There’s a world of adventure out there. And, if you’re lucky enough to be on the Emerald Coast, you won’t have to travel very far to find any of it. It may be the beach that brings people here, but it’s the hidden (and not-so-hidden) gems that keep them coming back.
“I absolutely think that the natural aspects of South Walton are why people choose this area over other beach destinations. This stretch of coast is 150 miles long and has beautiful white beaches the entire way,” said David Demarest, director of marketing and communications for Visit South Walton. “But, what we have that most other places don’t is this combination of ecology, on the one hand, with 40 percent of our land under preservation or protected, and luxury, on the other hand, with all the great restaurants and really nice places to stay. So, in a sense you don’t have to choose between luxury and comfort, between nature and the beach.”
Demarest’s point is well-taken by Jeff Archer, co-founder of YOLO Board + Bike. Archer himself moved to the area in 2001 after a transformative visit to the place he now calls “Disney at the beach.”
“Let me explain what I mean by that. When you go to Disney, you know what you’re going for and the experiences you’re looking for. You want to see Magic Kingdom. You want pictures of Mickey. And, they deliver every time,” Archer said. “This place, people come for the same reasons. They come with an idea of what kind of experiences they’re going to have here.
“We put people on a paddleboard and they get to experience the area in that way or we get to have them ride the electric bikes from [Gulf Place] to Rosemary Beach and back and they get to experience things that way. Here, you are immersed in everything and that’s powerful stuff.”
While the beach, with its cool white sand and crystal-clear water, is what draws most people to the area, the opportunities beyond the beach are what excite Demarest and Archer most.
“A really good Saturday, especially in the wintertime, for me, I’ll start out and do a little bit of trail riding through the state forest on my mountain bike. And, then I’ll go down to the Timpoochee Trail, which is our paved trail that hugs close to the coast and goes through many of our neighborhoods and beach towns and, that way I can, on the way back, stop for coffee or pastries or treat and make myself happy again after the exercise,” Demarest said.
The bike experience YOLO provides offers a different opportunity for visitors.
“We started our own electric bike line three years ago that is literally changing how people experience 30A. Before, if you wanted to experience 30A, you were car-bound and really frustrated looking for parking,” Archer said. “On an electric bike, you can have pedal assistance all the way to Rosemary Beach and back and it doesn’t feel like a marathon.”
When Archer isn’t putting people on electric bikes, he’s putting them on paddleboards.
“Paddleboards will get you places right off the beaten path that you couldn’t get to otherwise. But, when you go around that corner, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this, I can’t believe this is right here,’” Archer said. And, that’s speckled throughout this entire area.”
Archer’s favorite spots to take the paddleboard include Morrison Springs, with “water that looks like Windex,” and of course, the coastal dune lakes — Western Lake, in particular.
“Western Lake is, for me, one of the most beautiful assets we have. I’ve seen everything in there from an eagle taking a fish off the water to a bear swimming across at daybreak one morning,” Archer said. “Paddleboarding forces you to be in the moment. You can’t be thinking about a lot of other stuff because you’re thinking about not falling off. But, then that translates to, ‘Wow, look at that bird.’ We never look at that bird passing by. A day of that leaves you with a different perspective.”
The significance of the area’s 15 coastal dune lakes cannot be overstated.
“There are just a few other places in the world where you can see them and you’d have to go a long way before you’d get to another one,” Demarest said. “Meanwhile, we have 15 of them right here.”
Both men spoke to the importance of strategic planning and forward-thinking that laid the groundwork for an environment people will get to enjoy for years to come.
“The land that is preserved here guarantees that going into the future, we’re going to get to continue the lifestyle that we enjoy with not only the beach, but the beautiful state parks and state forests and all the greenery that surrounds us,” Demarest said. “Our towns — Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach and WaterColor — show that its developers clearly valued shared green space and bike paths and trails and accesses to the beach.”
“This isn’t just a bunch of woods here. People really like to play in them. They’ll bring their families here and ride bikes all week and stay out of their cars, if we promote that. That’s the kind of lifestyle you get to check into when you come here,” Archer said. “That’s what people want at the beach. They want experiences. They want moments. That’s what nature does.”
To experience your own outdoor adventures in the area, visit yoloboard.com and visitsouthwalton.com.