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Teresa

SoWal Guide
Staff member
Nov 15, 2004
30,168
9,226
South Walton, FL
sowal.com
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By Shannon SimsPhotographs by Robert Rausch
Jul. 6, 2023
Shannon Sims is a regular contributor to New York Times Travel. She spent her childhood summers vacationing along State Road 30A and has previously reported from the Florida Panhandle region for The New York Times.

Running 24 miles through a stretch of the Panhandle of northwestern Florida, roughly between Destin and Panama City Beach, is State Road 30A. It spurs off U.S. Route 98 and passes a series of small towns of differing character, all with beautiful beaches. This area has long been a beloved vacation spot for Southerners who drive each summer to swim in clear turquoise waters, play in powder-white sand and then slap a 30A bumper sticker on their cars. The appeal for many visitors is the pick-your-paradise aspect, with communities with scruffy charm like Grayton Beach just down the road from perfectly polished Seaside. This guide takes you on a short, summery road trip that heads east along a section of 30A, and also highlights free beach access points, as an increasing number of beaches in the region are private or require payment for entry.

Recommendations​

Key stops
  • Grayton Beach State Park offers birdwatching, hiking through a forest and stand-up paddle boarding on one of the world’s only coastal dune lakes.
  • Seaside, a meticulously planned town and the setting for the film “The Truman Show,” is a great place to explore by bike.
  • 30A Farmers Market offers artisan goods and fresh produce at different places throughout the week, including Rosemary Beach’s North Barrett Square on Sundays.
Itinerary
Friday
4 p.m. Hit the beach
The first thing any visitor to 30A is going to want to do is run onto the sugar sand and splash around in the clear water. Succumb to temptation at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, the westernmost of the area’s excellent public beachfront parks. The large preserve includes 10 miles of trails through forests and lakes, plus campsites, R.V. slots and cabins. But the pristine beach is the main attraction, with more than three miles of undeveloped coast to help you transition into unplugged vacation mode. Turn around to see the sail-shaped dune rising 25 feet above sea level that gave the park its name, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, from migrant songbirds to gopher tortoises (entry, $6 per vehicle). Before swimming at Topsail and other beaches along 30A, it is crucial that visitors check the government's warning flag system on the shore, as red flags indicate dangerous conditions, such as the possibility of rip currents.

White sand dunes leading down to a tranquil, turquoise ocean. There are tire tracks and footprints in the sand.


7 p.m. Dine at a 30A classic
Goatfeathers, open since 1988 in Santa Rosa Beach, is a family-favorite restaurant with a blue and white facade serving some of the area’s freshest seafood, thanks to its fish market downstairs. What it lacks in a view or an outdoor dining area is made up for in friendly service and oversized Gulf Coast dishes like platters of steamed shrimp accompanied by corn, potatoes and smoked sausage ($36), or fried oysters served with hush puppies ($38). Parking is easy, and new menu items, like New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp ($22), are added frequently.
8:30 p.m. Indulge in local ice cream
Is it even a beach vacation without a visit to a family-owned ice cream parlor? The Panhandle’s version is Pecan Jacks, with long but fast-moving lines, a 10-minute walk down the road from Goatfeathers. The large selection appeals to all ages, with googly-eye-adorned “cookie monster” cones, plus an adults-only section of flavors infused with Bailey’s and bourbon ($5 for a regular scoop in a cup). If you’ve never had a homemade, Southern-style praline, a confection of caramelized sugar and nuts, this is a great place to try one ($3.50). Seating is limited, so stroll with your treats around the Gulf Place community of restaurants and shops or to the public ramp down to the beach across the street.

A person wearing a light straw fedora and a blue T-shirt eats a melting ice cream in a waffle cone outdoors in the daytime.

A shaded path outdoors with small painted cabins alongside.

Camp Helen State Park, just five minutes past the town of Rosemary Beach, is one of the rare spots in the region where the natural environment is unhindered by coastal development.

Saturday
8 a.m. Grab breakfast before the beach
Start your jam-packed Saturday in the funky town of Grayton Beach with coffee at Black Bear Bread Co. the popular bakery founded here in 2016 that now has four locations along the Panhandle. Hearty slices of multigrain sourdough toast with butter and jam ($9), meringue-topped key lime pie croissants ($7) and smoked salmon tartines ($20) aren’t cheap, but they’re tasty. And well-balanced espresso drinks made from Stumptown Coffee Roasters beans drive both locals and visitors to this location, where they vie for a spot on the covered patio. Or take your purchases to go: The beach is a four-minute drive down the road.

A view of a white plate with a half-eaten croissant with toasted meringue and a slice of lime on top of it. There is also a latte on the table.


