There was no way he was going to agree to it. No siree. I was so convinced of this fact that for the first eight years of our marriage, when we chatted about vacations—the what ifs and why nots—I never breathed a word of the place, though I longed for a return visit. The stories of my husband’s previous beach sojourns, after all, were peppered with words like “volcano” and “surfing” and “hammock hotels.” But now here we were, our midsized SUV packed to the gills and our 10-month-old snoozing in her car seat, heading south down Interstate 65 to sleepy South Walton, Florida, otherwise known for the beachside highway that meanders through it: Scenic Highway 30A.
In the end, it hadn’t been hard to convince him to make the trip, largely because of our new addition. But I knew how he likely imagined the place, and we’ll call that image “Daytona.” High-rise condos. Tacky souvenir shops. An endless expanse of towel-lined sand, the scent of Coppertone heavy in the air. Overpriced drinks with alliterative names like “Bahama Breeze,” “Miami Mama” and “Tangotini.” And while I knew he’d be pleasantly surprised when we passed through the circus that is Destin and veered onto the sandy, two-lane stretch of road that is 30A, I also knew it was worlds away from the unsullied wilds of, say, Costa Rica. He’d be bored. He’d find the planned communities dotting this area—Watercolor, Seaside, Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach—overdone, trite.
He’d never come back.
But the moment we pulled off the drag that had led us through Pensacola, Fort Walton and Destin and onto Old Blue Mountain Road, bordered on either side by the 15,000-acre Point Washington State Forest, all those fears began to melt away. The Joe’s Crab Shacks and Alvin’s Islands that had surrounded us on our way through the Panhandle had given way to stands of longleaf pine and sea grasses. As we neared the booming metropolis of Grayton Beach—at 11,000 residents, it’s one of the largest of the map-dot towns along 30A—I saw my husband’s eyebrows raise over his sunglasses upon spotting a sign for a state park that protects a mile of the powdered-sugar-soft sands for which this stretch of the “Emerald Coast” is known. Driving past, there was nothing—just swaying sea oats and shimmering sand dunes. Maybe a pelican or two.
When we pulled into one of the first of 30A’s planned communities, Seaside, I saw another flash of surprise on his face. There were families on bikes. Families pulling Red Flyer wagons. Couples portering paddle boards on their heads, walking barefoot through the crosswalk. Our little one woke up as we parked the car next to a lush green outdoor amphitheater in Seaside’s main square. We plopped her in her stroller, and I saw my husband’s eyes grow wide as we walked past one charming bookstore, bistro, gallery and market after another, the smell of salt in the air, the sun glinting off the sea to our right. We crossed the street and stood in the shade of a beach pavilion, eyes fixed—transfixed, really—on the beach scene before us, all tidy umbrellas, Caribbean-blue waters and rolling dunes (and nary a high-rise condo in sight).
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine seeing it as our daughter might.
Content, we headed up a set of wooden stairs to the beachside Bud & Alley’s and toasted with a couple of glasses of rosé for the adults, an overdue bottle of milk for the baby.
And that’s when I saw it in his face—that I’m-right-where-I-should-be look. I recognized it immediately, as I’d been to this little part of the world before, and that kind of look is something you see fairly often around these parts. It’s that feeling you’ve stumbled into something wonderful, and you know you’ve got a week of wonderful to look forward to. That feeling of release.
I saw that look again a few hours later as we walked the beach at sunset, watching slack-jawed as a pod of dolphins played in the surf just beyond the sandbar. (“I mean, it’s like someone’s saying, Cue the dolphins! Cue the perfect-looking family hunting crabs in the sand! Cue the turquoise beach cruisers with woven baskets!” I remember him saying at the time.) I saw it the next day when we settled into our beach chairs and watched our daughter wiggle her impossibly tiny toes in the sand for the first time. I saw it on his face as we sat and listened to a jazz quartet at the Red Bar. And I most definitely saw it the day we walked along the quarter-mile boardwalk that extends over the dunescape at Deer Lake State Park and learned how precious the tidal lakes dotting this region are—so precious they’re only found in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and, well, here. I saw it day in, day out, during the week we spent along 30A. Until, of course, it was time to leave.
