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Monday, February 8, 2010

Enjoying local arts scene along beaches of Northwest Florida

I used to think I wanted to focus my travels on sports events and the beach. I’ve been to the Summer Olympics, old and new Yankee Stadium and I’m well on my way to seeing every Major League ballpark. But I’ve definitely had to reassess those sports goals. And while I enjoy relaxing at the beach, I much prefer spending my travel time exploring new cities and other cultures.

My priorities in travel have changed a great deal. My wife is an artist and has helped me gain an appreciation of art. Many of our trips, whether a weeklong stay in New York or a weekend in Louisville, Ky., – even a relaxing week at the beach – are at least somewhat centered on art. We don’t necessarily attend every art museum, but if it’s one that has important pieces or a special exhibit, we’re there. I also in my trip planning make sure I find a destination’s art communities to at least get in an hour or two of checking out local art.

On this cold and snowy February day, it is not hard to look forward to our week this summer along the Florida Gulf Coast. But just because we will find ourselves in a condo-infested ocean playland, it doesn’t mean we have to leave our cultural side at home.

In fact, the stretch between Destin and Panama City Beach in Florida has a number of art communities, random galleries and musical/theater experiences. We will be staying in a condo on the relatively quiet west end of Panama City Beach, a good location to make quick jaunts to the quaint communities of the Beaches of South Walton – Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Seagrove Beach and the granddaddy of them all, Seaside.

These communities, especially Seaside, are great examples of New Urbanist design. In fact, Seaside is often cited as the first New Urbanist development in the United States. I’m not an urban planning expert, so I will just direct you to watch the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey and largely set in Seaside, to get a feel for the beauty of that community.

Seaside has quaint shops, several galleries and just beautiful buildings that make for pleasant and relaxing strolls. Like many gallery neighborhoods in cities around the world, Seaside has its version of an art walk. The First Friday ArtWalk is held the first Friday of every month. The galleries and shops of Ruskin Place and select businesses in Central Square are open from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. It’s the usual wine-and-cheese, art opening/demonstration evening. I have read of some “purist” artists deriding these events, but I think anything that opens art up to new people is a good thing. And especially art walk events as they typically feature galleries that show local and regional artists.

In addition to Seaside, though, there are a couple of favorites we have discovered from past trips: Artists at Gulf Place in Santa Rosa Beach and Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery in Grayton Beach. Artists at Gulf Place is an artists’ co-op of sorts and Big Mama’s Hula Girl, as you can imagine by the funky name, is filled with eclectic and fun items.

If you find yourself in Northwest Florida for your family vacation, take some time away from baking on the beach, eating seafood at tourist trap beachside restaurants and shopping at the outlet mall, and support the local arts scene.

A couple of sites to check out:,

Photo courtesy of

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