June 9, 2008
Grayton Beach in the New York Times
June 6, 2008
Havens | Grayton Beach, Fla.
A Gulf Retreat for the Upscale but Unfussy
By BETH GREENFIELD
WHEN Mike Ford was in college, he became acquainted with the Florida Panhandle’s coast on spring-break jaunts that lured him to its developed, party-hearty beach towns like Panama City and Fort Walton Beach. So when his future wife introduced him to the small and far-removed Grayton Beach, a low-key spit of sand that offers nothing but houses and beach, where she had spent summers all her life, he didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“I got out of the car and said, ‘Wow, now this is remote!’ ” recalled Mr. Ford, an employee-benefits consultant in New Orleans. “It was post-college, and I didn’t see the value of the place yet, because I was more interested in night life then.”
That was nearly 25 years ago, and the town’s mellow charm eventually won him over. He and his family bought their own Grayton Beach home in 2002.
“It’s kind of our haven,” said Mr. Ford, who paid $500,000 for a three-bedroom cottage. “Grayton Beach is not aristocratic, even though the prices have now reached a certain point. You don’t shave, and you don’t wear socks. And there are no high-rises. It just has that old, cottagey charm to it.”
Grayton Beach certainly stands out along Florida’s Emerald Coast and its scenic Route 30A, which offers a tour of the Panhandle’s most exclusive resort communities, promoted as the Beaches of South Walton. The two-lane road hugs the white-sand shores and wends its way through neat, pastel-colored hamlets with windswept names like Rosemary Beach, Watercolor and Seaside. They’re popular for their locations and resort-style amenities.
Then there’s Grayton Beach, with its clutch of old-style cottages and waterfront homes on stilts, where a wild beachiness persists. An unincorporated part of Santa Rosa Beach, it’s upscale, for sure — houses sell for an average of $1.6 million — but in an unfussy, down-to-earth way that residents relish.
“There’s a real sense of community, a kinship, and people are laid-back,” said Joe Card, a nuclear-fuel broker in Atlanta who bought a three-bedroom house there last October for $800,000. The 1,300-square-foot house sits on stilts just a few lots from the gulf, and Mr. Card said he was more than happy to make the five-hour drive from to Atlanta.
“I don’t like those suburbs they build at the beach,” he said. “I just want the beach. I love that there’s sand in the streets.” The Scene
“The saying about this place has always been ‘Nice dogs, strange people,’ ” said Patsy Akin, a Georgia developer who owns two beach homes in Grayton Beach, the most recent bought in 2005 for $2.5 million. That motto is just a part of the cherished quirkiness in Grayton, home to the “dog wall” — a community mural on which local artists have painted portraits of their pooches.
Justin Kane, a steel distributor in Birmingham, Ala., who recently bought a five-bedroom house, said, “I like that it’s the oldest beach town on the Panhandle, and that it has quite a bit of history.”
The community, plotted in 1890 alongside a cattle ranch, became a beach-shack-filled resort for folks throughout the county; many people living there have family ties that go back generations. And during World War II, Grayton Beach was used as a lookout for German submarines.
The tidy collection of village businesses includes a gift shop, two real estate offices and a handful of restaurants, including the Red Bar, a friendly hangout that draws summer crowds with its casual menu and live jazz.
There is also a funky inn, the Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse, which occupies one of the oldest houses in town (1903). “People who come here are looking for something that’s totally unique,” said Cheri Peebles, the innkeeper (and a real estate agent) known for doling out friendly hugs to her guests.
Activities in Grayton Beach tend to focus on the outdoors — swimming at the white-sand beach of Grayton Beach State Park; fishing the Gulf of Mexico for snapper, tarpon and grouper; cycling along the Route 30A bike path; or frolicking in Western Lake, the town’s glassy coastal dune lake. This is the only town in the region where residents can get permits to drive on the ocean beach, which many do on weekends, meeting just in time to toast the sunset.
“This is paradise for me,” said Cole Taylor, a manufacturer representative for a lighting company in Atlanta who grew up spending summers in a Grayton cottage. He has since acquired that cottage, which dates from 1936, and has bought nine rental homes in town.
He and his wife, Janet, an interior designer, and their two children moved from Atlanta in 2005 and, a year later, paid $3.2 million for a four-bedroom beachfront home. They plan to move the home, then build a new house on the lot.
“I get in on Friday at about 2 p.m. and go straight to the lake to wakeboard with all my buddies,” said Mr. Taylor, who flies his own plane between Atlanta and Destin, about 20 miles west of town. “Then we go to the beach to meet up with our wives.”
The town is surrounded by state parkland, which prevents it from sprawling, while a 40-foot height restriction on construction helps preserve its character. It’s also near an abundance of dining and shopping options along Route 30A.
Hurricanes are a fact of life, and most residents say that they simply take them in stride. Some find the place difficult to reach, although with the opening of the relocated Panama City-Bay County International Airport — expected in 2009 — that is expected to change.
“We’re still a driving destination,” said Miriam Dillon, an agent with Grayton Coast Properties. “I think by the year 2010 we’re just going to be a completely different place.”
The Real Estate Market
As elsewhere, the real estate market has slowed significantly — especially since 2004, before which homes were appreciating about 80 percent annually, said Steve Youell, a real estate agent with Rivard of South Walton.
In addition, there came a series of hurricanes — Ivan, Dennis and Katrina — that scared potential buyers from the region.
Even so, the current low end of the market is a robust $700,000, Mr. Youell said, which could land someone a four-bedroom house just a few lots in from the water. Buyers will find the most options in the middle range, including old-style Florida cottages and new homes with four or five bedrooms and balconies with water views, situated just a couple of lots in from the beach.
Gulf-front houses with exquisite views, pools and a full range of bells and whistles can go for as much as $6 million. Empty lots can be found for as low as $400,000, but those on the gulf go for closer to $2 million.
Grayton Beach’s housing stock is not large; of its 115 or so houses, 26 were on the market at the end of May, including a handful at Gulf Trace, an 87-home subdivision at the western edge of the hamlet.
Visit http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/greathomesanddestinations/06havens.html?ex=121 for more information (will open a new window)