My destination was nowhere to be found.
I noodle around on the Internet, looking for directions to my vacation destination somewhere in the Florida Panhandle.
I type in the address on my first search engine.
I try again, using a different website.
I'm on the road to nowhere, it seems, and nowhere, as it turns out, is better than anywhere I've been in a while.
It Takes A Village . . .
I've been invited to a "Back To Nature" weekend by the folks at Redfish Village, one of the small coastal developments along Florida's 17-mile scenic Highway 30-A. About 20 miles east of Destin, the Village is in the heart of Blue Mountain Beach, the highest point along the stretch of land overlooking the Gulf of Mexico that also includes the more well-known destinations Rosemary Beach, Watercolor, and Seaside.
It's a pristine place, perfect and clean and in amazing contrast to Memphis. There are no billboards, no spray-painted tags on bridges or buildings, no neon signs flashing and beckoning. It's an eight-acre creation unmarked by commercial entities, and that's what makes it one of the best-kept secrets in the South. This is life off of Highway 30-A, and it's an immaculate escape for vacationers, and a way of life for the locals.
I arrive long after sunset on a Thursday night, and am greeted by Rebecca Sullivan, my amiable hostess for the long weekend. She guides me to my home-away-from-home for the next few days, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom "unit" overlooking Redfish Lake and the center of the community, the Plaza.
Tomorrow, I will check it all out, but after 500 miles of fuzzy radio stations (my car is old) and watery gas-station coffee, it's time to call it a night.
I tuck in to my plush, down-comforter covered king-sized bed, and fall into an easy slumber.
Home Suite Home
i wake to the warmth of the Florida sun on my face, shining through the double-glass doors of the unit's balcony. In the light of day, I can fully appreciate the amenities at my disposal. I wander through the space, taking in the shiny Viking appliances, the 12-foot ceilings, the shiny hardwood floors, and the double-hung windows.
After a quick shower, it's time to check out the grounds I'd sleepily acknowledged upon arrival. It's an impressive space, this Redfish Village. In addition to 80 residences, the Village includes a gym, a theater (yes, a private screening room), a library, two pools, a playground for the kiddies, a pavilion, and a wine bar. Correction: a free wine bar. The mothership had called me home.
After a quick stop at PJ's Coffee, one of the Village's nine onsite retail spots (including a spa, a smoothie shop, and a fried chicken joint), I'm ready for my hike through Grayton Beach State Park and its coastal dunes, just a quick bike ride from the Village. Guided by local Naturalist (yes, it's a job in Florida) Christian Wagley, we make our way across powder-soft white sand into the damp forest. We pass magnolias, pines, and scrub oaks, each sculpted into twisted versions of their original forms thanks to the salty winds blowing in from the coast. Wagley points out various animal footprints in the sand, and describes each plant, flower, and tree as lovingly and knowingly as a proud parent showing off school pictures of the kiddos.
Careful not to disturb natural dunes or nests containing future inhabitants of the park, we make our way back to town for some adult beverages and a Village tradition: the ringing of the bell at Bud and Alley's, a local watering hole with — you guessed it — a bell that the owners clang every night at sunset. It's downright quaint, and I'm reminded of the quirky traditions that Southerners adopt as requisite activities, like, say, ducks marching to a fountain at a fancy hotel.
After a quiet dinner at Fire, a hotspot for locals craving a little Southern fusion (think New Orleans meets San Francisco) and a great après-meal cocktail area, it's time to call it a day. I'm perfectly exhausted, a little tan, and very, very happy to be here.
On The Waterfront
The next morning, I am awakened by the distinct sound of a party — music, conversation, laughter — and pad out to the balcony to see what's happening.
