Rosemary Beach, Florida: luxury lasts in stylish retreat
A US resort, completely planned by architects, offers stylish, yet stress-free relaxation - and the best way to get around is by bicycle
From the minute your feet hit the sand-dusted streets of Rosemary Beach, Florida, a sense of “Ahh, that’s the spot” embraces you. It’s like slipping on your favourite old shirt, the one that always makes you feel good about yourself. It may be a tad casual, but it’s always in style. And the style in Rosemary Beach is decidedly upscale, but relaxed.
You may arrive by car, but once you have parked and checked in to your tin-roofed, earth-toned rental property (there are no “hotels”), the urge to drive simply vanishes. It’s not just that the 107-acre community is infinitely walkable, but the flat streets lined with willowy coastal oaks fairly cry out for a big comfy bicycle. With golf carts outlawed in town, bicycling is by far the preferred mode of local transport.
After a few days, I found myself dreading car trips and looking forward to the air in my hair, the smell of the sea, and the crunch of sand under tyre as I explored this upscale resort, and its highly praised ability to relax its residents.
Hopping on our bicycles at Bamboo Bikes, the first thing we notice are generous green spaces, cooling shade trees, and that the shopping and dining in this upper part of downtown is tucked under a shaded arcade. The other side of the upper plaza is fronted with an array of boutique shops, and kerbside cafes.
Following the breeze down toward the sea, we pedal around another shaded greenspace, and find ourselves in another world.
With its narrow brick-lined streets and two and three-story wooden balcony-fronted buildings in soft coastal hues, Main Street has the feel of New Orleans without the madness. Here again, shaded sidewalk cafes and upscale shopping and dining are de rigueur.
Seated beneath one of the Cowgirl Kitchen’s signature red umbrella sidewalk tables, a “beach meets west” breakfast is the ideal way to kickstart a busy day of ambling, pottering about, and shedding the workaday stress. Imagine a plate filled with veggie tacos, organic granola, or a sublime breakfast burrito. While cowgirls on the beach may seem out of place, “unconventional” is nothing new for this stretch of the Gulf Coast.
Established in 1995, just eight miles east of Seaside, (it’s older “sister” city), Rosemary Beach was seen as the refined, new expression of New Urbanism for the 1990s. This, at times controversial, architectural and urban planning philosophy favours walkable, compact neighbourhoods that integrate a variety of housing styles, as well as retail and office spaces with natural environment buffers. In Seaside and Rosemary Beach, smaller, community-friendly neighbourhoods and planned gathering spaces are given priority over population density.
Similarities between Seaside and Rosemary Beach are no accident. Rosemary Beach was conceived by architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the don and doyenne of New Urbanism who had planned Seaside 14 years earlier.
Though similar in spirit and execution, Rosemary and Seaside are quite different. Rosemary Beach does for sustainable, laid-back, beach elegance what Seaside did for planned beach communities in the 1980s.
Rosemary Beach eschews coastal cliche pastels for a series of muted natural colours with designer names such as dune gray, moss olive, pecan, fall straw, Atlantic spray, and summer glow. On these Caribbean-inspired homes, the result is a series of solid, reliable, and sedate living spaces that, with the boardwalk-lined walking paths and bikeways, give the entire beach community the feel of an up-market village that comes across as not so much “planned”, but comfortable. It’s simply easy to make your way around town, doing the things you want – not have – to do.
Pedalling our way off Main Street away from “downtown”, we may choose to head to one of Rosemary’s four public pools, or opt for the tennis courts, or a yoga class. The fitness centre is free for guests of Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company. There’s also Vivo Spa Salon, “the area’s most complete Aveda spa and salon”.
Making your way to any of these attractions is supremely pleasurable. Friendly guests and bronzed locals wave and offer “hellos” as you follow the map in your head in the general direction of your goal. There’s no hurry, so going “the right way” seems a waste. And if you make a wrong turn, there will be an alley, or palm fringed path up ahead that heads in the right direction. The most you risk is surprising someone browsing their Kindle with a cold drink under the ceiling fan of their front porch.
