GRAYTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Once a part of the "Redneck Riviera," the south Walton County strip along state road 30A has traded its jean shorts for designer labels, though pickup trucks remain in style.
Welcome to "Nashville South," a once quiet, isolated 26-mile stretch of the Panhandle between Destin and Panama City that has transformed into a vacation capital for the South's rich and famous.
Among those who frequent the area: country music stars Faith Hill, Kenney Chesney and Luke Bryan; actors Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn; NFL stars Tony Romo and Eli Manning; and even presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and Republican political consultant Karl Rove. Some — like Bryan, Huckabee and Rove — have vacation homes here.
Just don't expect them to make a big deal about it: They're not here to be seen.
"The celebrities who come here are very off the radar when they are here. They come with their kids, they wear flip-flops, and they relax at the beach," said Jessica Standley, president of Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Co. Cottages — if you can call a 4,400 square foot home with six bathrooms that — in the resort community rent for up to $28,000 a week.
Standley recalled seeing Hill wearing a baseball cap and riding a bicycle through the area.
It wasn't always like this. When Dave Rauschkolb opened Bud & Alleys bar and restaurant in 1986, the area was largely undeveloped. Other Floridians in more upscale areas like Miami and Palm Beach derisively called the Panhandle the Redneck Riviera, a banner many in the area wore with pride.
"We had the advantage of being among the last stretches of Florida beach to be developed, and we learned lessons from Destin, Panama City and other places," he said.
The area enacted stringent building codes that restricted building heights and kept condominiums out.
The high-end residential development began in the mid-1980s with construction of the quaint beachside village of Seaside, home to Raushkolb's bar. The designed community features multistory pastel beach cottages, bike paths, parks and open-air boutiques. Its serene setting made it the perfect locale for the 1998 Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show."
Other planned resort communities followed, each featuring a unique design style with multimillion-dollar homes and breathtaking ocean views catering to wealthy Southerners.
Development really took off about a decade ago, and property values in south Walton have jumped more than 50 percent since then. Beachfront homes for sale on 30A routinely go for more than $1 million, according to real estate website Zillow.
Most celebrities don't want to talk about their love of the area. Representatives for singer Dierks Bentley, chef Emeril Lagasse, Bryan and others all declined to make their clients available when contacted by The Associated Press. Huckabee spokeswoman Alice Stewart said that although the former Arkansas governor and Fox News host owns a home in the area, he spends his Sundays driving a church shuttle when he's in town.
One celebrity who would talk is musician John Oates, half of the duo Hall and Oates. He frequents the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, where acts such as Graham Nash, Indigo Girls and Leon Russell performed in January. In years past, Sheryl Crow was known to stop into the Red Bar in Grayton Beach and preform a song or two.
"It is a great place to hangout. It has a very chill atmosphere," said Oates, who is working on a television project exploring American roots music scenes across the country.
Rauschkolb, the bar owner, said many visitors try to compare the area to more famous celebrity gathering spots in California or New York.
"I don't know if 'Southern Hollywood' is the right description or 'Southern Hamptons' or what. I just call it Paradise," he said.