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Paradise in the Panhandle
by Terry Moore

To some, being called a "panhandler" may be viewed as an insult. I beg to differ; especially after visiting last spring Florida's too long ignored northwest section of the state. Florida's panhandle is a marvelous area, teeming with golf and exciting developments. Not surprisingly, it's gaining quite an enviable reputation as an attractive alternative to the more celebrated, crowded and southern reaches of the Sunshine State. In my opinion, here's why:

Seaside This planned community, 35 miles west of Panama City, is a remarkable beach-front development. Bathed in pastel colors, Seaside is a meticulously planned mini-town of cottages with picket fences and wicker- laden porches, shops and boutiques, terrific restaurants, and all within a friendly and cozy walk of one another. Opened in 1981, Seaside was the brainchild of Robert S. Davis who dreamed of "a village which captures the spirit of an earlier era when the pace of life was slower... a place where people can share time with each other rather than time rush by. " 16 years later, Seaside boasts more than 300 "cottages." I used the term cottage loosely as might a Sheik use the term "tent." Yes, some are modest bungalows but many are sumptuous 6-bedroom, two-story residences that now command a seven figure sum when on the market. But don't let the talk of money spoil your appreciation for Seaside.

The genius of Seaside is how the architects' code guaranteed harmonic quality in design yet still allowed variety. Yes, cottages must have picket fences and porches so as to foster neighborly chats. But the architectural themes range from Victorian, Gothic, ante-bellum to postmodern. Best of all, this community is nestled within only 80 acres so that walking and biking are commonplace. All residences are within a quarter-mile radius of both the central square and beach pavilions. And the beach is a beauty. Sparkling white, expansive, litter-free, the beaches in this section of Florida are as fine as I've ever encountered. Truly, they are a tourist attraction in their own right. And the water is a delight. Last year in late March, the Gulf water temp was a tepid 67 degrees on a lovely moonlit night.

For visitors wishing to savor Seaside at its best, over 220 of the 300 cottage are available to rent. There are one, two and three-bedroom cottage condominiums. Prices are high-end but there are special packages and off- season opportunities. The ultimate stays are Seaside's famed honeymoon cottages that sit wonderfully above the beach and across the highway from Seaside proper. Expertly designed (isn't everything here?), the honeymoon cottages are two-story so that the top level affords terrific views of the Gulf with a lovely porch with hammock and rocking chair. Upstairs is a well- appointed kitchen with all the conveniences and a to-die-for chaise lounge ideal for a mid-day nap or a good read of an Oprah-recommended book. Beach-level, you'll find a bath and bedroom that opens out into screen-in porch with a Jacuzzi. But all is smartly secluded by the deft planting of seagrass and prickly shrubs and a slightly bermed sand dune.

A visit to Seaside brings to mind the line that says "youth is too precious to be wasted on the young." No matter one's age, you'll be in for honeymoons and honeybeaches at Seaside.

For more information, call 1-904-231-4224.

Sandestin A 2,400 acre residential/resort community, Sandestin is indeed the crown jewel of the Panhandle area. Easily served by Pensacola, Fort Walton and Panama City airports, Sandestin is a fill-service resort located in Destin. Blessed with more than 7 miles of dazzling beach and bayfront property, Sandestin is a must stop in any golfer's itinerary. In all, the resort has 63 holes of golf. On the first day there we played the Links Course, a Tom Jackson layout that is quite the test if one's winter-besieged game is crooked. Not long even from the championship markers (6710 yards), the Links Course is a locally known as a watery graveyard for lost balls. By our count, all but five holes are beset by water hazards, not all of which come directly into play. Yet, the Links' modest length does even out the challenge of the always lurking liquid. Numerous lagoons, filled with Titleist-fed bass, line many of the fairways. But the greens are generously large and in general are open from the front. And the conditioning of greens and fairways was fine. The course ends in strong fashion with the last four holes all demanding yet fair pars. The par-four 15th measures 414 yards from the back tees and it's a toughie. From the tee, all you see is a yawning lagoon lining the entire right side of the fairway. The green is seemingly perched on an island although in truth it's been devilishly sited out on a little peninsula. This four-par is well-deserving of its number two handicap ranking. Better yet, is the 18th, a 536 yard par five that sits alongside Choctawhatchee Bay. At all costs, one must not go left here but three smart shots will get you safely home on this picturesque closer.

The Links Course offers a good golf experience with just a little too much water for my drier tastes. But I must commend this course for the friendly and energetic marshals (nicely called "hosts" here) and its pace of play. We played in 3 1/2 hours and it was just a pleasant surprise to do so in a resort setting. "Ready golf" is more than a scorecard slogan here; it's the real thing. Bravo!

The other courses at Sandestin are the 27 hole Baytowne and the highly regarded Burnt Tree GC. Baytowne features three distinct nines_the Dunes, the Harbor and the Troon. There's a nice variety in the topography here with fairways carved out of pine forests, some marshes and some great elevated views of the Gulf. Standout holes include an island green par three, a 600-yard par 5 and an uphill par four that stretches out to a mean 466 yards that many locals fear is the toughest in the state.

But the premiere layout is still Burnt Tree designed by noted architect Rees Jones. It was named one of the top 3 new resort courses in '95 by Golf Digest. Located in a wooded tract overlooking the big Choctawhatchee Bay, Burnt Tree is a dramatic and strong layout. There's a rich variety in looks and shot values at work here. In the background literature, Jones says Burnt Tree offers "a lot of holes that receive both the aerial shot as well as the knockdown shot." For aquaphobes, Burnt Tree is again a test of mind over matter, in that water and marsh come into play on a dozen holes. But to the fair, the hazards are usually lateral with only two holes requiring a forced carry. Like its sister course, The Links, Burnt Tree ends in fine fashion with holes 13-15 affording beautiful views of the Bay. And two good par fives close out two of the last three holes. From all appearances, Burnt Tree is indeed a championship test that will undoubtedly be rewarded someday with a major state championship venue. I wish I could say more but in truth our round was rained out here. But from an earlier cart tour and favorable comments from local players and guests, I look forward to using my rain check at Burnt Tree.

For more information about Sandestin, call 800-277-0800.

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