9:30 a.m. Squeak into sugar sand
The sugar sand the area is famous for, which looks like snow and squeaks when you step on it, is actually pulverized quartz crystal washed downstream from Appalachia thousands of years ago. Dig your toes into it at Grayton Beach State Park, which has 2,000 acres where visitors can hike trails, paddle in a lake formed between dunes, enjoy birding or fishing, or just chill out along the coast (entry, $5 per vehicle; some sought-after camp sites, from $30, and cabins, from $130, are available). One popular activity is sandcastle building: Beach SandSculptures provides two-hour lessons ($419 for up to five adults, kids free).

A small group of adults and children stand together on white sand before a tranquil, turquoise ocean. They are standing next to a wagon with green and yellow floating toys.


12:30 p.m. Lunch with a view
It’s not particularly common along 30A to find a lunch spot with an open-air beach view, but at Chiringo you can see the ocean from your table upstairs, albeit at a distance. Located where Grayton Beach’s main road ends at the shore, the two-level restaurant serves lighter options than the usual fried Florida fare. The grouper sandwich is a popular pick (market price), as are the lower-carb veggie bowls ($11). Downstairs, a popular bar has fresh margaritas and rum drinks, and an astroturfed cornhole area keeps kids busy. Service can be spotty, but the location keeps people coming back.

2 p.m. Sightsee Seaside
Seaside is famous among architects as a model of New Urbanism, an urban design movement focused on walkability, and the town was meticulously designed in the mid-1980s to be a pedestrian utopia. So it makes sense that “The Truman Show,” the 1998 movie about too-perfect simulated reality, was filmed here. Follow the planners’ vision by biking around the streets to check out the pastel-hued wood-frame cottages, all within a few minutes walk from the town center. Shop the endless boutiques selling preppy men’s polos and flowy women’s linen pants, or stop into the stores circling the central square: Duckies Shop of Fun for unique beach toys for kids, Modica Market for gourmet Southern goods and wine, the Seaside Style for the community’s officially branded apparel, and Sundog Books for beach reading material. After all that, cool down with a shaved ice treat from Frost Bites ($8.50), served from an Airstream trailer in the center of town.

A person wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat stands in front of an Airstream trailer with a colorful menu on its side, and a sign saying


6 p.m. Catch a tropical buzz
The Daytrader Tiki Bar and Restaurant, which opened in June, is the newest addition to Seaside’s commercial beachfront area. A stylish bar opens directly onto a pathway to the beach, tempting those headed to the sand, while inside diners enjoy fancy Polynesian-style snacks like tuna crispy rice ($18), spam musubi ($12) and pork belly banh mi ($18). The cocktails keep things beachy fun, with a rose gin drink topped with dragonfruit cubes ($18) and a mocktail of sorrel cordial mixed with a zero-proof version of Campari ($16).

People dining at tables in a restaurant's patio area in the daytime. Two people sit at a bar with big cut-out windows that opens onto the restaurant's warmly lit interior.


7 p.m. Settle in for sunset dinner
Smack in the middle of Seaside, Bud & Alley’s is the go-to spot for a sunset dinner. Multiple levels offer a maze of dining environments, from indoor tables surrounded by windows to breezy whitewashed decks and gazebos. Take your pick and enjoy the view over the sand dunes and the turquoise water as the sky flares with streaks of orange and purple. Although the location is unbeatable and the service on point, the menu can be hit or miss. Skip the crab cakes and indulge instead in an excellent smoked tuna dip ($17) and seared Gulf red snapper ($41). The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so the savvy diner will put their name in before relaxing with a cocktail at Daytraders next door.

A view along a stretch of empty coastline with soft, white sand and calm waves during the daytime.

The 30A area is famous for its sugar sand, seen here at Grayton Beach State Park. The soft sand is pulverized quartz crystal washed downstream from Appalachia thousands of years ago.

Sunday
8:30 a.m. Customize your dream holiday morning
In Seaside, you have plenty of a.m. options. Start with a beach view and outdoor yoga on the Seaside Pavilion, which takes place every day during the warmer half of the year, for $25 (no reservations needed). For a filling brunch, join the line of people clamoring for a decadent take on shrimp and grits, with gouda and portobello mushrooms ($18), at Great Southern Cafe. If you have kids, let them loose on the lawn of the amphitheater while you snap a photo in front of the Seaside Post Office, the town’s classic postcard image. Or drop into the quaint, white-washed Chapel at Seaside, which hosts an inter-denominational worship service, along with a kids’ church service, each Sunday at 10 a.m.

People sit on white deck chairs in front of a public grassy area. Behind them are palm trees and white buildings with columns and American flags.


