Travel Finding the Soul of Seaside

The little place with the big following is more than a tourist spot: It’s a true Southern town on the beach.

BUD IS ALTVE and well and everyone, in glad about it. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in this laid-back but high-profile town on the Florida panhandle, and the community’s adopted dachshund is sprawled on top of his pillow in the comer of Fabs, a women’s clothing store. Bud ,age 19, hasfound the last remaining sunlight ot the day in gris coma:

“We were all worried about him.” Dana Jusselin says. “He disappeared last fell, and we pus up signs with his picture.”

Why all the concern over one lost dog? Because Bud is an icon here. His owner, Robert Davis, founded Seaside. The town’s first restaurant. Bud & Alley’s, is named after him. Photographer Sheree Williams has made a living here by selling postcard photographs of, among other things. Bud on the beach, staring wistfully oui at the ocean.

Bui that resident-icon status isn’t the only reason Seaside residents were worried when he disappeared last fail. They were worried because-despite Jim Carrey movies to the contrary, despite development codes some call restrictive-Seaside is not merely a haven for tourists but a real town with a school and a grocery and a community meeting hall. And real-town residents worry about their wayward pets.

When The Truman Show, which was filmed here, hit theaters last summer. Seaside found itself the object of more scrutiny than it had experienced before. Truman Burbank’s world was a contrived one, a TV show for the masses, with everyone but the naive protagonist watching. Skeptics charged that Seaside was the perfect locale for the movie; they said the much-heralded “New Urbanist” town was a place without a soul, a facade. But the skeptics are wrong about this Gulf community 15 miles east of Destin. They’re wrong because, for all its tourist appeal, the town offers a mix of amenities and necessities, and because residents here have invested in an idea that is decidedly year-round and long-term rather than seasonal.

The accouterments of tourism-bike rental shops and swimsuit stores-are important in Seaside. But so are lost dogs.



MY WIFE AND I HAD BEEN TO SEASIDE before. Like most people who vacation here, we’d come hundreds of miles to do one thing: relax on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Sure, we enjoyed the wide brick streets, the pastel houses, the shops and restaurants, But the sand and water-the mix of sugar white and crystal blue-are what drew us here, and we harbored no illusions.

This time, though, we came to Seaside anxious to discover the soul of the town. So we started our weekend with the most counterintuitive activity we could think of for a beach trip: We painted pottery at Fired Up, a local pottery studio. Despite the fact that it’s not what you’d expect at a beach destination, Fired Up is the quintessential Seaside spot. Owned by Laura Orsborn, who with long blond hair and paint-splattered clogs looks every bit the satisfied artist, the store is the perfect mix of art and down-home geniality. As with many Seaside stores, the idea behind Fired Up is relatively high-cultured for the tourist mecca coast: Creating works of art while on spring break in Florida isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But because this is Seaside, the presentation is down-home and friendly, No wine-sipping critics, no pressure or ostentation.

Seated at a long table inside the third-floor studio, we had two pieces of unpainted pottery and dozens of tins of acrylic paints laid out before us. The windows opened onto the green lawn at the center of Ruskin Place, Seaside’s arts district, and a cool breeze drifted through the room. Cassandra Wilson crooned lightly from a stereo in the corner. Orsborn gave us pointers, told us to make ourselves at home, and said to find her downstairs if we needed anything. We could finish our work today or come back later if we felt like doing something else midway through the project. Two hours later, we were done, and we could have worked all day. In die end, it wasn’t the pottery we were after-although the work we did was pretty good-but a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. We weren’t after an escape from activity, but rather an escape to doing something creative, something we never seem to have time for. When was the last time you spent an afternoon painting?