Eventually you slip between carriage houses and beach cottages into a seemingly secret oasis nestled between palms. In these you find the pools, tennis courts, and land-based leisure activities of Rosemary Beach.
While relaxing in paradise may not be all about eating, enjoying good food in pleasant surroundings can be a big part of unwinding. With the dunes as our seat back, and the beach as our table, we settle in with a frosty beverage and feel the sun warming us as the surf laps at the shore.Our feet fairly swoon as they settle deep into the almost powdery white sugar sand. Depending on your mood, Sea Oats Beach Service will set you up with umbrellas, hammocks, beach chairs, and cabanas.
For active travellers, Sea Oats also offers kayaks, surfboards, and catamaran rentals, as well as a Sea School where you can have surf, sail, kayak or skim board lessons.
It can organise a starlight beach bonfire also that includes fire wood, fire maintenance, 20 chairs, 10 cocktail tables, one large serving table, and clean up. You simply show up and stay warm by the fire as you listen to the surf break, the kids frolic safely nearby, and watch the level of the drinks pitcher slowly decline. (See seaoatsbeachservice.com.)
When you find yourself feeling peckish later in the day, consider dinner in Paradis. That’s Restaurant Paradis, at the top of Main Street. This fine dining restaurant offers superb food, yet remains relaxed. For locals, the Paradis bar seems to be one of the prime gathering spots at the end of a long sun-soaked day.
If you have something a bit more relaxed in mind, Onano Neighborhood Cafe sits at the foot of Main Street, close enough to smell the sea just over the dunes. Enjoy a glass of wine as the sun fades from bronze to rose. If you happen to be booked into the “European-style accommodations” of the Pensione, just upstairs, you’re already home.
As a community whose sole purpose is casual resort living, the seaside village of Rosemary Beach offers visitors the chance to begin their vacation where others end. There’s no getting into “vacation mode”. It’s simply there waiting for you. Because the rental cottages, boutique shops, bistros, green spaces, and palm-fringed grottos are all specifically geared towards understated, elegant relaxation, life in Rosemary Beach is decidedly luxurious, but comfortably informal.
Multiple flights a day are available to Pensacola, Florida (PNS), and Panama City, Florida (ECP). Pensacola airport , which gets more flights, is about 90 miles from Rosemary Beach and Panama City airport is about 30.
Where to stay
Most accommodation can be booked through the Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company (CRC). See its website: rosemarybeach.com, tel: 001-866-348 8952. From $162 a night for a one-bed carriage house in winter to $2,564 a night for a six-bed cottage-carriage house in summer.
The Pensione inn has one-bed, one-bath accommodation above Onano Cafe on Main Street. It can be booked through CRC. Prices range from $195 in winter to $295 for spring break or summer.
Where to eat
Amavida Coffee & Tea: A bakery and coffee shop with shaded outdoor seating, amavida.com. Tel: 001-850-231-1077.
Wild Olives: Upscale market and casual but refined restaurant with shaded outdoor seating. wildolivesmarket.com. Tel: 001-850-231-0065. Meals from $12-$25.
Cowgirl Kitchen: Casual, inventive western fare and drinks, cowgirlkitchen.com.
Restaurant Paradis: Upscale steak and seafood restaurant and lounge bar. Tel: 001-850-534-0400 restaurantparadis.com.
Onano Neighborhood Cafe: An upscale restaurant with excellent pasta, seafood, steak and wine. Uncovered outdoor seating. Tel: 001-850-231-2436. onanocafe.com
Hire car is available at both airports, and bike rental can be arranged through Bamboo Bikes, tel: 850-231-0770. See bamboobicyclecompany.com
Glenn Kaufmann travelled to Rosemary Beach as a guest of Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company and Delta Air Lines