Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort continues to grow and amaze

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

DESTIN, Fla. - For the three decades since opening in 1973, the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort has been a "rubber tire destination."

Vacationers, including golfers and beachgoers, from as close as Mobile, Ala., to as far as Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta, would drive by the thousands to tee it up at any of the resort's four courses or to wiggle their toes in the white, powdery stuff they call sand on the 7.5 miles of beach the resort owns along the Emerald Coast.

But with the development that's taken place in the past five years since Intrawest took over the property, Sandestin is now a full-blown mega-resort that should attract golfers from around the country. Some resorts market the "you never have to leave" concept. Well, at the 2,400-acre Sandestin, that's the truth, thanks to the recent addition of the incredible Village of Baytowne Wharf, a glitzy downtown filled with 42 restaurant, shops and bars.

Intrawest, a world-wide leader in the "village concept" at mountain resorts in North America, has invested more than $400 million in Sandestin, transforming a regional resort into its flagship, warm-weather operation. The village opened this summer and will continue to expand. "If you take Disney out of the picture, I don't know of a more complete resort (in Florida or the Southeast)," said Paul Wohlford, Sandestin's vice president of sales and marketing. "We've been a best-kept secret for a long time. We've been here 30 years, but we really only have five years of history."

The village

The addition of the village gives Sandestin a leg up on hundreds of other golf resorts that feature your average hotel rooms, a handful of stuffy pro shops to shop in and cookie-cutter clubhouses, where a chewy steak is your best dinner choice.

The $172 million Baytowne village sits on 28 acres. It's part New Orleans, with balconies overlooking the shops and cozy side streets, and part old-world fishing village. It's friendly. It's walkable. It's got charisma.

Kim Layden, who's in charge of development in the village, said more than 1,000 businesses applied to be a part of the project.

"We heard a lot of naysayers, but we have exceeded every expectation," she said. "They said it wouldn't work if you weren't right off Highway 98. We chose merchants who are the best of the best."

Eclectic shops like Bark Avenue, a trinket shop for dogs, and Raspberry Rhino Art & Such are filled with curious collectibles.

Eating has never been so easy - or in reality, so hard a choice - than in the village. Lunch-time favorites include the ACME Oyster House, direct from the French Quarter; Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q and Roberto's Pizzeria.

Save room for an elegant experience at the Marlin Grill or Poppy's Seafood Factory for dinner. But the No. 1 choice, hands down, is the candle-lit Bistro Bijoux, a steak, prime rib and seafood haven.

Sandestin's No. 1 sell to a group of golfers, though, is probably its nightlife. Just don't miss your tee time the next morning. Hammerhead's Bar & Grille features an open-air bar with live bands and a patio to enhance sunset views of the bay. For some laughs, head down the street to the Rum Runner's Dueling Piano Bar & Grill. But if you're looking for a hard-core party, John Wehner's Famous Door Nightclub has a dance floor that won't quit.

All of this is within walking distance of your room at the Pilot House or the Grand Sandestin, the resort's 168-unit luxury condominium hotel, which just opened in fall of 2003.

Away from the village is Sandestin's longtime favorite, the Elephant Walk, a snazzy joint right on the beach. During the day, beachgoers sip drinks and soak up the Jimmy Buffet sound-a-like band that jazzes up the boardwalk. By night, Elephant Walk transforms into an elegant retreat for romantic dinners.

Oh yes, there's golf too

To say the golf at Sandestin doesn't keep pace with the resort's other amenities isn't a knock on the resort's four courses. That's merely a compliment to the village and the beaches.

Both the semi-private, 6,996-yard Burnt Pine course and the 6,910-yard Raven Golf Club, which opened in 2000, would normally be highlights on most golf trips. Burnt Pine, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course opened in 1994, comes close to crossing paths with the Raven, a signature design from Jr.'s younger brother, Rees Jones.

Florida Golf News recently rated Burnt Pine and the Raven, No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, among courses on the Emerald Coast.

Sprinkle in the 6,710-yard Links design, the resort's original layout with its six holes exposed to the Choctawatchee Bay, and the 6,890-yard Baytowne layout, which was the resort's only course to receive 4-½ stars from Golf Digest's latest rankings, and you've got a great four-day weekend.

Intrawest has also improved the golf experience at Sandestin. The 15th holes on Burnt Pine and Baytowne were redone within the past year.

At Burnt Pine, the 15th hole went from a straightaway with two forced carries from the back tees to a dogleg right with a new 2½-acre lake down the right side.

After re-sodding five greens at Baytowne (No. 3, 9, 13, 17, 12), which shut the course down for more than a month this summer, the course is scheduled for more work in 2005.

Craig Falanga, Sandestin's golf marketing manager, said the Links, a tight, target-style track that opened in 1973, will receive a more drastic facelift in 2006. Some holes could be moved even closer to the Choctawatchee Bay, making a fun round even more stunning.

"We really should be considered one of the top 50 golf resorts in the country," Falanga said. "We are feeling kind of left out."

If you have time for one more round, Kelly's Plantation, a Fred Couples/Gene Bates design about five miles away, is worth a look.

Still growing

Believe it or not, more growth is on the way.

The resort will benefit from local, state and national efforts to repair 200 feet of beach, which has eroded away over the years.

As if the resort didn't have enough rooms already - more than 1,200 now - two Marriott Hotels are scheduled to open in 2005. More townhomes are still in the works, which should bring Sandestin's rental properties in excess of 2,000 units by 2005.

The two most exciting projects to visitors will be a new water park and full-service spa.

The spa should be complete by the spring of 2004, while the Lagoons, a seven-acre, $10 million water park, should attract children in droves once it opens in 2006.

Plans for renovation and expansion at two area airports will make Sandestin even more appealing to a national clientele.

Panama City Beach, roughly 35 minutes away, should have a new airport built by 2007. Wohlford said he's talking with airlines to reach major feeder markets with direct flights from Detroit, Dallas and Charlotte, among others.

The tiny Fort Walton Beach airport, which is the region's top access point by plane, is scheduled to grow to a two-story terminal. Flying to Pensacola is also an option.

But it doesn't matter how you get here. Just get here.

"We are all about making memories," Wohlford said.

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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