The tiny resort of Seaside on Florida's northern Gulf Coast is the seashore the
way you think you remember it. Of course, it was never really this clean or this quaint. All the houses weren't really painted in salt-washed shades of pastel. You couldn't really walk to everything, and there had to be at least one awful neon sign. But not here. It isn't allowed.
If there's anything in Seaside that jangles the nerves, it's that the town is too perfect. It was created in 1982 by developer Robert Davis on land left to him by his grandfather. The intent was to revive a lost architectural form, the wooden beachfront cottage, and build that into a community. The result is a small town balanced between strict order and playful chaos. No two homes look alike, but there is enough similarity to signal that this town could not have occurred naturally.
All around tony Seaside, the mood is decidedly easy-going. Walking is encouraged by a web of narrow brick-paved roads that connect houses to the town center. On the main road, the speed limit is 15 mph. There are frequent crosswalks to the beachfront shops, and cars must stop when a pedestrian moves toward a crosswalk.
The beaches in the area are snowy white and smooth, more like sugar than sandpaper. It's not the place for shell-hunting, though--few survive the trip up the Gulf Coast's steep underwater shelf. But there's less to stub your toes on.
JUST SO. The least expensive overnight options are in the Motor Court, where a room rents for about $140 a night. You get a small suite with a kitchenette and a decor that follows through on the easy, nostalgic mood of the place. Everything is worn just so, as if the Gap had gone into the resort business. Wooden furniture has had its paint scrubbed off, and even the floorboards look older than they could be. The kitchen is filled with yard-sale knickknacks and souvenir plates from the likes of the Grand Canyon.
Seaside also offers a number of privately owned rental homes. One- to three-bedroom cottages are available for about $250 to $600 a night. Of if you would like to greet the rising tide over morning coffee, you can rent a two-story "honeymoon cottage" facing the beach for $350 a night. For a cheaper view of the gulf, Seagrove Villas Motel in next-door Seagrove Beach has beachside rooms for less than $100 a night.
Unfortunately, rainy weather can ruin a vacation here. Seaside is geared to the outdoor strolling life and, of course, sunning on the beach. Springtime temperatures usually fall in the comfortable mid-70s; summers average in the mid-80s, but high humidity makes it feel hotter.
HOT GRITS. Almost none of the food in Seaside is just plain cookin', as befits the upscale clientele. Even the beachside sandwich shop, the Silver Bucket, classifies its fare as gourmet. The major restaurants are Shades and Bud & Alley's, where dinners range from $10 to $30. The only real breakfast in town is offered at Josephine's Bed & Breakfast, and it's very good, with champagne and fresh fruit, for less than $15. When you want food without the European finery, try the Wheelhouse in Seagrove Beach. The grits are terrific.
Seaside--two hours east from the Pensacola airport and 45 minutes west of Panama City's--sits on a stretch of coastline nicknamed the "Redneck Riviera." Yet the town has done everything it can to play down that image. If anything, it has gone to the other extreme: a paradise with few regular hometown people and an air of unreality. But Florida is, after all, the state whose biggest tourist attraction is the Magic Kingdom. For beach lovers, Seaside offers its own brand of