04.27.11

Love’s Paradise

Posted in Monthly at 11:08 am by Pasha

By Pasha Holiday

It is so breathtaking that is must be a dream.

It is so Caribbean that it can’t possibly be The Panhandle.

It is so real but, yet, all so far away and Once Upon a Time.

Returning to The Emerald Coast; the shores of Destin and South Walton County was like a fairy tale being relived once again. Having been graced by God once and living in the secret wonderland, returning was hypnotic and surreal.

The Gulf Coast has grown up with me. Once a recent graduate, without a partner or even a home base, it was where I went and found who I would become. When I finished college and left New York City to become a reporter in a little beach town, I would have never guessed the significance that little place would have. Like a country song: it was where I met my husband and a best friend, it was where I was a journalist by day and a waitress by night. It was where I struggled and made it, all on my own. It was the farthest I had ever lived from home. It was the platform from which I jumped and cannon-balled into my entire life.

When I returned with my four-month-old son, husband and six years of living, the white sand was brighter than ever. We touched down at the teeny tiny Fort Walton Beach Airport and it was still the same, under construction and milling with tourists in flip flops. The salty air was carried by the same slight breeze that touched my skin when I first arrived there in 2004, then it was a place I had never before heard of. Now it felt like returning home.

Okaloosa Island is the same, and I thanked heaven for it. The stretch of sand, dunes and sea-grass, surrounded by the brilliant green waters, had not been touched by industry or tourism. It matched perfectly to the day when I brought my four-year-old dog there and she ran circles in the sand. Now she can barely use her back legs and has lost all her teeth. I had burned the memory of that Island into my heart and it came rushing back with the water.

Destin had grown, it seemed, nearly as much as my husband and I have. We visited the HarborWalk, which was barely a gleam in realtors eyes when we lived there, and regarded how smart it was for local tourism. The shops were just upscale enough to not be Panama City but just out of reach from the likes of the neighboring beach communities along 30A. We ate oysters at AJ’s and talked about all the Sundays spent on the patio, before it had been remodeled. I tried to remember the name of the little restaurant that used to stretch into the water where my best southern girlfriend and I ate on fuzzy mornings. I lingered fondly upon the memory of the chance meeting with that best friend and how we are still close now.

In spite of a fussy baby and his exhausted parents, we drove to our old apartment complex, where we met, and it is now flanked by a highrise called, “The Palms.” But there they were, the two buildings that overlook the parking lot where I met my husband. The parking lot that I crossed to snuggle into his bed when I was trying desperately to figure out if he was the right choice for me. The parking lot where I have the best decision of the life, the choice to pack it in and move to Atlanta to be with that neighbor.

We drove down Highway 98, past HarborDocks, where I waited tables and The Funky Blues Shack where we shook our asses. Wales Tale, where I also worked for a minute and where my papa and I ate when he first came to stay with me. We passed the house that we stayed in when my family came for a vacation, a pivotal time in our family history. We cruised past The Walton Sun, where I cut my teeth as a reporter and fell more in love with writing; where I made a life long friend in a colleague and where we slipped away each afternoon to shop. We commented on everything new and all the old that is so permanent along the special stretch of coast.

We reached 30A and drove stop and go past less familiar sites. While much of it was in my memory bank, as it was my beat for work, my husband rarely visited 30A when he lived there. We both resided in Destin, so 30A was a whole new place to discover.

The beauty in the communities stretching along the two lane road is indescribable. The well-planned communities are all so different: Santa Rosa Beach is slightly blue collar, Grayton Beach is for the hippies, Water Color is all craftsman, Alyse Beach is washed in white and looks Spanish. And Rosemary Beach, astonishing, is just like an Italian village.

We bunked in a lovely condo that my husband’s Aunt and Uncle own. Their generosity afforded us the luxury of staying in Rosemary Beach with all the serenity and peace that new parents so desperately need. The beaches were glorious, nearly untouched, with walkovers extending from luxurious, sprawling, palatial houses, down to the squeaky white sand.

Everyday we woke up and took our little man to the beach for his morning nap. He slept sound with the Gulf as his lullaby. We ate oysters in Seaside Beach, made famous by The Truman Show, more than once. Of the four nights we were back there, we watched every sunset.

So much of me was sad when we had to leave. I felt more connected there than I do in Chicago. We laughed more and slept better than we had in months. Maybe it was just the vacation factor, but I wonder. It is the Emerald Coast that brings so much joy to my soul?

It is, for sure. And this time, I won’t wait so long to return to my Destin.