A Florida Road Trip, Part Two
Part two of my Florida Road Trip and another chapter in my year of 7 Sinful Trips. If you want to start at the beginning of my road trip start here.
Scenic Highway 30a
Scenic Highway 30a dips in and out along the coast, past stunning beaches, coastal dune lakes, palmetto groves and pine woodlands. Google Earth decided it was beautiful enough to pay some lucky person to walk the entire length of 30a’s beach wearing one of those goofy street view cameras.
Go ahead and drag Google maps’ little yellow man to the edge of the water and have a look….
I’m pretty sure it was the best gig of his/her Google-employee lifetime.
The Most Beautiful Beaches in Florida
But 30a is more than a scenic drive. It’s a culture and a way of life for people who live in the tiny beach towns sprinkled along these beautiful beaches.
There’s a distinct vibe here, different from other parts of Florida. Residents call it the Salt Life, a laid-back lifestyle that celebrates the privilege of spending every day in and around the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Add a little Southern charm to the mix (most of the residents are either locals or transplants from states nearby), an appreciation of fine seafood and you have the quintessential Panhandle Floridan.
It’s about the Gulf, outdoor life, beaches, surfing and miles of unspoiled beaches.
It’s a seductive thing, this 30a life. Spend too much time along this stretch and you find yourself contemplating a serious re-evaluation of your current office situation.
Beach Towns Along 30a
It’s hard to pick a favorite beach town along 30a since each has a distinct personality, but what one doesn’t have, the other does and they’re all a few miles apart. Convenient.
Grayton Beach is my favorite village. Its motto says it all.
Grayton is a little bit hippy, very laid back and my favorite place for an afternoon hanging out on the beach or paddle-boarding in the lagoon.
It’s changed a bit from being an undiscovered, local beach spot with unpaved streets and clusters of one-story wooden beach cottages, but the Grayton vibe remains.
The cottages on the main street rock the Old Florida style, but bigger, more modern homes are slowly creeping along the edges of town.
The Red Bar is a local institution and is the place to grab lunch, a drink or catch Dred Clampitt and other local bands on the weekend. We’ve celebrated every possible occasion at the Red Bar for over 20 years. Some real, some invented. Any excuse to go hang out with some of the nicest people on 30a.
A little farther down the road, things get a bit more…establishment.
Watercolor is one of a string of New Urbanist communities built along 30a in the 1980s and 90s. Walkable streets, bike paths, a mix of shops and well-designed homes and a central, community space for gatherings. Developers made sure there’s no real reason to ever leave the comforts of town. Some people love the concept, some don’t. Watercolor is summer camp with a decidedly upscale twist. It’s hard not to love.
I like to visit these little towns by biking in and out of the developments, along the tree-shaded streets and past the pretty cottages with front porches perfect for lazy summer afternoons. Golf carts tootle past filled with families and floaty toys on their way to one of the community pools or beach. I hear the sound of happy kids shrieking as they try to master paddleboarding in the lake nearby.
Sounds of summer and easy living.
Seaside, the first and most famous New Urbanist community along 30a, is a pretty tumble of pastel cottages, beach houses and picket fences. It’s so close to perfect, it was used as the setting for the movie The Truman Show.
Sandy bike paths spider off into small parks and pool areas. Parents poke around the well-stocked bookstore and upscale shops while their kids run around the town green. The beach is only meters away. And there’s ice cream. Of course.
Residents and visitors flock to Seaside’s town green for open air movies, concerts and an upscale farmer’s market on weekends. The gourmet food trucks lining the Seaside’s entrance tempt almost everyone passing by. I’m pretty sure I went to the grilled cheese truck more than once.
Once you pass Seaside and Seagrove Beach, things are quieter, almost serene.
Deer Lake State Park has a pretty stretch of boardwalk past the dune lake to the beach. It’s the place to go when the rest of 30a is a bit too crazy. Watersound is secluded, quiet resort community adjacent to Deer Lake State Park. Both are only a few minutes from the buzz of Seaside.
Alys Beach is something completely different. Its elegant homes and serene environment next to the sea is strikingly beautiful…it reminds me a bit of Greece.
I keep an eye out for the Fonville Press on 30a. It’s Alys Beach’s answer to the local coffee shop, newsstand and gathering place for people staying in one the beautiful houses or people like me, just pedaling by.