In the center of the Village, the Creative Art Bar is in full swing. Saturday mornings find the Village packed with local artists selling their wares, chefs tempting passersby with bite-sized samples of their fare, and musicians providing the soundtrack to it all. Mimosa and Bloody Mary bars bookshelf the whole shindig, and before I know it, an hour has passed. Any other day it wouldn't have mattered, but this day I'm scheduled to meet professional kayakers from Blue Sky for a paddle around Western Lake, another one of the area's natural amenities. Surrounded by a salt marsh, the brackish waters of the Western are home to both salt and freshwater fish, and the area is ripe with wildlife, from darting foxes to jumping redfish to sluggish sea turtles. An hour after strapping myself into a bright red kayak and alternately paddling furiously against the current and drifting easily with it, I've circled the lake, and am struck by, well, the natural beauty of the place.
I'll be honest. The whole "Back to Nature" itinerary was a bit of a turn off in the beginning. I'm not ever in nature, so how could I possibly get back to it? I don't like birds, live fish, bugs, or sweating. I don't hike, bike or climb or jog for fun. This trip would be a test. A quest. A challenge.
I never thought I'd actually dig all this outdoorsy stuff.
But I drank the Kool-Aid. Every last drop.
And it was good.
Later, despite my aching arm muscles, I manage to hoist a few cocktails and a pair of chopsticks with the locals at Basmati's, a fabulous Japanese-inspired eatery overlooking Draper Lake. (This place is lousy with parks and lakes and dunes and woods.) After noshing on sushi, seaweed salad, and a mouth-puckering pineapple sorbet, I head back to the Village and collapse into a sated, sleepy heap. The next day's itinerary calls for a 7 a.m. start time for something called YOLO boarding, and this city girl needs her sleep.
i slap the snooze button on the alarm clock and wait, in that fuzzy haze between waking and sleep, knowing that my time tucked between the satiny sheets of my cozy bed was almost over. When the alarm sounds its unforgiving next squawk, I throw off the covers and stumble into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, eyes half-closed as I brush my teeth in a hit-or-miss sense of obligation more than hygiene.
I'm not a morning person.
This YOLO business better be good.
I step outside and am instantly wearing a suit of goosebumps. It's cold. I mean, really cold. I shiver my way to the parking lot and meet my equally surprised fellow YOLO-boarders.
The instructors are unfazed. "It'll warm up soon," says one of the two ruggedly handsome 30-somethings.
"When?" I ask.
"Soon! Florida is never this cold," says the guy in the grey fleece.
I want to point out that we are, in fact, in Florida, and it is this cold (43F), but it would've been rude, and, well, rude. There is no rudeness along 30-A. It just doesn't fly here. I settle in for the seven-minute drive to the Redfish Beach Walkover, a calm, glassy inlet that is ground zero for YOLO founders Jeff Archer and Tom Losee.
So what exactly is YOLO boarding? An acronym for "You Only Live Once," the sport is a hybrid of surfing and canoeing. Paddlers stand atop a 12- by 3-foot longboard, armed with a single paddle. Alternating strokes move boarders along, at whatever speed they choose. It's remarkably easy, and soon I'm almost out of the dock's sightline. I carefully turn the board around and make my way back to the shore, having spanned the length of the inlet without so much as a wobble.
And for the record, it didn't get warmer, but it was worth every chilly second spent gliding across the surface of the water, taking in the view — the thin, swaying sea oats, the sunlight glistening on the water's surface like so many diamonds scattered about, the sun making its way up from the distant horizon — from a totally new perspective.
It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday in Florida, and according to my guides, that means it's time to head to the Red Bar, famous for its funky décor, Sunday brunch, and mouth-watering Bloody Marys.
We settle into one of the bar's cushy booths, taking in the schizophrenic décor that somehow makes three-tiered crystal chandeliers seem at home next to bottle-cap art and a life-sized Elvis mannequin. It's a perfect metaphor for the area: artsy and laid back within a carefully planned, perfectly manicured setting. It shouldn't work, but it does.
After a shameful display of bacon-infused gluttony, I hoist myself out of the overstuffed booth and pile back into the YOLO board-adorned SUV with Tom and Jeff, headed back to Redfish Village.
It's time to head home. I've kayaked, hiked, and boarded my way across this gorgeous cluster of tiny towns and their woodsy, watery surroundings.
I'd be lying if I said I actually got back to nature, but I know I'll get back to 30-A.