Bargain shopping and swimming in oily waters

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:50 PM

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.

At Eastern Lake, I tried Yolo boarding (Yolo standing for "You Only Live Once").

"The state of Florida will be to stand-up paddle boarding what California and Hawaii are to surfing," declared Tom Losee, co-founder of the local company Yolo Board, before showing me what to do. Kneel on the board, then slowly stand up, keeping your knees slightly bent, he instructed.

Okay, I cheated: I was on a Yolo yak, which is much bigger than a board. Think mini-pontoon boat. I managed to stand up and did a small circuit around the lake, but the winds were picking up after the rain, and I was afraid of falling. Brigid and Scott Rose and their three children, ages 8, 10 and 13, fared better than I did, making it farther out onto the lake. "We're beach people, but this just seemed challenging and fun," Brigid said.

I got back on the road and headed east on 30A to explore the other communities in the area, all built in different styles.

At Alys Beach, all the buildings were white, because the designers wanted to get away from the Miami-like pastel colors. I drove down a main drag lined with palm trees. Very Sunset Boulevard.

Rosemary Beach reminded me of a European town with Caribbean hints. A sloping cobblestone street was lined with lovely outdoor cafes; a hotel under construction had that Swiss chalet look. The street led to a beach walkover. There was a keypad for the gate , but you had to be staying in town to get the PIN code. Too bad. The beach looked beautiful: pure white sand, bright green water. Nearby, a vendor sold hot dogs, which seemed out of place in such an exclusive community.

But I enjoyed chatting with some Maryland vacationers at one of the outdoor cafes. "It takes less time to get here than to drive through traffic to the Eastern Shore," said Cathy Caulk, a Potomac resident who owns a vacation home in town.

The beaches along the Panhandle were once derisively dubbed the "redneck Riviera." Over the years, they've been rebranded as Florida's Emerald Coast. I have to say that tar balls and all, the new nickname fits.

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