Comparisons between WaterColor Resort and Seaside are impossible to avoid. For one thing, the two Florida Panhandle developments are located only half a mile apart on State Road 30A in Santa Rosa Beach; for another, they both feature pastel-hued vacation homes that rent for several hundred dollars a night. Granted, Seaside is the undisputed standard-bearer: It opened in 1981—eighteen years before WaterColor—and charmed its way onto the silver screen in 1998 when it appeared as the idyllic town of Seahaven in The Truman Show. It’s also home to more restaurants than WaterColor, more shops, more crowds.
But WaterColor has established a standard of its own. Every year since 2013, the resort has received Forbes’ Four Star designation, making it the most decorated property in northwest Florida. And last year, the readers of Conde Nast Traveler voted it the region’s number one resort. WaterColor is also much larger than Seaside, spanning 499 acres (compared with Seaside’s eighty), with bigger homes spaced farther apart. If Seaside is a model of New Urbanism, WaterColor is a showpiece of even newer opulence.
WaterColor, as its name implies, is surrounded by multihued seas: The Gulf of Mexico flanks its southwest side, while the 100-acre Western Lake curves into the resort’s heart. The property has belonged to its developers, the St. Joe Company, since 1927; paddle across Western Lake to Grayton Beach State Park, and you’ll find old stone markers from the now-defunct St. Joe Paper Company, which once processed timber there.
There are three types of accommodations in WaterColor: self-contained homes, condo-style suites, and the newly renovated sixty-room Inn. No matter where you stay, you’ll have access to the resort’s complimentary bikes, tennis courts, three private golf courses, and fitness center. You’ll also find six resort pools scattered throughout the property, from the ones at the family-friendly BeachClub to an adults-only pool surrounded by cabanas. Over at the lakeside boathouse, you can rent everything from kayaks to standup paddle (SUP) boards made by local company YOLO Board; be sure to try a water-based fitness class, which combines SUP workouts with runs around area trails.
WaterColor’s signature fine dining option is Fish Out of Water, the only northwest Florida restaurant to receive a Forbes Four Star rating. Situated directly on the Gulf, it showcases inventive dishes such as local black grouper served with curried cauliflower, tapioca potato cake, and mint chutney. Select a bottle from the extensive wine list, and don’t leave before sampling a souffle (the hibiscus flavor is especially popular).
If you don’t want to blow your vacation budget on one meal (entirely possible at Fish Out of Water), WaterColor has two casual dining options, the Gathering Spot and BeachClub Grille. And of course, Seaside’s fifteen-plus restaurants await just down 30A. The two developments may have worked hard to distinguish themselves, but comparing their offerings remains a favorite pastime.
34 Goldenrod Circle, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, 850-534-5000, watercolorresort.com