Bargains outnumber tar balls in Florida

So far, the coast is clear: Workers ride the white sands of Grayton Beach State Park looking for tar balls from the BP oil spill.
So far, the coast is clear: Workers ride the white sands of Grayton Beach State Park looking for tar balls from the BP oil spill. (Nancy Trejos/the Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, August 29, 2010

It wasn't the BP oil spill that was keeping me from taking a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the rain.

The weather had been perfect on my first night of exploring the seaside towns along Florida's scenic Highway 30A, where most buildings are no more than four stories tall. I'd had dinner in Seaside, the picturesque town of pastel homes and carefully designed pavilions where "The Truman Show" was filmed. On a chalkboard near the bar on the deck of Bud and Alley's, diners had written their predictions of when the sun would set. At 7:11 p.m., the bartender rang a bell, and the winner got a free drink. (It wasn't me.)

When I woke up the next morning, the sun had hit the snooze button, and it was pouring rain. That threw a monkey wrench into my plans to explore the area's coastal dune lakes, a rare combination of salt- and freshwater found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand - and Walton County, Fla. After the oil spill, the county built berms from the sugary white sand of the northwest Florida beaches to keep oil out of the lakes - and keep people kayaking, canoeing and Yolo boarding (the local term for stand-up paddle boarding).

Luckily, though, I had another activity on my agenda that was perfect for a rainy day: shopping. And shopping courtesy of BP.

Because of the spill, summer occupancy in this part of Florida has been down 30 percent from last year. So the Beaches of South Walton, an organization representing 15 seaside communities, is paying people to come on down. Or rather, BP is paying. The oil company has doled out $7 million to seven Florida Panhandle counties, and from now until Sept. 30, visitors who pay for at least three nights at an eligible hotel, bed and breakfast or condo rental in Walton County will get a $250 gift card either for shopping at the Silver Sands Factory Stores in Destin or for future travel on Southwest Airlines, which recently began flying into a new airport in Panama City.

Now, I'm a recovering shopaholic. I've stopped shopping unless I really need something - or get a great deal. But there were some things I really needed, and the Silver Sands gift card struck me as a great deal! I went for it.

This would be a challenge given that I would be shopping in what's billed as the nation's largest designer-store outlet mall. With more than 100 designer names on 50 acres, it's a sprawling campus of conspicuous consumption. Clothing, shoe, jewelry and housewares stores mix with gourmet chocolate and gelato shops. The designers range from the exclusive - Juicy Couture, Coach, Swarovski - to the more accessible - Gap, Aeropostale, Ann Taylor. I drove around for several minutes, plotting my plan of attack and looking for a strategic parking space.

I was thrilled to learn that not only were most stores offering 20 to 50 percent discounts, but there was also a tax-free holiday on many items. I prepared a shopping list and ended up getting even more than I had planned to: a Kenneth Cole bag and shoes, underwear, a Marc Jacobs dress, a wine cooling sleeve. My tally for the four-hour shopping spree: $249.97. Mission accomplished.

The next day, thankfully, the rain subsided a bit, and I rushed to the water.

At Grayton Beach State Park, I ran into some men in neon green vests picking up what I thought was seaweed. I had yet to spot any tar balls, but that's what one of the men said they were looking for.

"You're probably sitting on one," he said, explaining that they're often buried in the sand. I asked the supervisor whether the water was safe. Yes, he assured me. But if I got any oil on me, he said, dishwashing liquid would take it right off.

That was all the impetus I needed to head for the dune lakes. At Western Lake, I took a peaceful hike along a trail through the sand dunes, listening to the ocean waves crashing beyond the mounds of white sand.

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