of 99 percent quartz, the sugar-white, fine-grained sand creates the convincing illusion, as the sun shines on the water and bounces off the ocean floor, that you're looking into the azure Caribbean and not the Gulf of Mexico. As you walk along the coast, the sand literally squeaks underfoot as the quartz grains compress. Turn inland, and the beach evolves from somewhere equatorial to the region's most distinct geographic element: coastal dunes that lead to a network of spring-fed coastal lakes, which slowly filter into the ocean, then cycle back with the tide, to create networks of fresh, brackish, and salt water.

The resort's main hotel, the Watercolor Inn, is ideally positioned right on the beach to offer private, idyll appreciation of the coastal landscape. The resort becomes a haven for families each summer, but during the quieter months from October to March, you and your loved one will likely be one of the resort's only guests.

If you do leave your suite, the surrounding town is as quaint as the beach is luxurious. Watercolor sits on famous Highway 30A, a 17-mile-long two-lane road currently vying for Scenic Byway status, which will keep the number of high-rise developments limited to the few condos grandfathered in before the community voted to bar any construction over four stories. Watercolor offers free cruiser bikes to all guests, and a paved path links the resort to the charming town of Seaside, acres of public beachfront, and Deer Lake and Grayton Beach sate parks—in short, ample opportunity to explore and escape into this emerald coastline. Watercolor also offers free access to kayaks and canoes on its lake; during the migratory season, the walk to the boathouse is aflutter with monarch butterflies. The resort can also arrange for guided inland and coastal kayaking, deep-water and fly-fishing excursions, and mountain biking in Point Washington State Forest.

But however you spend the day, just be sure you return to the hotel and look westward from the beach or your private balcony as the sun drops into the ocean. Cloudy or clear, each evening the sky transforms into a crimson patina that slowly bleeds toward a star-filled darkness punctuated by the rising moon. It's at this moment that the origin of the resort's name becomes clear, and you realize that you and your loved one are in exactly the right place.

Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for

Published: 1 Feb 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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