Describe northwest Florida as the Panhandle or, if you wish, the more
marketing-friendly Emerald Coast. Just don't call it the Redneck Riviera. Sure,
you'll find plenty of tattoo parlors and T-shirt emporiums along the highways
here, but upscale resorts are now the norm, not the exception.
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, about halfway between Pensacola and Panama City, is the daddy of the bunch. With four golf courses and plenty of nightlife, Sandestin is all things to all people.
And this resort is about as close as you'll ever see feuding brothers and architects Rees and Robert Trent Jr. Jones: their respective courses here actually have holes that touch the other, though predictably enough they play in opposite directions.
6,910 yards, par 71
Greens fees: $130
Architect: Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Why it's worth it: The high level of service is manifested in the mango-scented iced towels offered to golfers, and this 7-year-old design is equally enticing. The layout is nearly perfect for resort play wide fairways allow rusty golfers to bash away with the driver, but the huge, heaving greens, massive bunkers, avenues of pine trees and a healthy amount of lakes and wetlands keep it real throughout the round. The 203-yard, island green sixth and the bite-off-as- much-as-you-dare dogleg par 4s at 14 and 18 are the holes that will linger longest in memory.
Baytowne Golf Club
6,804 yards, par 71; Greens fees: $109
Architect: Tom Jackson
Why it's worth it: Recently remodeled by Jackson, Baytowne shares a club- house with the Raven, but not much else. You won't need an oxygen tank, but Baytowne actually delivers what passes for elevation change in Florida. If you've got the kids along, Baytowne offers free golf and rental clubs and special tees for children under 12.
The Links Course
6,710 yards, par 72; Greens fees: $99
Architect: Tom Jackson
Why it's worth it: Those nostalgic for the way the game used to be played will like Sandestin's original course. The slender landing areas and multiple lakes make prudent course manage- ment a must. Those who rinse a sleeve can drown their sorrows over excellent burgers and brews at the Linkside Pub.
Burnt Pine Golf Club
6,996 yards, par 72; Greens fees: $150
Architect: Rees Jones
Why it's worth it: Last July this course closed to all but members and resort guests, so the pace of play is better. Burnt Pine has smaller greens with more contours than the Raven, and has three of the best holes on the property: Nos. 13-15 all have views of Choctawhatchee Bay. Some of the mounding looks artificial but it's still mostly a stroll through nature.
• WHERE TO STAY Sandestin Resort offers 1,450 rental accommodations, including homes, villas, condos and hotels. On the hotel side, opt for a higher-floor room at the Grand Sandestin, with views of the pool and of The 14th hole at Rees Jones' Burnt Pine. the bay beyond. Rates start at $153. 850-267-8150, sandestin.com
• WHERE TO EAT If you're into fresh seafood and views of the Gulf of Mexico, you can't do any better than Finz. 850-267-4800
Marlin Grill is the fine-dining experience at the resort's Village of Baytowne Wharf, but leave the jacket and tie in the closet. On tap are great steaks and fresh seafood, but don't miss the grilled vegetables. 850-351-1990, marlingrill.com
• WHAT TO DO You don't have to leave the property thanks to the Village of Baytowne Wharf, a 28-acre compendium of restaurants, bars and retail shops in a realistic-looking, pedestrian-only city block. 800-277-0801, sandestin.com
Baytowne Marina,adjacent to Choctawhatchee Bay, is the resort's focal point for boating and fishing; fans of tennis can play on two natural-grass courts; and sunbathers can sizzle and then swim at one of 17 pools or along 7.5 miles of beach and bayfront.
• THE DEAL Save 20% at Sandestin Sandestin's Daily Golf Package includes a rooms at the Bayside Inn and daily golf on the Links Course with cart (course upgrades available). Prices are $187 through April 21 and $173 from April 22-May 24, per person, per night, based on double occupancy. Call 800-470- 7389 or visit sandestin.com