Ruskin Place itself is a high-minded but low-brow arts district, and it’s one of many elements that distinguishes Seaside from the pandering condo “communities” that dot the coastline east and west of the town. Only a few blocks from the green square that anchors Seaside, Ruskin Place feels like a secret. Stroll under the simple archway and a few yards along die brick sidewalk, and you find yourself at the center of the arts district, modeled after Jackson Square in New Orleans. Lined on both sides with two-story buildings, the architecture here refutes die idea that Seaside’s developments are uniform. One office space features a glass facade with a winding staircase that leads up through the roof and spirals whimsically to die sky, a neat tower for the curious. Some of the buildings have wroughtiron balconies; others are painted slate gray. All are places for creativity and relaxation: galleries, toy stores, an architecture firm, and a coffee shop. The Michael Belk photography studio features black-and-white portraits by the fashion photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Elle, and Vanity Fair, The J. Proctor Gallery houses an impressive collection of modem American art, from George Rodrigue’s “Blue Dog” paintings to Carolyn Goldsmith’s bright, abstract canvases.

On the weekend we visited, the Ruskin Place Artist’s Guild was hosting the Seaside Jazz Festival. The festival featured local and regional jazz bands, with veteran players Spyro Gyra headlining the festival on Sunday afternoon. The bands played alternately at the town square stage and Lyceum Theater, an austere but beautiful stage at the end of a wide expanse of lawn near die square. Baby-boomer couples and families lounged on blankets and in lawn chairs in front of either stage. Some brought their dogs; others carried a bottle of chardonnay from Modica Market, Seaside’s gourmet version of a smalltown grocery. Everywhere we walked that weekend, the strains of saxophone and stand-up bass followed us, the music a soothing backdrop for a stroll through Seaside’s picturesque streets.

But despite the town’s artistic offerings, there are plenty of options for the typical beach set. For starters, there’s the ocean. Seaside is home to the alluring beach, as is Destin and the rest of this coastline, The sand is as fine as sugar and almost as white; the water is clear blue. The surf is gentle here, so subtle that you can recline on a large float, face-up to the sun, as the water rocks you to sleep. You can rent comfortable chaise lounges and umbrellas in the spring and summer; the attendant will set up everything for you and reserve your spot for as many days as you want. The beach isn’t crowded, but it can be busy. If you want real quiet, ask to have your umbrella set up at one end of the long line. For the active set, several stores in Seaside’s open-air market sell kites and all the beach-sports equipment you’ll need. But you can always do nothing but sunbathe. Sometimes, a glass of wine and a cheap paperback are all you need for a great vacation.

Of course, there’s always food to think about. The cuisine in and around Seaside isn’t what you’d expect from a place so close to the “Redneck Riviera.” You won’t find run-down crab shacks or Spring-Break bars disguised as restaurants here, but some of the best restaurants in the state. It used to be that Bud and Alley’s was the town’s main culinary option for dinner, and it’s still a good one. The food is a mix of New American and regional cuisine and has garnered national acclaim. In 1993, Vogue called Bud and Alley’s their “favorite new restaurant in die world.” (The filet mignon stuffed with Apalachicola fried oysters is a decadence worth the calories.

But Bud and Alley’s is only the beginning. As this area has grown, so have the restaurants, and you can find refreshingly diverse fare. Of particular note are Cafe Thirty-A and Basmati’s. At Cafe Thirty-A, light hardwood floors and white umbrellas suspended from the ceiling give the entire space a West Indian feel. The rooms are bustling but not too loud, elegant but not pretentious. We had a Thai steampot of clams, mussels, scallops, and calamari served in a coconut broth as an appetizer. The clams were plump and succulent, and the calamari wasn’t tough, but firm; the sweetness of coconut provided the perfect balance for the seafood. Our entrées were equally impressive, especially the pan-seared snapper served with crawfish and-in a nod to the cuisine of the Deep South-black-eyed peas and sweet chow-chow.

For a change of pace, we ate dinner Saturday night at Basmati’s, a few miles west of Seaside in Blue Mountain Beach. Located in a small building tucked back at the edge of a pine grove, Basmati’s masters the art of the small detail. The restaurant itself is tiny, with only eight tables, separated from one another by rice-paper screens. We started with sushi, served on green-marble tablets atop the Asian version of a trivet-two-inch-thick pieces of bamboo. The sushi was fresher than any we’ve had in Dallas and was perfect with a glass of dry chardonnay. That’s night’s seafood special was the star, thought-a tuna steak rubbed with jasmine tea and coarse black pepper, flash-seared and served over wilted spinach and diced red peppers. The fish was perfectly cooked-pink on the inside and firm, and the pure taste of the pep-per-and-tea rub added just enough kick without being overpowering. After a weekend of Southern regional cuisine, the Asian take on fish was the perfect option. We left feeling satisfied, even peaceful, after such a healthy meal in such a calming environment.

