Beaches of South Walton

The 14 beach communities that comprise the area known as the Beaches of South Walton on the Florida Panhandle have undergone a marked transformation, according to tourism officials. It has moved away from its commonly known epithet. "I know, the Redneck Riviera. But things really changed over the last 20 years," says Tracy Louthain, public relations and promotions manager for the Beaches of South Walton. Indeed, of late, luxury pioneers have blazed this area in a determined effort to turn things around. A room at the WaterColor Inn, Santa Rosa Beach, FL

One is the St. Joe Company, a paper concern that began leveraging its vast landholdings on the Panhandle to build luxury destinations once regional property values began to rise. It owns the WaterColor Inn and Resort (www.watercolorinn.com), the first luxury hotel on the Panhandle, which opened in 2000. "We've introduced a new level of product and experience that hasn't been here before," says Stacy Hamilton, director of marketing and sales for WaterColor. The 60-room beachfront boutique is a Virtuoso property and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Rates range from $250 to $745 a night. Agents can earn 20 percent commission through a promotion that will last until the end of the year, and will likely extend into February. The regular commission is 10 percent.

Next, Rosemary Beach, about 10 miles from WaterColor and also on the Gulf of Mexico, is going to open the Hotel Saba sometime in 2007, reports Louthain. The 56-room boutique property will, like the WaterColor Inn, evince a decidedly un-Miami, southern feel à la Charleston, Savannah or even New Orleans. Also in the luxury hotel sector, Louthain says that the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort (www.sandestin.com) in Destin, is a four-star property worth a look.

The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, Destin, FL

Interestingly, observers can trace the most activity in the luxury sphere not to hotel development, but to the private cottage rental market. Both WaterColor and Rosemary Beach are, for instance, beachfront communities that, in addition to the boutique properties, offer clients upscale living quarters on the Gulf of Mexico.

WaterColor, for one, has 140 cottages available for rent. (These are commissionable to agents as well.) And Rosemary Beach (www.rosemarybeach.com, 888-855-1551) has, according to Louthain, some "magnificent properties," as well. "They range from one to eight bedrooms," she says. There are a total of 14 luxury residential communities with stocks of rental villas in WaltonCounty alone. Just how luxurious they are differs. "There's a range," Louthain says.

The WaterColor Inn, Santa Rosa Beach, FL

But it definitely should be on the radar screen of couples looking for a luxurious, romantic getaway, and multi-generational tourist groups in need of multi-room accommodations under one roof. Beware, however, that some communities, unlike WaterColor, do not award agents commissions for villa rentals. Those that do offer commissions include Rosemary, Seagrove, WaterColor, Seaside (where The Truman Show was filmed), Dune Allen, Sandestin and Seascape, the tourism council reports.

Accommodations aren't the only things going upscale in the area. Restaurants aren't all hush puppies and beer anymore. Travel Agent had the opportunity to taste dishes from Criolla's, in GraytonBeach, and Fish Out of Water, in the WaterColor Inn, and found the gulf snapper with truffles and braised veal with persimmons handpicked by the chef to be outstanding.

The area's 26 miles of protected coastline and numerous pristine white sand beaches are so important for business that one of 33 tourism council employees is a beach scientist. Also, the area has the largest designer factory outlet center in the country.

The Beaches of South Walton has high hopes that the new Panama City international airport, opening in 2009, will increase traffic. (Panama City is about 30 minutes from WaterColor.) Currently, the only large airports offering direct service to the region are Atlanta and Dallas; most visitors are drivers originating in the south. The St. Joe Company, the largest private landowner in Florida, donated the land for the airport.

For more information, visit www.beachesofsouthwalton.com, or call 800-827-6877.