This story was originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
By the time we arrive at Western Lake, the rain showers have subsided and the sun is starting to warm the increasingly calm, tannin-infused water. “We can guarantee a successful first-time experience,” says Tom Losee as he stands on the dock behind the WaterColor Boathouse and demonstrates how to use the long YOLO paddle, hand atop the handle, to move the water more efficiently.
“This is a phenomenal way to exercise. You’re working your abs, your triceps, your shoulders, your arms,” adds Losee, who launched his YOLO boarding venture in 2006 after reading about a resurgence of stand-up paddling, which combines surfing and traditional canoeing or kayaking. “The name-You Only Live Once-says it all. Standing up gives you a bird’s eye view. Dolphins swim underneath you, and there are some places in the gulf where you can see 30 feet down and spot a big ray. It’s like Animal Planet. How else could you experience that?”
My boyfriend Robert and I are on a mission: to enjoy a long weekend of activities we’ve never explored at the Beaches of South Walton, that glorious stretch of aquamarine coastline between Destin and Panama City. From sea kayaking to horseback riding to my personal favorite-dancing-the area offers a number of options for those with energy to burn. We’ve decided to split our time between Rosemary Beach and Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 20 miles westward.
First up: YOLO boarding at WaterColor, the artistic New Urbanist community next to Seaside. After Losee’s tutorial, we perch on a teal-blue, polyethelene YOLO Yak and prepare to push off from the dock, Robert kneeling on the back of the board, me sitting cross-legged in front. Moments later, he is standing gondolier-style, paddling through the deceptively high water while Losee and his assistant, Justin Nichols, glide alongside us on solo boards. Heading into the marsh, we squeeze the Yak into narrow passages flanked by cattails and elegant water lilies, their crimson undersides curled up like fans. At the turnaround point we stop while Robert and Losee swap places. “Oh this is faster!” Robert exclaims, and suddenly he is racing Nichols as the two men speed past on either side of the YOLO Yak.
Food for Thought
To maintain our energy for this four-day adventure, we must, of course, savor ample portions of the local cuisine. Less than a year old, Restaurant Paradis in Rosemary Beach is upscale yet cozy, with a friendly neighborhood feel in an intimate setting, large carved wooden chandeliers and ivory booths with tangerine-hued pillows. The she-crab bisque is rich, sweet and creamy, like a peppered dessert-and the grilled grouper, served over sautŽed lobster, orzo and fennel, is superb. After dinner, we attempt to walk off some calories with a stroll on Rosemary Beach, flashlight in hand as we eavesdrop on white crabs scuttling back into their sand caves. The next day, we feast on fresh sandwiches at Wild Olives Market-Robert orders the mahi mahi, while I go for the fried green tomato, accompanied by the best sour-cream potato salad I’ve ever put in my mouth-and meander the “secret” paths, cottage-lined streets and gardens of Rosemary Beach.
During the second half of our visit to the Beaches of South Walton, we chow down on Po Boys, gumbo and jambalaya at Sandestin’s Acme Oyster House, a noisy eatery with a long line and surprisingly quick service in the Village of Baytowne Wharf. The locals have told us that John Wehner’s Village Door is the area’s hottest place to dance, and they’re right. When the floor below the live band gets too crowded for our cha-cha moves, we find a spot near the bar and keep dancing. Later we check out the dueling piano show at Rum Runners and the karaoke at Top This! Comedy Club and Tapas Grille, where a cluster of women belts out the words to Cindy Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
All weekend I’ve been trying to muster the courage to try the new zip line-the only one in Northwest Florida-over the lagoon at Sandestin. But high winds have closed the attraction for the day, so instead we settle in at a sheltered table at Roberto’s Pizzeria and munch on slices of crab-and-artichoke pizza and chunks of muffuletta.
The volatile weather has also sidetracked our plans to go sea kayaking in Choctawhatchee Bay and shuttered the rest of the water sport rentals at the marina. We make the most of the afternoon by biking the trails to the beach and strolling the shoreline, hand in hand, at sunset.
The Light Fantastic
On our last night here, we head back to Rum Runners for dinner (creamy lobster ravioli tossed with asparagus and sweet red peppers) and a low-key acoustic guitar performance. This time the crowd is sparse, but just as we did when the inclement weather set in, we choose to make our own fun. With the guitarist strumming “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” we take to the small dance floor and break into a sultry rumba. “You guys are awesome,” says a lady at the table next to us as her dinner companions applaud. My confidence pumped, I consider tackling that zip line on our next visit.
Or maybe I’ll just watch.
WHERE TO STAY
Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Agency
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant Paradis, Rosemary Beach
Wild Olives Market, Rosemary Beach
Another Broken Egg, Bayside Inn, Sandestin
Acme Oyster House, Village of Baytowne Wharf, Sandestin
George’s at Alys Beach
Rum Runners, Village of Baytowne Wharf, Sandestin
WHAT TO DO
Dancing at John Wehner’s Village Door
Kayaking on Choctawhatchee Bay
Sandestin Baytowne Marina
Zip Lining at Sandestin’s Adventure Zone