Oh, the waves of nostalgia

With its clapboard houses and picket fences, Seaside, Florida, is a Fifties throwback ... but such a charming one

Beyond a beach of white sand between Panama City and Pensacola is a restful, charming and friendly town. Seaside in Florida is a testimony to aesthetic design and the art of slowing down.

In 1979, assuming the twin roles of pioneer and social reformer, Robert S Davis began to develop the 80 acres of South Walton County land which his grandfather had acquired just after the Second World War. He wanted to construct an ideal seaside town and set about researching and "testing the water" in French and Italian resorts as well as in the United States. Above all he was influenced by childhood memories of family holidays in simple wood-framed beach cottages. And so the Seaside Code evolved: the set of rules governing design and construction there. Nostalgia and the passing on of tradition were present at the outset.

Davis wanted to build plain forms using local materials. The vision was one of comfortable, human-scaled streets and squares, coherent yet permitting a degree of variety. At the start just two houses and a few tables in the town square, Seaside has grown from the early Eighties into a town of more than 200 houses, usually built in shingle with clapboard walls. Popular basic shades are pink, peach, turquoise and grey with windows, doors and the frame picked out in white.

There's a quaint air to the place. Downtown there are restaurants, a bookshop, a deli/grocery, an amphitheatre and a neo-classical post office. At the beach, seven pavilions are open to the air and weather. Each has been designed by a different architect to function as a gateway to the ocean.

People like coming to Seaside not just because it looks good but because of its core concept. There's a revival of interest in classical and vernacular architecture and in the idea of a harmonious, social organism. Harmony is evident on special occasions such as Seaside's arts festivals and its Homeowners' Weekend. Homeowners, though, are not always in evidence as most people rent out their houses for up to 50 weeks a year.

However, you're bound to meet some Seasiders at the annual Gatsby Garden Party. In The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald refuted the suggestion that "you can't repeat the past" and Seaside, being wedded to the image of an amicable, pre-industrial society where people walk or ride bikes and converse with passers-by from their porches, likes to celebrate this. The town in many ways sees itself as a refuge from the contemporary US of TV chat shows, McDonald's, street violence and the tyranny of the automobile.

A bit too much? Too good to be true? Seaside seems artificial and looks like a theme park to some visitors. The outdoor gifts and clothes market "will remind you of a Mediterranean bazaar" (you are promised), while the interiors of the Motor Courts, once storage huts and now the cheapest lodgings available, recreate the Fifties with painted tin advertisements and souvenir plates carrying mottos such as "A Present from Atlantic City".

If you're looking for real America, you'll be glad to know that, along with nostalgia, the town is characterised by recognisably American contradictions. Both individualism and conformity are encouraged; indeed, conformity to non-conformity is sometimes imposed since no white picket fence may resemble in style any other picket in the same block. And as for social idealism, it is thoroughly intermingled with materialism.

As the architectural historian Vincent Scully observed in the Meeting Hall recently, Seaside is both a town and a resort hotel.

Some contradictions are less momentous. Renters are forbidden to bring pets but the town's most famous restaurant, Bud and Allies, is named after a dog and a cat. The locals like to protect their patch.

There's a big, collective regret expressed by founding fathers (and mothers) for the passing of the early days when entertainment was limited to eating burgers in the Seaside Grill and seeing Friday night movies in what is now Bud and Allie's dining room. Such feelings will no doubt continue to persist as Seaside continues to grow. The possibility of a pizzeria/gelateria is being explored as well as an "old-fashioned" drug store.

Seaside is staid, costly and self-regarding; it teeters on the edge of a smug elitism. But view it from the outside (preferably in the sunshine) and you can't help being impressed.

GETTING THERE

To reach Seaside, fly to Panama City - but make sure you stress it's the one in Florida, not Central America. Flightbookers (0171-757 2000) has a fare in June of pounds 415 including tax from Gatwick on Delta via Atlanta; the fare from Manchester is pounds 440.

You could save a fortune by flying to Miami or Orlando and driving from there. At present, there is a glut of charter and scheduled flights from the UK, so fares are falling to pounds 200 and below.

Car rental is easily available, but beware of misleading "headline" figures which fail to take into account essential insurance and taxes.

For more information contact the Florida Division of Tourism at 18-24 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH (0891 600555).

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