11 a.m. Shop local in Rosemary Beach
Every Sunday, about 20 minutes east of Seaside, the high-end town of Rosemary Beach hosts the 30A Farmers Market at North Barrett Square. Alongside mountains of local produce, dozens of vendors sell homemade jams, dog treats, CBD products and fresh bread. Don’t miss Sabina Zunguze’s stand, where she offers moringa teas, homemade lemonade made with baobab fruit powder, and African wares like olive-wood spoons with bone handles made by a women's cooperative in Kenya. The market is open Sundays year-round, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

12 p.m. Brunch with Hemingway
Adjacent to the lobby of the Pearl hotel and overlooking the grassy quadrangle at the heart of Rosemary Beach, Havana Beach Bar & Grill holds a coveted location. Fortunately it rises to the occasion. Inside, the lamp-lit bar of dark wood has been charmingly designed to recall El Floridita in Old Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s legendary haunt. A small covered patio beside the main room offers a limited number of tables with a view. Brunch runs until 2 p.m. with a menu that includes both standard breakfast fare like eggs Benedict ($18) and avocado toast ($12) along with Cuban-inspired dishes like stuffed French-toast-like torrejas ($17) and ropa vieja hash of braised beef, eggs and potatoes ($18).

The exterior of a four-story hotel in the daytime. There is a clock on display on the exterior of a small tower.


1 p.m. Escape to camp
Just five minutes past Rosemary Beach, Camp Helen State Park is a precious jewel on the eastern end of 30A. A former corporate retreat (before it became a state park), just across the waterway from the spring break crowds at Panama City Beach, Camp Helen is one of the rare spots in the region where the natural environment is unhindered by coastal development. A hot, unshaded 15-minute trek over the sand from the parking lot to the water deters many potential visitors. But paradise rewards the rugged. The park straddles Lake Powell, the largest coastal dune lake in Florida, and the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, allowing for toggling between relaxing in shallow lagoon waters and splashing in the ocean waves (entry, $4 per vehicle).

 

Lake View Too

SoWal Insider
Nov 16, 2008
6,838
8,252
Eastern Lake
I loved it when it was as deserted as a deserted tropical island. When Seaside began to unfold, it was really fun and exciting, in the early days. I loved it in those days, perhaps even more so. When Rosemary took root in the East, it was an amazing new development with plenty of old world charm and design. Watercolor emerged, and lent its class and style, not to mention wonderful new events and activities. And Alys spread her elegance, as well. Restaurants and bars sprang up, evolved into different places, and the energy continues. The Lakes and the Gulf and the Forests have remained constant. And the people keep flowing through, at an even more athletic pace. But, all in all, it's still a gorgeous place to live and visit, and if we keep caring about it, as we do, maybe it will continue to be as grand as it always has been.
 

Dawn

Beach Fanatic
Oct 16, 2008
1,196
518
I loved it when it was as deserted as a deserted tropical island. When Seaside began to unfold, it was really fun and exciting, in the early days. I loved it in those days, perhaps even more so. When Rosemary took root in the East, it was an amazing new development with plenty of old world charm and design. Watercolor emerged, and lent its class and style, not to mention wonderful new events and activities. And Alys spread her elegance, as well. Restaurants and bars sprang up, evolved into different places, and the energy continues. The Lakes and the Gulf and the Forests have remained constant. And the people keep flowing through, at an even more athletic pace. But, all in all, it's still a gorgeous place to live and visit, and if we keep caring about it, as we do, maybe it will continue to be as grand as it always has been.
I just wish our County had higher standards and slower pace for development.
 

Dreamer

Beach Lover
Dec 29, 2014
172
80
Northwest Georgia
I loved it when it was as deserted as a deserted tropical island. When Seaside began to unfold, it was really fun and exciting, in the early days. I loved it in those days, perhaps even more so. When Rosemary took root in the East, it was an amazing new development with plenty of old world charm and design. Watercolor emerged, and lent its class and style, not to mention wonderful new events and activities. And Alys spread her elegance, as well. Restaurants and bars sprang up, evolved into different places, and the energy continues. The Lakes and the Gulf and the Forests have remained constant. And the people keep flowing through, at an even more athletic pace. But, all in all, it's still a gorgeous place to live and visit, and if we keep caring about it, as we do, maybe it will continue to be as grand as it always has been.

People complain that we are Atlanta or Nashville south but yes Jersey would be worse I guess.
We purchased in Grayton 23 yrs. ago to get away from Atlanta. Our dream ended with all the overdevelopment. Sold three yrs ago. I still dream about the old days of Patrone's and all the dogs roaming the beach. The three legged dog and especially Badger Breaux. He would go walk the beach with me early in the morning when the only person on the beach was Pompano Jim fishing.
 

Professor

Beach Comber
May 20, 2021
41
15
Santa Rosa Beach
......if we keep caring about it, as we do, maybe it will continue to be as grand as it always has been.
It will if more control can come from the South end of the county. As long as Defuniak and Freeport and the "attorney power broker cabal recruit the retired public worker into a BCC position" program is in place, they will clear cut, fill in with dirt, and build structures only (no roads).

But it was grand, and really still is.
 
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