ROSEMARY BEACH, Fla. — With nary a palm tree in sight, can this really be Florida?
In a word, yes — although it might not be the Florida that most visitors are accustomed to. There are beaches here, all right — some of the nicest anywhere — and enough sunshine on a November afternoon to broil a pasty northerner until he’s approximately the same shade of hot pink as the inside of a medium-rare steak.
But there’s a notable dearth of theme parks here, not to mention high-rise condo developments, strip malls, miniature golf courses, water slides, crab shacks, T-shirt emporiums, souvenir stands, and assorted Florida-flavored tourist traps. And speaking of tourists, there aren’t exactly mobs of them around, either.
We’re in Rosemary Beach, one of the newest examples of a different breed of beach town that’s sprouted in recent years along the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida’s panhandle. Each of these postage stamp-sized “created communities” has been planned and built with an eye toward compactness and intimate, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
Development of this upscale, 107-acre community began in 1995, between Destin and Panama Beach at the eastern end of Scenic Highway 30-A. Like other master-planned coastal towns, the placement, design, and construction of streets and buildings here was rigidly controlled to produce an idyllic, small-town atmosphere. Rosemary Beach’s developers referred to it, somewhat incongruously, as a “new traditional beach town.”
At the heart of the community is the town center, Barrett Square, where many of the shops, restaurants, and other public buildings are located. It’s no more than a five-minute walk to the town center from anywhere in Rosemary Beach.
The town’s homes — there are about 600 of them — are built close together, and they’re nothing like the cookie-cutter places you might see in a typical modern subdivision. Each is custom designed and built with wood siding, stucco, cedar shingles, and tin roofs, and the shapes and silhouettes are reminiscent of the West Indies, with a dash of New Orleans and maybe a little Charleston, S.C., thrown in.
No paint allowed
The homes are mainly of two types: carriage houses that can sleep two to six people, and so-called “cottages” or beach houses that range from 1,000 to 6,000 square feet, have as many as five bedrooms, and can accommodate up to 20 people. All of them have raised ceilings and steep stairways, and nearly all have professionally decorated interiors.
Most have wraparound balconies, and some have shuttered sleeping porches or loggias — outdoor living rooms furnished as if they were indoors. The outsides are stained (no external paint is allowed, because the salt air makes it peel) in muted colors with names like dune gray, Spanish moss, Atlantic spray, and summer glow.
Many of the homes are downright opulent, a fact reflected in their eye-popping sale prices, which can run from around $400,000 to more than $5 million.
There are no lawns to speak of — about the only grass to be seen is in the town’s well-manicured “pocket parks” and common areas, but the residential landscaping is gorgeous, featuring lush growths of saw palmetto, holly, sea oats, goldenrod, wild sea grass, and rosemary, the fragrant, blue herb that gave the community its name.
And about those palm trees — or rather, the lack thereof.
The reason they’re few and far between is simple: they’re not indigenous to this part of Florida, according to Ken Gifford, vice president and managing director of Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company.
“It made no sense aesthetically to bring in something that doesn’t grow here naturally just so people could go, ‘Oh, that’s what Florida looks like,’ because in many cases it really doesn’t,” Gifford said.
Rosemary Beach was chosen 10 years ago as the site of a tropical house built as the grand prize in cable network HGTV’s “Dream Home” contest. And the area’s natural beauty and picturesque architecture have made it popular with major retailers, who send camera crews here regularly to shoot promotional pictures and videos for their products. During our visit in early November, photographers and models for Land’s End were all over town doing photo shoots for the clothing company’s spring catalog.
Though it was planned and built as a residential community, Rosemary Beach has morphed into more of a vacation destination. Barely a quarter of the houses are occupied by full-time residents. The rest are second homes, used by their owners only sporadically, and many of those are included in a rental pool for short-term vacationers. About 200 are available for rent by the day, week, or longer.
During our stay, my wife and I rented a neat little two-story carriage house owned by a couple from Westlake, Ohio.
Built for bikers
Like a lot of visitors to Rosemary Beach, our first stop after settling in was the Bamboo Bicycle Company, which rents adult beach cruisers, tandems, and children’s bikes. Most everybody in town, visitors and residents alike, either walks or pedals around town via a crisscrossing network of footpaths, boardwalks, and lanes that lead just about everywhere.
Though the atmosphere is definitely geared toward laid-back serenity, for those who like to get out and about, there’s plenty to do. Winding through the property is a two-mile fitness trail with exercise stations, and there are four heated swimming pools, including one with a retractable roof.
