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Savoring Seaside

By BILL GRUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times


In 1978, Davis started his concept-village, which influences the lives of its affluent inhabitants and seduces its renters. Its feeling of idealized, small-town America from a half-century ago has generated enormous publicity and has attracted the attention of architectural and town planners.

Yet Seaside comprises real people residing in an unusual setting that emphasizes various ideals for communal living. The tin-roofed "cottages" are whimsical, unrestrained, colored a full palette of hues -- all of it creating a fabulous mood.

As you approach via a U.S. 98 connecting road, Seaside seems to rise from the Gulf Coast dunes as an apparition -- more than 300 one-, two- and three-story cottages that are close together but without a feeling of crowding.

Most of the pretty little residences have guest quarters built into them -- only a couple of dozen cottages are occupied year-round by their owners. Most of the cottages are individually owned; all of the decor is personal.

Having left Tampa at 9 a.m., we were settled in our rental by 3:30; even in October, when we visited, that left plenty of time to stroll in the warm sun. We walked down our street two blocks, crossed the beach road and stepped on a boardwalk crossing the dunes and leading to a lovely beach pavilion.

Differently designed pavilions grace the end of each Seaside street, providing a shaded place to sit. The beach itself is exquisite, the dunes largely intact, the white sand fine as sugar. The gulf rolls in gentle green waves.

In this environment, the act of going to the beach seems to be part of an artistic event.

We strolled the beach, passing three more pavilions and ending at a small commercial area in the center of town that has a number of bars and restaurants. Watching the sunset, with a couple of drinks, we had a sense of oneness with land, shore and town.

But people do live and work here. To keep auto traffic to a minimum on the brick lanes, only residents' cars are allowed in the shell-surfaced parking areas and on the streets. The children of Seaside have the run of the place, riding bicycles everywhere. Several people told me that it was the safest situation they had ever had in terms of allowing children to wander unsupervised.

With the stores and restaurants in the center of everything are the Village Green Amphitheatre and the Lyceum, a sort of tent-theater venue for festivals and presentations. All the homes are within a quarter-mile of the town square.

Later that night we had dinner at Bud & Alley's Restaurant & Bar, which advertises itself honestly as a gulfside bistro with rustic coastal cuisine. When we went to bed, we fell asleep to the sound of crickets and the feel of a breeze blowing through the vegetation surrounding our cottage.

The next day we set out for the "topsail dunes," a noted ecological preserve. I must have asked a dozen people how to reach the dunes before finding someone who offered vague directions about heading west on U.S. 98. After about 8 miles, I spotted a tiny sign on the left stating that this was the entrance to Topsail Beach State Park, part of the South Walton Ecosystem Project.

Heading toward the beach, the narrow paved road soon petered out to sand, and I had to take care not to bottom the car on the bumps. Finally we came to the end of the road; ahead of us was a huge sand dune and a path leaning around it toward the beach. We hiked that path to a white, sugar-sand beach stretching to the horizon. Huge sand dunes, with all sorts of vegetation, were set back from the beach. The dunes actually had peaks, hence the name "topsail."

Most significantly, hardly anyone else was there. During a beach walk of about 1 mile, we saw six people. We spent three hours that morning on the beach, though we had not brought chairs or a blanket. Strolling that coast may be worth the whole trip for those of us who knew Florida before the condominium.

Finally we decided it was time to fully explore Seaside. The village covers just 80 acres, all of it inherited by Davis from his grandfather in 1978. It was uninhabited then.

There are construction and zoning rules -- every house must have a picket fence -- but each property owner can design the building to his or her taste. The result is a superbly complementary group of houses on small lots, fronting narrow brick streets.

Setbacks from the street are minimal, and on one side of the houses a zero setback is permitted. Yet, through imaginative architecture, the totality is lovely. Each structure seems better than the last.

We walked down the middle of each street, and perhaps three times we had to step aside for a car. People kept coming by on bicycles, almost everyone singing out a cheery hello, as did the many other pedestrians. The place has a sense of serenity and friendliness.

Wandering around, we came upon movie sets being built for a Jim Carrey film (we were told the fee for using the town would be donated to public school buildings here), and we also encountered a wedding, in a beautiful little gazebo at one end of town.

The wedding reception was at the Lyceum, a few hundred feet away; the wedding party walked through the streets, receiving congratulations as they went. It was a charming moment.

That evening we strolled through another beach pavilion, down onto the sand and watched the sundown before we had dinner.

Unfortunately we had to leave the next day; to decompress and let Seaside take you over requires at least two full days. If you can, add more time. Art may imitate life, but Seaside causes your life to become art. -- Bill Gruman is a lawyer who lives in Tampa. If you go Getting there: Seaside is about 40 miles west of Panama City, on County Road 30A. We drove north from Tampa on I-75 to I-10, then west to U.S. 331. Head south until it dead-ends at U.S. 98, which is about 2 miles from Seaside. Turn east and follow the signs from there. For more information: Contact Downtown Seaside, P.O. Box 4870, Seaside, FL 32459; (904) 231-5424. About 250 of the cottages are available to rent; the highest rates are for the summer months, the lowest for winter months. For rental information, call (800) 277-8696, or call Josephine's Bed & Breakfast, which rents hotel rooms and suites, at (800) 848-1840.

Originally published August 3, 1997



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