National Geographic Traveler Magazine is out with its annual Best Trips issue. The list of global destinations includes just three locations in the U.S., including South Walton County.
“We love it here,” proclaimed Chastity Adams, a resident of South Walton. “We love the environment. We love getting out in nature. We love the beach. My girls like to surf, so it’s really a great place for families.”
Adams works at Five Daughters Bakery in Seaside and has lived in the coastal area for about nine years. She understands why this local collection of 16 beach communities has been chosen as one of 2019’s best places to visit.
“I definitely think they come to see the white powdery sand and the emerald waters, like that’s what I could sit and stare at for days and years. It’s a place unlike any other place I’ve ever seen before and I think that’s what brings people here is the beauty of the beach.”
“South Walton County is one of our favorites and for a number of reasons,” said George W. Stone, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler Magazine.
“National Geographic was established in 1888 and since then we have focused on conservation, exploration, and story-telling.”
According to Stone, conservation is especially important and one of the driving factors in deciding this year’s Best Trips list and including South Walton in the “Nature” category.
“The measures that are being undertaken in South Walton County are really important, and especially interesting considering that Florida has been totally walloped in the last year - as everyone knows unfortunately - by hurricanes and red tide,” Stone said. “But, our readers, our global audience loves Florida and wants to know where to go and it’s really great for us to have a story about communities that are taking active measures to protect reefs and shores.”
Among the highlights, Stone points to Grayton Beach State Park, site of the nation’s first permanent Underwater Museum of Art, which the magazine wrote about when it opened in June. The new dive site features a collection of large statues less than a mile offshore.
“That’s a funky, quirky, cool idea to have an underwater museum dedicated to art, where you snorkel around and see things and that really challenges the idea of what is museum going, what is art,” he said. “But, collectively, it’s this big effort to connect communities, to identify important and relevant conservation efforts, and then to take action in a meaningful way that’s gonna [sic] protect the shores for generations to come.”
David Demarest, director of communications for Visit South Walton, says it’s exciting to be selected for the list, “National Geographic has a great reach and a great audience and these are the types of stories about South Walton that we work hard to tell to a much wider audience.”
Based on the magazine’s criteria, Demarest believes this area, best known for its beaches, was a perfect selection.
“We’ve got 26 miles of beautiful beaches, but that includes three beach-front state parks, a state forest as well and another bay-front state park,” said Demarest also pointing out that 40 percent of the landmass in South Walton is in preservation, something for which the community can forever be proud.
Demarest believes this approach to preserving the natural beauty sets South Walton apart as a destination.
One of the specific features that set South Walton apart for the Best Trips list is the region’s growing collection of nearshore snorkeling reefs.
“The South Walton Artificial Reef Association is a group that formed here in South Walton with the purpose of creating artificial reefs. Those are great for marine habitat and for our purposes, great for fishing, and snorkeling, and scuba diving.”
Demarest says three of the SWARA reefs were installed recently. There’s a cobia reef at Inlet Beach, dolphin reef at Miramar Beach, seahorse reef at Topsail Hill State Park; and it all started with a sea turtle reef at Grayton Beach.
“You can paddle board or swim out there and each one of these reef formations is made up of 75-130 individual reef pods that are placed in such a way that they make these really cool shapes,” Demarest said.
South Walton is one of 28 destinations in four categories chosen for National Geographic’s Best Trips List for 2019.
Mexico City, Mexico; Salvador, Brazil; and Kansas City, Missouri were selected in the “Cities” category.
The “Culture” category includes Cairo, Egypt; Galway, Ireland; and Oakland, California.
Greenland, Macedonia and Oman are among the places to travel for “Adventure.”
And, in “Nature” category, the Peruvian Amazon, Tahiti, and Belize are featured, along with South Walton County.
Demarest says it’s an honor that this area of Florida’s Emerald coast is included on a list of such impressive, exotic places and excited for the additional visitors likely to come here as a result.
“Tourism is hugely important to the economy of South Walton,” he explained. “It supports about 22,000 jobs in a county that is only about 70,000 people, so it is critical for our local restaurants and businesses.”
Tourism represents an annual economic impact of over $4 billion.
Jennie McKeon contributed to this story.