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Vacation Giveaway

Florida's Alluring (and oil-free) Panhandle

Ordinarily, my first stop on any visit to the Florida Panhandle would be to check out the action on the tennis courts of whatever resort I was booked into. Rosemary Beach, FloridaInstead, soon after arriving in early November I headed for the beach to see what, if any, residue remained following the BP oil spill. Strolling along the water's edge, where the emerald green Gulf of Mexico gently lapped against the soft, sugar-white sand, I vigilantly searched for evidence that oil had washed ashore, at times digging my toes into the sand to be sure that nothing petroleum-based lurked beneath the surface. Over the course of week-long stay, I walked miles of this shoreline without seeing a single tar ball or oily sheen, nothing, in short, to suggest that this magnificent stretch coast had been degraded by the Macondo blowout.

West of here, in neighboring Alabama, the situation had been different. But these beaches in Walton county experienced only minor incursions. "In a few places the tide left quarter- or dime-sized disks of oil," a local tourism representative told me. "But the crews hired by BP quickly cleaned those up, and since then, all the tests the government has done indicate that there are no health hazards in the sand or in the water."

The BP disaster was not supposed to be the reason for me to re-visit this region. The big news immediately prior to the spill was the opening of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) near Panama City Beach. Delta and Southwest had both announced service, with direct flights on Delta from Atlanta and Memphis and on Southwest from Houston Hobby, Nashville, Baltimore-Washington International, and Orlando. But the headline about this easier access was almost instantly upstaged by threat of the leaking oil.

It could not have come at a worse time. Summer is high season in the Panhandle, especially for family travel, and while very little of the oil reached these white-sand beaches, the uncertainty of what vacationers might find once they arrived led to mass cancellations. Like many of his local tennis colleagues, Tops'l Beach & Racquet Resort, Destin, FloridaChris Petty, the tennis director at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, fielded phones calls from nervous tennis players and contacted the groups who were scheduled to come, assuring them that the region had been unaffected and whatever else happened no oil would ever reach the courts. "Even so, some of them worried about the smell," he told me. "I told them, 'We will call you up if the smell changes. Right now it's smelling like a good time.'"

By the time I arrived, those fears had abated and there were large numbers of women's teams at Sandestin, TOPS'L Beach & Racquet Resort, and Rosemary Beach Racquet Club, lured there by tournaments or custom-tailored instructional programs—and by the hundred-plus shops at Silver Sands Factory Stores. As Petty said, from the looks of things everyone was having a good time.

That's not hard to do is this part of Florida. Much of the tennis activity, which I'll get to in detail in a minute, occurs in large and small resorts along a 26-mile stretch of coast collectively known as the Beaches of South Walton. Tennis aside, the real lure of this corridor can be traced to its exceptional beaches, a super-fine pulverized white quartz that washed down over eons from the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains. Beautiful as they are, their appeal has been enhanced here by an enlightened policy of building behind the dunes rather than atop them. More often than not, boardwalks stitch developments to the beach, arching over 30-foot mounds of white sand covered with such native plants as sand live oak, saw palmetto, Yaupon holly, sea oats, lavender-blossomed local rosemary, and goldenrod—an instance of environmental wisdom paying esthetic dividends.

What's more, some 40 percent of the county is owned by the state and thus forever protected from development. That includes Grayton Beach State Park, whose 30-foot dunes and pristine beach border a large coastal dune lake and Walco Eco Tours, Murray Balkcom photo, Floridastands of native pines. Murray Balkcom of Walco Eco Tours led me on a kayak excursion into Grayton, providing background on the area's history and ecology as we watched overhead for osprey and bald eagles, only to be startled by a jumping mullet. Coastal dune lakes are very rare, supporting an ecosystem only found in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. After a leisurely paddle across Western Lake, we pulled up to the back of the Grayton dunes and set out on foot, as Balkcom pointed out the migrating Monarch and Gulf Fritillary butterflies. The sandy trail led into a low, haunting forest of sand live oaks, saw palmetto, and sweet bay magnolia. "The canopy above us is what appears elsewhere to be growing on top of the secondary dunes," he told me. "In reality, these plants don't grow on top of the dunes but up through them. It's just that right here, that system of branches and roots is exposed."

Later that day I ended up in another part of Grayton, after taking a wrong turn on a bike trail through Point Washington State Forest, which borders Bike trail through Poiint Washington State Forest, Florida PanhandleGrayton to the north. Although there is a fabulous network of paved bike trails here along Scenic Hwy. 30A, I picked up a fat-tire bike at Big Daddy's in Blue Mountain headed into the forest along the Longleaf Greenway Trail. Longleaf pine needles littered the forest floor—a good thing, too, because where they were absent the soft sand beneath made for very hard peddling. Listed as moderately difficult, the trail twisted and turned and sometimes became hard to pick out as it wove through the trees and palmettos. At one point, two startled white-tail deer bounded off to the north. Otherwise, I seemed to have the forest to myself. It didn't really matter that I crossed the imaginary line from Point Washington into Grayton. But as the trail spit me out on the highway, I headed north, picking up the Point Washington trail system, which I managed to stay on all the way back to Blue Mountain.