Rosemary Beach is the last community before you turn away from Highway 30a. Boardwalks meander through the town center and between homes on the way to the beach.
This area has its wild spots too. My sweet sister-in-law took me to one of the quiet corners, Camp Helen State Park.
The park, surrounded on three sides by water, has a small ranger’s station, a handful of historic buildings and huge oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Footpaths lead along the water, over the dune lake and down to the beach. It’s a long walk through deep sand, but the view over the beach and old fishing pier is worth it.
We didn’t see a soul the day we went except for a small bobcat skirting the edge of the woods. It’s a peaceful, unspoiled piece of Old Florida and a perfect place to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico.
Stay tuned for Part 3.
What to do along 30a:
Ditch the car and rent a bike and spend the day biking in and out of the little neighborhoods along 30a.
Walk between the sea oat sprinkled dunes to the blue/green waters of the Gulf. Here is a list of public access points if you can’t find parking near any of the developments.
Sit and relax on the bone-white sand, washed down from the Appalachian Mountains. Pay attention to the flag warning system before deciding to swim.
Walk miles along the beach, listening to the sand squeak beneath your feet, the ocean whispering into the salty breeze and the wind rustling through the sea oats. Consider the important things in life.
Life the Salt Life, if only for a day or week or month. Fish, boat, hike, swim, surf, eat, repeat.
What not to do along 30a:
Leave your stuff on the beach. Beach patrol will come and clear it off during the night since things left on the beach confuse the sea turtles that nest in the dunes and make the beach look trashy.
Leave sand castles and big trenches in the sand. The sea turtles get stuck or fall into even the smallest holes and die. Please fill in your holes and knock down your castle masterpieces before you leave the beach.
Walk on the dunes. They protect the beach from erosion and the nesting birds and turtles from harm.
Where to stay along 30a:
The choices are endless. There are a few small hotels and inns at each of the resorts listed above, but I can’t recommend any of them as I’ve never personally stayed in them. They look lovely though!
We rent homes when we stay on the beach with family and book through the resort agency or a Homeaway/VBRO listing. I use similar criteria for choosing a third party rental as I do using Airbnb. You can find anything from 2 bedroom cottages to huge Gulf-side mansions that sleep multiple families anywhere on 30a. Spring Break is high season so book early.
Where to eat along 30a:
I tend to stay pretty casual when I’m at the beach and my food choices reflect my desire to remain in flip-flops and casual cafes as much as possible.
For the Health of It, 2217 West County Hwy 30a, Santa Rosa Beach (850.267.0558) Amazing smoothies, organic groceries, fabulous staff.
Red Bar in Grayton Beach. “Downtown” Grayton. No reservations, cash only. Lunch, dinner, drinks. Arrive early, stay late.(850-231-1008)
Another Broken Egg Cafe 51 Uptown Grayton Circle, Grayton Beach. Breakfast. (850-231-7835)
Twin Oaks Farm 26 Logan Lane ( a little cluster of shops North of 30a). An adorable farm shop with farm fresh everything, including pre-made meals. If you can catch the shop open, the owner is a regular at the farmer’s market in Seaside.
Cafe 30a , 3899 East Scenic Highway 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach Upscale cafe. (850.231.2166)
Food trucks along 30a in Seaside. Yes, you’ll pay top dollar for that grilled cheese sandwich and hot dog. Yes, it’s delicious.
Farmer’s Markets along 30a. Dates and times vary, check here before heading out.
How to get to 30a:
Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS)
Northwest Florida International Airport or Pensacola International Airport. I have no idea what makes either of those airports “international.” All flights connect from another Stateside location.
Car rentals are available at the airports or in town.
Things to Know
March weather in the Panhandle is unpredictable. I had 50 degree, cloudy and windy days and 75 degree and sunny days when I was there. Consistent beach weather doesn’t show up until the end of March. Summers can be unbearably hot.
If you plan on visiting more than one National Park or Florida State Park (and I recommend you do), consider getting a pass. Do the math before you buy.
Interested in great reads and sources for this trip? Try Beaches and Hills 3: (Best Backroads of Florida) by Douglas Waitley and The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera by Harvey H Jackson III.
What have I missed? Are you a 30a resident with a favorite spot to share? Leave me a note in the comments below and share this post! Thank you!