As we pulled out of town, our eyes cast left toward the sea, my husband suddenly slammed on the brakes. “Oooh, jot down that number,” he said, pointing to a “For Rent” sign in front of a particularly charming beachside bungalow. “You know, for next year.”
DOWN SOUTH WALTON
Coasting along 30A
BEST FOR FAMILIES: Seaside
In 1981, developer Robert Davis was parceling off beachside lots for $15,000 a pop to create a walkable, community-oriented town that harkened back to the prewar, pre-automobile days. These days, that town—a tapering, tree-shaded maze of candy-colored Craftsmans, cute-as-a-button boutiques and sophisticated restaurants that spill out onto a pristine private beach—has become a worldwide model for “new urbanism,” and a lot will set you back more than a million. That might seem a bit steep, but trust us on this: One visit is more than enough to leave you pinching pennies for your own little piece of paradise. (seasidefl.com)
BEST FOR A GIRLS’ TRIP: Rosemary Beach
Created by the same architects (Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.) who built Davis’ Seaside, this planned community just a few miles east of the original is based on the same concept—an idyllic, designed-down-to-the-last-detail kind of place where you can stroll to drinks, shops, the spa and the sea—but boasts a more refined, sophisticated aesthetic. A must for a long girls’ weekend is the community’s on-site luxury hotel, The Pearl, which has a seaside spa and a swanky rooftop lounge with some of the best water views along 30A. (rosemarybeach.com)
BEST FOR NATURE BUFFS: WaterSound West Beach
If your idea of a getaway is less glitz-and-glam and more peace-and-quiet, this sustainability-minded development, tucked into a tangle of pines between Seaside and Rosemary Beach, ought to do the trick. You’ll start your day by walking along a boardwalk through the forest past beach rosemary and lupine to reach the beach at Deer Lake State Park, and end it watching the lightning bugs light up the trees that surround the community’s pool and outdoor fireplace. And just in case your idea of “nature” is, say, a little more refined, the development operates three golf courses within a 12-mile radius. (watersoundvacationrentals.com)
BEST FOR AESTHETES: Alys Beach
Another Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. creation, the town of Alys Beach—all white stucco, ink-blue hurricane shutters and ornate ironwork—claims to have design roots in the architecture of colonial Bermuda and Antigua. But really, if we had to sum it up, it’s kind of Palm Springs-meets-Santorini, with a dash of Morocco tossed in for good measure (read: it’s stunning). Throw in some of 30A’s finest restaurants and one heckuva community-pool oasis—think: loggias, breezy white-linen screens and a whirlpool tucked into a cedar glade—and you miiiight have a bit of a tough time reacclimating to the rigors of normal life beyond Alys’ whitewashed walls. (alysbeach.com)
The Red Bar
Sure, you’ll have to get there early to snag a table. And sure, even if you do get there early, you’re still likely to face an hour-long wait. But trust us on this: A night at this Grayton Beach institution—a restaurant-slash-jazz-club housed in an old beach-side general store—is one you’ll be talking about for years. Maybe it’s the hodgepodge of Jim Morrison posters, thrifted oil paintings and, like, a million other random things plastered over the (very red) walls from floor to ceiling. Or maybe it’s just that panné chicken. (Um, yeah. It’s the chicken.) (70 Hotz Ave., Grayton Beach; theredbar.com)
Great Southern Cafe
Beignets for breakfast. Shrimp po’boys for lunch. Grits and grillades for dinner. And pimiento cheese, fried green tomatoes and oysters—anyway you want ‘em—anytime. Basically: Everything that’s great about food in the South is alive and well at this casual Seaside cafe. Needless to say, it’s not just a clever name. (83 Central Square, Seaside; thegreatsoutherncafe.com)
George’s at Alys Beach