You Only Live Once

One more adventure awaited before I headed YOLO, "You Only Live Once" Boarding, Western Lake, Floridaback to the tennis courts: an introduction to the sport of stand-up paddling, known in these waters as YOLOing, an acronym for "You Only Live Once" and the name of the local company that manufactures the equipment. Essentially, the sport is a cross between surfing and kayaking—you're standing on a board and propelling yourself with a long-handled paddle. An outing can be anything from a leisurely paddle around a lake to open-water competitive racing.

Tom Losee, who co-founded YOLO Board in 2006 with partner Jeff Archer, met me at the boat dock in the town of Grayton Beach to give me a taste of what it's like. "As a tennis player, you'll find this easy to learn," he assured me. Starting on my knees on a wide, stable board in shallow water, I pushed up into a standing position, and though wobbly managed not to fall off. "Flex you knees and look where you're headed, rather than down," Losee counseled. "It will help you keep your balance." After a few tips on paddling, we headed off across a flat, and mercifully almost windless Western Lake.

Within minutes, I was hooked. Because you're standing up you can see so much more than you can from a kayak or canoe. The board moved easily through the tea-colored water, its color attributable to so many fallen pine needles. We followed a channel that ended near the beach—the same one through which the lake would flow into the Gulf once the sand barrier blocking it eroded away. "This region has so many opportunities for YOLOing," Losee noted as we paddled. "There are lakes, bays, and rivers and then there's the Gulf, which can be very flat. I've been out there and seen turtles, manta rays, sharks. Once I passed through a school of mullet, called a 'mullet slick,' hundreds and hundreds of them. It's such a great way to explore."

I can see, too, how it can be an intense workout, if you wanted it to be. TOPS'L's tennis director Joe d'Aleo, who's hooked on YOLO, swears by its benefits for tennis players. "It's such a great core workout," he told me. "And it really helps with balance. I love it."

Which Panhandle Tennis Resort Is Best For You?

Drawn to the Panhandle but unsure which tennis resort to choose? Here's a quick overview of their features with links to my more extensive reviews.

  • Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. At 2,400 acres, this is the largest and most diverse resort in the region. It begins Baytowne Village, Sandestin Beach & Golf Resort, Destin, FL: (c)Roger Coxalong the beach as a series of 20-story towers and spreads northward across Hwy. 98 to Choctawhatchee Bay, encompassing almost every diversion you could want including 15 active clay courts (check out their webcam), 54 holes of golf, a marina, watersports, multiple children's activities, organized and otherwise (including a carousel and winter ice skating rink), an adventure zone (bungy, zipline, and ropes course), and spa and fitness center, not to mention shops, restaurants, nightlife, and lodging that ranges across the spectrum, including condos, homes, and a Hilton hotel.
    The tennis is similarly varied, with a full range of adult and junior clinics, round robins, and game matching. Those services are supplemented by half a dozen Ladies Team Challenges, which bring together teams from across the country for weekend tournaments during spring and fall, and custom-designed getaway packages for groups.
  • In some ways it is very accurate to say that TOPS'L Beach & Racquet Resort is a tennis resort that happens ROPS'L Beach & Racquet Resort, Destin, Florida: (c)Roger Coxto border the beach rather than a beach resort that happens to have tennis. Its 12 clay courts are both literally and figuratively the centerpiece of this 50-acre enclave sandwiched between Sandestin on the west and the Topsail Beach Preserve State Park on the east. One of the country's true player havens, it sets aside selected long weekends in spring and fall for ladies—and a few men's—team challenges while larding the rest of its calendar with adult drill sessions and round robins and, when appropriate, junior clinics. What's more, the staff also studiously sets up matches for social guests or puts together customized clinics for groups and teams. Although there is lodging in towers on the beach, many tennis players opt for the courtside villas, where they can watch the on-court action from their balcony or patio. In many ways the three-story sports club is the social heart of the resort, with a lounge with leather chairs and sofas and flatscreen TVs (one always tuned to tennis), a shop for logo wear and sundries, a large windowed fitness center overlooking the courts, an indoor/outdoor heated pool, sauna and steam rooms, and meeting space. Some tennis players have been known to get to the end of their vacation and suddenly realize, "Wait, I never did get to the beach."
  • The warm welcome at Hidden Dunes Beach & Tennis Resort's six-court tennis complex provides Hidden Dunes Beach & Tennis Resort, Destin, FL: (c) Roger Coxthe first clue to the extraordinary appeal of this intimate club. This is first and foremost an inviting place to play, a social hub of an unpretentious resort. You can measure the passion for tennis in the success of the staff, beginning with director Myke Loomis. A former No. 1 player in Arkansas and All Southeast Conference player at the University of Alabama (where she set school records for the number of consecutive and seasonal wins), she has since won several state, national, and world championships, including the World 45s Doubles title and USTA National 40s Clay Court title, the latter with Renee Broxson, who is also on staff. They're joined by Phil Landauer, who has won 29 national titles in singles and doubles and competed internationally. Loomis arrived in 1985 when the resort opened, and has been there ever since. "When you build relationships over that much time, it's like the neighborhood bar: it's comfortable. People know what you like. We offer that personal touch. We pay attention to the face and what's behind it."
  • Tennis director Fernando Guarachi will be the first to admit that Seascape Golf, Beach & Tennis Resort does not have the Seascape Golf, Beach & Tennis Resort, Destin, FLrecognizable profile of many of the other South Walton tennis resorts. What is does have, however, is a loyal following, a willingness to accept players from outside the resort, and an exceptionally rich calendar of weekly or seasonal tennis activity on these eight clay courts. That can be traced to Guarachi's welcoming personality and his three decades in this area, having moved over to Seascape from Sandestin in 1987. He points to his well-attended, very social round robins (daily in season) as terrific ways to meet other players. Add a variety of clinics, competitive drills, Cardio tennis, and a full range of junior programs, from Pee Wees to a junior academy that lures top local talent (his daughter Alexa is a former National Junior Clay Court champion now playing for the University of Alabama).
  • Seaside was the first of three planned communities along Scenic Hwy. 30A. Architecturally, its houses and streets suggest New England with their clapboard siding, gabled roofs, Seaside, Floridaand white-picket fences, all beginning at a half-circle village green bordered by shops, restaurants, and, recently, small Airstream trailers variously selling barbecue, cupcakes, grilled cheese, or shaved ice. There is some lodging on beach side of the road but most can be found along red-brick streets behind the village green. It's there, too, you'll find a modest Swim & Tennis Club, with 2 hard and 4 clay courts adjacent to diminuative pro shop, croquet lawn, swimming pool (heated and covered in winter), and playground. Brad Pomeroy, an All American for the University of North Carolina with experience on the Challengers and Futures circuits, is now the director and has a well-rounded roster of clinics and round robins, including programs for juniors.
  • Another planned community, WaterColor Inn & Resort sits between Grayton Beach State Park to the west and Seaside on the east. As the name suggests, its anchor is the WaterColor Resort, Florida: (c) Roger coxelegant 60-room WaterColor Inn, perched behind the dunes on the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fish Out of Water restaurant within it. But the lodging options also extend to rental homes, all with access to a mixture of urban and resort amenities, including a spa and fitness center, parks, coastal dune lakes, a boathouse and marina, a children's recreation center, and a handsome five-court tennis complex spaciously laid out on two sides of a yellow-clapboard tennis shop with covered porches and rockers. Head pro Brian Wilson offers a mix of programming including clinics and round robins, with activity for families spiking during summer and traditional holiday periods.
  • Another example of the movement dubbed "New Urbanism," Rosemary Beach drew its architectural Rosemary Beach, Floridainspiration from a variety of influences including Florida's historic St. Augustine, the Dutch West Indies, Bermuda, and New Orleans and its palette from the native vegetation. It begins along 2,300 feet of white sand beach and extends northward across Scenic Hwy. 30A encompassing village greens and a cluster of shops and restaurants before fanning out into neighborhoods of cottages and houses, some as large as six bedrooms. But there's the option of a bed-and-breakfast as well and of studios and lofts, making for some of the most interesting lodging options you're likely to find. At the eastern edge stands an eight-court tennis center, all clay, whose pro shop has an awning-covered rooftop deck overlooking the action. Mike Clark directs with his brother Jonathan as head pro, making this sort of a family operation. They skew their programs to the season, with ladies' team tournaments and customized group programs from August through May and family activities in summer and over major holidays.

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Vacation Giveaway

Tennis Resorts Online has again secured three vacation prizes—at New England Tennis Holidays at Sugarbush in Vermont, Saddlebrook Tennis in Florida, and TOPS'L Beach & Racquet Resort in Florida—to give away in our annual drawing among all of those of you who rate the resorts and camps you've attended.
The drawing will take place on May 1, 2011. To participate, fill out the Rate a Resort or Rate a Junior Tennis Camp form. Every review you file gives you another chance at winning.

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