National Geographic Traveler columnist Christopher Elliott recently visited Northwest Florida with his family. This is the first of two reports.
Seaside, Florida, is the kind of destination that can be enjoyed year-round with your family. But some seasons are easier than others.
For about nine months, when this master-planned community in Florida’s Panhandle enjoys a balmy climate and beautiful sunsets, you don’t have to strain to appreciate it. The rest of the time — when travel “experts” like me advise you to take a super-discounted, off-season vacation — you have to try a little harder.
It’s worth it.
We’ve been coming to this corner of the Sunshine State for the last three years, always in December, and we have yet to regret the trip. Back in 2008, we stayed in one of the Mediterranean bungalows at Alys Beach, and last year, we visited one of the Southern Coastal homes in nearby Watercolor.
This year we decided to check out the cottages at Seaside. And I’m here to report: Not only can it be done – it should be done.
Sure, we expected the howling wind coming off the Gulf of Mexico that made the screen door on our cottage slam open and closed. The note from the maintenance staff advising us that there’s a chance the pipes in our unit could freeze tonight? I didn’t see that one coming. Hard freezes, the kind that makes pipes burst, are uncommon at this latitude.
But did that stop us from having fun? Oh no.
If you’ve seen the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show then you know what Seaside looks like. Most of the film, which is about an insurance salesman who discovers his life is an ongoing reality TV show, was filmed here (appropriately enough, since this town was carefully planned and little is left to chance).
The real Seaside is not nearly as artificial as the one depicted in the movie, which you might blame on Hollywood or on the 14 years that have passed since it was filmed. Either way, you’ll want to watch the movie before you visit.
There’s something to be said for the solitude of a summer resort in the dead of winter. You stroll down its streets and people wish you happy holidays. They figure you must be a local, because who else would be here?
There’s no wait for a table at a restaurant, if you can find a restaurant that’s open. One place we drove past on our way to nearby Destin says, “Closed ’till spring.” But the staff always looks happy to see you. During the off-season, every customer is important.
The beach is bitter cold, and we are all alone, even on a clear winter afternoon. When I look at the pictures, I laugh. The color of the sand and the water is the same as during the summer – a bleached white against an emerald sea. The only telltale sign that it’s cold, really cold, is that the kids are huddled together or blowing into their hands to stay warm.
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Yet we’re grateful to be here. Farther north, tens of thousands of travelers are stuck in a blizzard. They’d probably trade places with us in a heartbeat. I know we wouldn’t want to be up there, stuck in an airport terminal, or worse, in a snowdrift along the road.
It occurs to me after a few days here that maybe this is how Seaside, and indeed, this part of Florida, is meant to be seen.
Sure, there’s something to be said for the energy of summertime, when everyone is vacationing here. But I think the intent of Seaside’s New Urbanist planners, which was to capture the essence of small-town America, is best experienced in the quietness of winter.
We wouldn’t do it any other way.
Christopher Elliott writes The Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. Photo by Christopher Elliott.