Fort Walton Beach is one of many resort towns that decorate Florida’s Route 98 as it stretches westward along the Panhandle. I drove over Saturday for a preliminary look at the Temple Mound.
Block after block of garish shops. All competing for the attention of the tourist trade’s lowest common denominator. Able easily to best the most garish Myrtle Beach has to offer.
Tattoo parlors, pirate-themed miniature golf courses, dubious-looking night spots with outlandish names, “all-you-can-eat seafood restaurants,” the universal sunglass-T-shirt-beach towel emporia, out-sized pawn or title loan shops, and the like.
Broken here and there with those islands of respectability that spread out from the parking lots of chain grocery stores and prosperous churches. You get the idea.
Then suddenly, all of this gives way to the gated walls of high-end, high-rise, antiseptic condos. Most with bay or ocean views. Studiously ignoring their garish neighbors just blocks away. Manicured lawns of putting green quality. The tasteful signs of budget-busting dining establishments serving luncheon, replacing the all-you-can-eat buffet-style restaurants within walking distance just down the street.
Then, pass over an elevated bridge into startlingly beautiful sand barren scenery on both sides of the road. All protected by stout fences with signs warning off potential sand dune climbers.
What a contrast! The State of Florida has had the good sense to preserve most of this natural scenery from development. Here, it’s worth turning around to drive through again. Maybe twice! Or, stop at one of the few parking areas along the way to watch sail surfers float along on their brightly colored kites. Wish I’d taken a photo.
Cross over another bridge at the end of the sand barren park area and drive down into the town of Fort Walton Beach. Minding the 25 mph speed limit along the way.
Now, Fort Walton Beach is different somehow. It’s none of the above. It’s a real town. A long-established town. Of full-time residents. That happens to occupy a beautiful spot on the shore of the Gulf. Where people have lived, and formed a community, for thousands of years. Long before Route 98 cut through its downtown area.
Yes, here and there some effort has been made to attract the excitement-seeking tourist trade. But those efforts never reach disconcerting levels. At least, not that I saw while driving around on Saturday afternoon.
And, yes, there are high-end condos here and there. But not of the antiseptic style. More places where people would actually live, rather than vacation. As well as beautiful private residences. Not houses, now, but “residences.” Some quite old.
Tom was born and raised in Fort Walton Beach. As was his wife. After traveling the world for decades in military service, they returned to Fort Walton Beach and developed this delightful restaurant. Which really is as much museum as restaurant. Drop in if you pass through, have an excellent meal, and look through the collections on display.
In the photo above Tom holds up an edition of the school newspaper he edited while a student in Fort Walton Beach. The picture on the lower front page is of a good friend my wife and I have known for nearly 40 years. Since graduate school days back at Columbia! Talk about coincidence.
When, over coffee and apple pie, I mentioned Tony, and his experiences while living here as a teenager, Tom recognized the name, and showed me the photo. Tom also helped me begin to understand the unique character of the Fort Walton Beach community.
But I’m here to take an initial look at the celebrated Indian Temple Mound. It’s right on Route 98. You can’t miss it. Don’t be put off by the touristy appearance of the shell-encrusted entrance arch.
The Museum is closed on Sundays. So I’ll have to wait until Monday to visit again, take more photos, and talk with the curators. So stay tuned.