IT WASN’T UNTIL OUR LAST AFTERNOON IN Seaside that we heard the tale of Bud. We were strolling through Per-spi-cas-ity, Seaside’s open-air market, when we spotted him lying on his dog bed inside the women’s clothing store. At 19, he looked pretty good- sleepy and tired, but healthy.

That’s when we truly saw the small-town soul of Seaside-when we met Bud and Dana Jusselin came over to tell us the story of his disappearance and his discovery. Dana, who says she’s become the dog’s “fairy godmother,” ran a hand through her long hair and leaned up against the counter inside the store. In an accent as smooth as the dunes just outside the door, she told us the story in the leisurely way women in towns all across the South have done for years. If it weren’t for the beach outside, we could have been in a five-and-dime in Georgia or a grocery in Mississippi. We could have been sitting by a wood-burning stove in Tennessee, listening to a small-town matriarch talking about the new family that just moved to town.

“It was in the fall,” Dana said, “and Robert Davis took him out for a walk. Bud doesn’t move very fast, but he got a good gallop going, and before long he was gone. Two days later, we still hadn’t found him. We had an all-out band looking for him.”

Bud raised his head, gave us a suspicious gaze, and collapsed back onto his pillow. He knew we were talking about him, but he’d decided it didn’t matter, Outside the open door, couples clad in bathing suits and shorts strolled past, the sibilant sound of their flip-flops trailing them as they walked.

“Finally, one of the maintenance guys heard this little bark out by the lake,” Dana said. “And there was Bud-he’d fallen into a hole and couldn’t get out.”

Dana smiled and looked at the town’s canine celebrity, framed by the late afternoon sunlight.

“We were all so glad to have him back.”

Just the Facts

What you need to know before you go.



WHERE TO STAY

You can rent your own cottage, a penthouse apartment, or even a room at the nostalgia-inducing motor court. Call 800-277-8696.



WHERE TO EAT

Take your pick. There are a number of good restaurants in and around Seaside. Our favorites include Bud and Alley’s (850-213-5900}; Basmati’s (850-267-3028); and Cafe Thirty-A (850-231-2166).



WHERETO SHOP

If you go to Seaside,you’ll eventually end up at Modica Market. Located in the center of town, Modica’s has sandwiches,fresh breads.a good wine selection, and coffee. Per-spi-cas-ity, the open air market by the beach, has all the beach-wear you could want, plus local crafts and wicker furniture. Sundog Books, near Modica Market, has an excellent selection of Southern fiction.



WHAT TO BRING

Aside from standard beach fare,all you need is some good walking shoes-Seaside is a pedestrian-friendly town. Bring tennis rackets if you want.

Seaside’s Sister

Rosemary Beach hopes to re-create the Seaside magic.



Can the success story thai is Seaside be duplicated? It can if Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek have their way.The town planners who, with Robert Davis, developed Seaside and made it the poster child for humane urban planning, are building a new town sin miles east of Seaside on Highway 30-A.As successful as Seaside has been, even these planners have learned from their (few} mistakes-and that may ultimately make Rosemary Beach even better than its forerunner,

For starters, parking will be restricted along 30-A so that visitors and residents alike won’t have to maneuver past parked cars to get to the beach. In addition, all parking by the houses here is at the rear of each house, leaving the house facades open to the street. Rosemary Beach is, above all else, a pedestrian town.

In addition, each lot sold comes with home footprints restricting the size of the houses built there, another lesson from the Seaside experiment. Though you don’t really notice it unless you’re told, the houses in Seaside get larger as you walk west.This is because, as the town grew more popular, the money flowed in.There is a certain disproportion there, something Rosemary planners hope to avoid.

More than 100 lots have been sold at Rosemary Beach, and several houses have been built. For the buyer looking for a second home, this is a good time to get in-the lots aren’t cheap.but one can presume they’ll only get more expensive.

For information about staying at Rosemary Beach, call 800-736-0877.

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