When we asked some of our favorite Arkansas foodies where they dine when they’re along the coast, it was unanimous: George’s. (And then we giggled and rolled our eyes when we saw the tag line on their website: “Where the foodies go.”) But really, it makes sense: With dishes like spicy salt-and-pepper shrimp paired with melon, charred Brussels sprouts and a Thai vinaigrette, or the lemongrass-confit-marinated chicken with pozole hash and chili-lime ponzu, this ain’t your average beach-side bar and grill. (30 Castle Harbour Drive, Alys Beach; georgesatalysbeach.net)
A favorite with families, this bay-side bistro is as much about the view as it is about the vittles. Kiddos can play in the sand that spreads out along the bay shore or on the wooden pier while the adults kick back with a cold one, and then the whole fam can dig into clever Asian twists on gulf-coast classics while taking in the Choctawhatchee Bay from a Spanish moss-strewn patio. (24215 Highway 331 S., Santa Rosa Beach; baysouthwalton.com)
Deer Lake State Park
Sure, it’s a quarter-mile walk to the beach at this 1,995-acre state park. But it’s also a quarter mile of rolling sand dunes, scrub oaks, magnolias and graceful sea grasses, which makes any flip-flop-borne discomfort far more than worth it. And when you arrive at your destination—a half-mile of powder-white sand and rolling surf—you might just find you’ve got the place to yourself. (6350 E. County Road 30A, Santa Rosa; floridastateparks.org/park/deer-lake)
With programs ranging from weekday “Stories by the Sea” for kiddos to late-night improv and everything in between (Shakespeare! Jazz! Magic!), this award-winning regional theater, housed in a theater off the Seaside square, brings a dose of high culture to your low-key beach vacation. (216 Quincy Circle, Seaside; lovetherep.com)
Sea Contemporary Art Space
Sea Light. Cloudscape. Absente. The ethereal canvases dotting this airy Rosemary Beach gallery during its current high-season show, Topography of a Swim—with works by mixed-media artist Karina Bania and abstractionist (and interior-designer favorite) Michelle Armas—are more than evocative of the atmosphere beyond its walls. (84 N. Barrett Square, Rosemary Beach; seacontemporary.com)
Live Well 30A
Wondering where all those folks cruising around on two wheels got their bikes? Jealous of the tweens paddling out to sea on SUP boards? Need a bocce set? An eight-seat golf cart? A beach bonfire complete with grilled tuna tacos and someone playing acoustic guitar? The beach concierges at Live Well 30A have got all this covered and more, and will be happy to deliver to your sand-covered, flip-flop-strewn doorstep. (livewell30a.com)
Raw + Juicy
The airstream trailer whirring up smoothies and juices with names like “Spicy Rabbit” and “Chlorophyll Love Bomb” just off the Seaside square was the impetus for this bohemian lifestyle boutique, located just across the street. It’s stocked with things that are the embodiment of owner Jenifer Kuntz’s ethos—things “made with care and attention to innovation, community and ecology,” she says—which means you can happily take home everything from cacao-ginger macaroons to vintage kantha quilts and artisan linens. (2255 E. Highway 30A, Seaside; rawandjuicylife.com)
Bombora Sun + Surf
Teeny bikinis, trendy sunnies, breezy cover-ups, floats that look like doughnuts, floats that look like flamingos, skim boards, skateboards, board shorts, short shorts—basically, everything you need for the beach (and everything you never knew you needed but, like, NEED) is at this Rosemary Beach shop dedicated to all things fun under the sun. (Pro tip: If you’re around after Labor Day, prepare yourself for one heckuva BOGO sale.) (78A N. Barrett Square, Rosemary Beach; rosemarybeach.com/merchants)
Goatfeathers II Seafood Market
There’s a reason Goatfeathers is usually the first place mentioned when you ask locals or 30A regulars about the can’t-miss spots on the stretch, and that reason is this: super-duper fresh fish. And crab. And shrimp. And lobsters. And everything else you need—lemons, cocktail sauce, crab boil, etc.—to make the most of it all back at your bungalow. (4042 E. Highway 30A, Seagrove; goatfeathersseafood.com)