2004: A Village full of fun in the Florida panhandle

Destin, Fla.

A handful of middle-aged women, clad in playful hats and fur stoles they might have donned in

childhood times of yesteryear, are seated around a table in a back room at the Magnolia, sipping loose leaf teas, quietly conversing and steadily working their way through a multi-tiered tray of finger

sandwiches and pastries.

“Up here,” Eager says in a Southern drawl that flows like syrup, “we have our tee times, and we have our tea times.”

That pretty much sums up Sandestin, a tranquil little place in a sleepy northwest corner of Florida that continues to grow in reputation as a splendid, peaceful escape from the frantically paced 9-to-5 life. Tee times and tea times. Ernie Els could nap just fine here.

At Sandestin, there’s a little something for everyone, and that’s a good thing. Too often, when a patriarch is the only one to bring along the sticks, the rest of the family practically is held hostage, idly waiting around the hotel room the way families once waited for ship captains to return from sea.

But with an entire shopping and dining village at one’s fingertips and 1.5 miles of sugary sand

beaches and azure waters beckoning nearby, the solitary golfer might as well go play 36. The rest of the family will be just fine. With intriguing shops, fine dining establishments, a KidZone, a marina, the Gulf of Mexico and a handful of quality golf courses, there’s plenty to do.

The only snafu: If Sandestin isn’t careful, its little secret might leak out.

“I think we’re really on the verge of being something big,” said John Ward, director of golf at Burnt Pine Golf Club, a Rees Jones design that is the best of Sandestin’s four courses. “With the village now complete, you never even have to leave the property. We’ve got it all here. I have to remind myself all the time that I’m not on vacation.”

Ah, the village. We’ll get to that in time. The golf at Sandestin features a menu of young and old, from the 30-year old Links Course and Baytowne Golf Club to a pair of more modernized, flashier entrees delivered by brothers Rees Jones and Robert Trent Jones Jr., sons of famed architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. Those in the industry know the Jones boys aren’t as close as, say, George and Jeb Bush, so it’s rare you’d ever find them standing side by side. Just as extraordinary is finding two creations by them so close to one another. But as a player stands on the 18th tee at Rees’ Burnt Pine course, he or she can glance over to see the 11th hole of Bobby’s Raven Golf Club. Upon seeing the Raven’s 11th running east to west and Burnt Pine’s 18th running west to east, one of the visiting brothers was said to whisper, “That pretty much sums up my life and his life.”

Legend also has it that Jones Jr. wanted players finishing on Burnt Pine to look over and be thoroughly enraptured by the course they hadn’t played that day. But Burnt Pine, which is semi-private and one day likely will evolve into a fully private club, stands as the more stern test of the two. Beginning at 13, a 433-yard par-4 that bends gently to the right and opens into a view of Choctawhatchee Bay, a golfer encounters a breathtaking stretch of holes. The 14th – 212 yards from the tips and 193 from the next tee – is Burnt Pine’s lengthier version of the 17th hole at TPC at Sawgrass. There’s a little bailout area to the left, but basically it’s an all-or-nothing proposition demanding a carry over wetlands and across the railroad ties fronting the green. Regardless of result, better get over that hole quickly, or the par-4 15th, where a player tees off with his heels against the bay, can jump up and end a good round at 439 yards.

If it’s true variety is the spice of life, Burnt Pine doesn’t lack for seasoning. “The members,” says Ward, “never do get bored here.”

Jones Jr.’s assignment when adding the Raven to Sandestin’s lineup was to make the course a little more resort friendly, and he obliged, providing ample landing areas off the tee. “We told Bobby we don’t want it hard; we’ve got to hit it and find it,” said George Kleinpeter, Sandestin’s director of golf maintenance and resort grounds. Kleinpeter arrived at Sandestin in 1972 – a year before the original courses were even grassed.

Simple in design theory, the Raven nonetheless presents plenty of dramatic shots and eye-catching views, mostly the result of its sharp, Tillinghast-inspired bunkering, native plantings and fast, undulating putting surfaces.

Tom Jackson, the original designer of the Links Course, has been asked to come in and freshen the appearance of the 30-year-old layout, and wants to do it by moving some of the greens closer to the bay. The approach on No. 8 plays right into the teeth of the choppy Choctaw, and No. 9 runs alongside it, making for difficult pars when the wind is up.

Certainly worth the drive off resort property down Florida Highway 30A is Camp Creek, a Tom Fazio gem that plays firm and fast and is defined by magnificent wetlands and sand dunes. In short time, Camp Creek has established itself as one of the top courses on the Emerald Coast, and eventually Fazio will add a second 18. Whereas the first one weaves through dunesland, the second will be cut through pines. (The routing is complete, and when the course opens, the original course likely will go private.) Camp Creek is a solid test from tee to green, but it’s on the putting surfaces the real games begin. The greens are slick, with no shortage of movement. Said Will Hopkins, Camp Creek’s director of golf, “It may be the most severe collection of Fazio greens anywhere.”

Davis Love III soon will start building a six-hole course nearby that he hopes will serve as a popular family gathering spot for the surrounding Arvida community. The course is expected to open in May 2005.

“The golf course is a park setting, like the old courses of Scotland,” said George Jones, project manager of the WaterSound community near Camp Creek. “It’s not an executive course, but a six-hole loop, with holes within a hole, and two pins on each green. It’s an appeal to the community. It’s family friendly, but challenging enough to have a good time. This could be a paradigm shift in golf and golf communities.”

Accomodations for out-of-town visitors to Camp Creek are available at WaterColor Inn, a quaint 60-room boutique hotel that nestles against the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The rooms have the ambiance of a seaside cottage, and amenities range from a beachclub and tennis to a stately, relaxing library located off the lobby.

Back at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, if golf represents the resort’s heart, then its inner soul is the 28-acre Village of Baytowne Wharf. Fine restaurants, great shopping and vibrant nightlife give a visitor myriad options for relaxation and entertainment, and keep families from those painful “golf hostage” situations. Village architects borrowed bits from New Orleans, Charleston and old Florida, and the result is an Old World/Southern atmosphere that is festive, fun and quite lively. Forget being a short drive away from everything – it’s a 5-iron from many of the resort’s rooms. The car keys never leave the counter.

Kim Duke-Layden is the village’s “casting director,” and has traveled the South to bring in distinctive merchants, paring 1,000 candidates down to 30 or so owners. With the exception of the Starbucks at the front of the village, one won’t find chains here. These are mostly warmhearted mom-and-pop operations with a flair for excellent service. Shops range from upscale clothing boutiques to Sockeye’s Surf Shop to Bark Avenue, where dog owners can buy virtually anything for their pooch – from pricey french necklaces to treats to Halloween costumes (bet you’ve never encountered Count Dogula).

“The common denominator,” says Duke-Layden, “is a passion for delivering a great guest experience.”

Visitors to the village can step in and watch candy being made (a kids’ favorite), take cooking classes at Gerard’s Cookery & Cajun Market or even have their own little tea party, and there’s a homespun, unique feel to the place, which is hard to achieve in today’s cookie-cutter, imitation-saddled society. The barbecued oysters topped with cheese at Acme Oyster House and the stuffed chicken or beef potatoes at Jim ’N Nick’s represent can’t-miss fare. Visitors can watch the sun rise at the Broken Egg Cafe, catch a sunset on the dock at Hammerheads and dance the night away as a band rocks at John Wehner’s Famous Door.

In between there is plenty to see, and plenty of good golf to be played.

Tea times and tee times. Good news for baby boomers in need of a little pampering.

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