Guests get free use of the pools, as well as eight clay tennis courts and a well-equipped fitness center — and for those who enjoy more stationary diversions, there’s also an unlimited supply of free movies on DVD.
The shops that line Barrett Square and nearby Main Street are mostly upscale places, such as Gigi’s Fabulous Kids’ Fashions & Toys; Bombora Sun & Surf, which sells beachwear and surf gear, and Pish Posh Patchouli’s, a skin and hair care boutique where customers can create their own signature perfume or cologne.
For less exotic purchases, there’s Rosemary Beach Trading Company, with logo clothing, hats, and souvenirs, as well as jewelry, handbags, books, and gifts.
All the rental accommodations are equipped with kitchens and cooking utensils, and visitors can stock up on meats, cheeses, and other food at Wild Olives Market, which also includes a deli, bakery, olive bar, and wine-tasting room.
But it’s often more fun to eat out when you’re on vacation, and the array of dining options in town is surprisingly varied, though you won’t find any McDonald’s, Applebee’s, or other chain restaurants — they’re not allowed.
The family-owned Amavida Coffee Shop sells Fair Trade coffee that’s roasted just a few miles away, while the Summer Kitchen Caf has a split personality, featuring muffins, salads, and sandwiches during the day, then after dark becoming a restaurant called Blue by Night, which serves fresh seafood to diners seated both inside and out.
Other evening choices include Italian fare at Onano Neighborhood Caf , and the more posh Restaurant Paradis, which specializes in steaks and seafood.
At Courtyard Wine & Cheese, more than 50 wines can be sampled, along with cheese plates, in a picturesque, open-air courtyard. The local ice cream shop is the Sugar Shak which stocks all sorts of candy, too, as well as stalks of sugar cane for natural nibbling.
Despite its manmade attractions, the crown jewel of Rosemary Beach remains, of course, its beach. The sugary-white sand is made up of round grains of Appalachian crystal quartz that squeak when you walk on it and don’t get blazing hot from the sun.
Stay off the dunes
Separating the town from the beach are rolling sand dunes, some almost 30 feet high, that have been sculpted over centuries by the winds and waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The dunes serve a major ecological role, protecting the mainland from erosion and damage from the occasional tropical storm, and they in turn are protected by law from development, and even from people walking on them.
To avoid disturbing the dunes while providing easy beach access, there are nine wooden “walkovers,” two of which are wheelchair-friendly.
Once on the beach, many are content just to veg out with a book on a chair or hammock or wiggle their toes in the sugary sand. More energetic types can swim in the shallow gulf or rent sea kayaks or sailboats and skim across the water.
Winter is admittedly not the warmest time of year to visit this charming beachfront community, with average daily temperatures in the mid-60s from December through February. That’s not nearly as toasty as the mid-80s of the summer months, but it isn’t the 10s and 20s of the frosty Midwest, either.
And visitors willing to sacrifice a few degrees can save big bucks with off-season rates and winter specials. From now through March 12, daily rates begin at $172 and weekly rates at $1,154, discounts of 20-30 percent off peak summer rates. And in a nod to Florida’s still-sluggish tourism industry, special packages also include a free night added to any two or three-night stay, and an entire free week added to any weeklong stay.
Another type of lodging available in town is the Pensione, a European-style inn above the Onano Caf , with 11 guest rooms and rates starting at $150 a night.
Until now, Rosemary Beach has been primarily a driving destination for people living in Florida and nearby states, according to Gifford. That’s at least in part because it’s not easy for those living farther away to get here. Most have to fly into Pensacola, Fla., which is a two-hour drive from Rosemary Beach. But that’s due to change next spring, when a long-awaited airport opens in Panama City, just 30 minutes away.
While not many of us are in a position to buy a $5 million beach house — nobody I know, anyway — it’s kind of cool to know we can at least spend a few days in one. (Or at least in its adjoining carriage house.) And if we pick the right time of year, we can even do it without breaking the bank.
Mike Kelly is a retired Blade travel writer.
Contact him at: Kelly.email@example.com
If you go:
Getting there: Round-trip flights are available to Pensacola, Fla., from Toledo starting at about $500, and from Detroit, starting at about $250; or to Destin-Fort Walton Beach, $475 from Toledo or $275 from Detroit. By rental car or shuttle bus from Pensacola, Rosemary Beach is about two hours away, Destin about an hour away.
Seasonal events: There are plenty of them on the calendar. An interesting one is the inaugural 30-A Songwriters Festival (Jan. 15-17), featuring Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, John Hall of Hall & Oates, Rodney Crowell, and more. Information: 30asongwritersfestival.com
More information: Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Co. at 888-855-1551 or rosemarybeach.com