Oh Florida's Emerald Coast. The whitest sand in the world and crystal clear water. But for me, the best part of the Panhandle is that beautiful stretch along scenic highway 30-A. Simply known as “30A,” the area consists of a string of coastal towns from Dune Allen and Blue Mountain to Seaside and WaterSound. I've had an opportunity to travel to many beaches, from the coast of Spain, Ibiza, California, the warm waters of Greece, the cold Scottish coast, the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, the exotic ocean landscape of Thailand and more. But in my book, nothing beats the beaches of 30A!
Below you can find a map of all the places discussed in this post:
Part of my bias stems from having grown up spending summers in this area. My mom grew up often coming here with her parents too. We've made a study of finding the best spots to stay, dine, play and visit.
Scenic 30A is speckled with picturesque communities, each surprisingly distinct in its own way. The highway is located at the east end of Florida's panhandle, which used to be affectionately referred to as the Redneck Rivera. Today the Panhandle is far less Redneck, boasting a mix of pricey high rises, quaint cottages, architectural gems, and accessible family spots.
P.S. All photos taken by me! I really am loving taking pics with my DSLR.
Where to stay in 30A…
Let's start with the obvious, Seaside. One of the most well-known 30A towns, it's easy to see why. You might remember the picket-fence yards and idyllic pastel colored homes from the movie, “The Truman Show.” It's that, but a lot more. Like many people, my mom loves the quaint architecture. But for my sisters and I, it's the great restaurants, bars, and people-watching. Families in particular flock to Seaside, where all activities are clustered in this pristine walking community. Must-dos include the famous shaved ice stand in an airstream: Frost Bites, dinner at Bud & Alley's waterfront restaurant and rooftop bar, and Modica Market. There's plenty of shopping (on the expensive side), outdoor patios, art, and of course the amazing beach.
For something more sophisticated, and off the beaten path, I highly recommend Alys (pronounced Alice) Beach. This community reflects an architectural vision that might mirror the high-end structures seen in Bermuda, Greece and Antigua. Stunning all-white homes with tropical details, all built to help withstand hurricanes make you feel like you're walking into paradise.
Rosemary Beach is a tranquil, relaxing, yet active beach town, offering long stretches of white sandy beaches and candy colored homes. Judging by the bike traffic, the best way to get around is to rent a bike and cruise through the small, well-maintained community. A popular wedding venue, Rosemary Beach is located just east of Alys Beach, closer to Panama City Beach, making it easy to fly into the Panama City airport.
Watercolor sits at the edge of Seaside. During high season, you'll see the clean sidewalks busy with families strolling and shopping or couples sipping wine at a patio wine bar. Since it's
so near Seaside, this is a great option if you'd like a place that's a
little less crowded but still near all the action. It's known for it's many amenities and family friendly atmosphere.
Blue Mountain Beach
After outrunning the influx of high-rises and crowded beaches near Destin, the 30A beaches around Blue Mountain have become my family's summer getaway over the last seven years or so. It's less crowded but still filled with picturesque cottage style homes and views. Blue Mountain Beach offers easy access to turquoise waters, kitchy restaurants, homemade ice cream at Blue Mountain Beach Creamery, La Lobas Bakery with its incredible cinnamon rolls, or handcrafted cocktails and grub at Local Catch. Everybody raves about Stinky's Fish Camp, but we have yet to hit it when the wait wasn't an hour long. Rent a bike at Big Daddy's or rent a Yolo standup paddle board at several rental places along 30A.
Seagrove is dotted with lush palm trees and large oaks that provide a garden atmosphere as well as a scenic view of the perfect blue ocean. Have strong coffee or a homemade popsicle at Pop Stop before heading down to read a good novel on the sugar sand beach. Check out Big Mama's Hula Girl Gallery for some fine art; a good excuse to get out of the heat on a particularly hot day.
WaterSound on Santa Rosa Beach is the perfect private hideaway for families. Known for its beautiful coastal cottage architecture, interior design and stunning settings, this sprawling gated community has grand sand dunes, wooden bridges and footpaths leading to winding paved trails, and of course, great beaches. Watersound offers golf, several pools, and lots of kid activities.
Grayton Beach is a cozy, historic oasis with bike trails snaking the narrow streets. You'll find casual coffee houses, art studios and stores, and one of my favorite restaurants, The Red Bar. Go there for great beach drinks, or to hear local jazz during dinner or weekend brunch. Grayton has a “vintage” Florida feel with homes set way back from the beach, which is accessed via wooden boardwalks. It's a favorite spot of my Aunt Helene.
So there you have it! My favorite places to stay and hang out on 30A. Have you been before? Where would you stay?