After arriving in Rosemary Beach, Florida, get out of the car and put the keys away. There will be no need to drive again until it’s time to go home. Named for the herb that thrives here, the 107-acre town is designed to be traversed on foot or on bike—one of the ways it keeps its footprint small. Rental cottages are often outfitted with bicycles, there are walking paths everywhere, and the permeably paved streets are bike-friendly, since there’s hardly a need for cars. A 5-minute walk leads to swimming, paddleboarding, eating lunch, or walking on the beach, and all thoughts of frustrating commutes fade from memory.
Established in 1995 as a vacation destination, Rosemary Beach was meant to exemplify a modern version of small-town living, where things like convenient access to shopping and dining and free play in parks are the norm. What makes it modern can be found in the details: attention to siting allows for views of the Gulf of Mexico from all around town; strict but fair rules require homeowners to manage their own rainwater runoff; enforced use of native landscaping supports the natural environment.
Wax myrtle, beautyberry, redbud, scarlet sage, and trumpet creeper are among the chosen few on the plant list. Colorful perennials in play with oaks, cypress, hickories, and pines provide plenty of interest for garden lovers.
The township is situated on what locals consider the prettiest part of the Gulf coast, where the sand is mostly quartz and the water is perfectly clear because there aren’t any nearby rivers delivering sediment to the region. The dunes, which are formed when the roots and stems of sea oats and other coastal plants trap windblown sand, are carefully preserved. As a result, they are up to 25 feet tall, the highest dune elevations along the coast.
Rosemary Beach orients itself not only to the beach but also to its own town center, a smart decision by the original planners, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company of Miami. This move has cultivated a neighborhood sensibility rare among planned urban developments. Landscape designer Stephen Poulakos supervised the planting of sand live oaks to line the town center’s Barrett Square and intersecting Route 30A. The Rosemary Beach development team along with Boston landscape architect Keith LeBlanc, designer of Barrett Square and Route 30A, envisioned shaded tunnels along this thoroughfare, a dream that is already realized, thanks to North Florida’s congenial climate. Poulakos moved on to become the director of town development in another planned community, but he returned to Rosemary Beach after 8 years to see how his installations had come along.
“I was particularly impressed with the size of the sand live oaks... We fought hard to convince state and local entities that having tree-lined streets would calm traffic through town. It is quite beautiful now, but I can only imagine how much more beautiful it will be with another few decades of maturity,” says Poulakos.
Poulakos worked closely with horticulturist Randy Harelson, once owner of a local nursery called the Gourd Garden, who advised him on incorporating native plants into the town’s design as well as creating a butterfly habitat in the northwest corner on West Kingston Road. The Butterfly Garden has become a touchstone for Rosemary Beach’s interface between development and nature, asking visitors to consider how we can coexist with the life that was here before we came along to share the space.
Although most around town are visitors, some business owners live in Rosemary Beach year-round, and there are families from Atlanta and other southeastern cities who have weekend homes here. They are regulars at every establishment in town. A walk down Main Street, which leads from the town center to the ocean, is met with honest smiles and greetings from shop owners and managers as well as the locals who populate café tables.
Instead of moving onward to the shore, this is the time to stop and enjoy the restaurants that cater to sophisticated food sensibilities. Steve Kim, the head sushi chef at Aqua Coastal Sushi, open for just a year, crafts an appetizer of delectable New Zealand green-lipped mussels, which are seated atop a bed of cinnamon-infused sushi rice and overlaid with ponzu sauce and aioli, baked, and sprinkled with rose crystals.
“The fun of this is tweaking the details. I consider flavor profiles and pay attention to how little changes can dramatically enhance the way things taste,” explains Kim. His philosophy plays out in every dish, even the edamame, which is heightened with truffle oil and pink Himalayan sea salt.
When Kim learned that the Alaskan wild salmon he once sourced was being injected with pig hormones, he switched to Mikuni Wild Harvest, which catches healthy fish from Cape Flattery, Washington. Purveyors all around town share Kim’s attentive mindset.
Just down the way, chef Ed Reese of Edward’s Fine Food and Wine is devoted to local flavors. His menu includes Apalachicola oysters, Florida grouper, and produce grown nearby. Beginning at 5 P.M., the restaurant’s open-air courtyard becomes a stage for singer-songwriters who work the 30A corridor. There’s also the occasional movie night, with a film projected onto a courtyard wall visible throughout the restaurant.
Unlike nearby Seaside and WaterColor, which came first and prided themselves on borrowing features from the houses that originally populated this area, Rosemary Beach imported its architectural style from the West Indies. Just as Caribbean design emphasizes galleries, porches, balconies, large windows, and shutters, so do these homes.
Traditional Baroque gables and gaslights embellish the houses and larger buildings in Rosemary Beach. The native landscape softens the visual impact of the classic architecture, making it feel of a piece.
There’s no one piece of the puzzle that defines this town. Together, the houses, shops, and restaurants, nestled into native landscaping, entice visitors. And then there’s the beach, just over the dunes, which is cool to the touch all year long, a perfect foreground for dazzling nightly sunsets.
Photography by Cocoa Laney
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014