Beach goers seeking perfect sand and friendly people. There’s a really good reason why the beaches along Northwest Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A make our list year after year. Pick up a handful of sand from the shoreline. Not only does it feel silky-smooth as it falls between your fingers, but a closer look at the grains left clinging to your palm reveals the clear, crystalline particles that, when multi- plied by millions, give these beaches their signature sugar-white beauty. Arriving here is easier than ever after last year’s opening of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City.
A Day On The Sand
This long shoreline set against emerald Gulf water is a gorgeous backdrop for both waterborne and land-based adventures. Kayak out to the sandbars and jump in with mask and snorkel to glimpse rays, a slow-moving manatee and even a pod of curious dolphins. One phone call to SeaOats Beach Service (850.951.3632) in Rosemary Beach will provide you with all the equipment you need. If you want to do nothing at all, that’s OK too. SeaOats will set you up with a hammock in the sand and you’ll be swaying in no time. Just down 30A, the beach at Seaside is so cool you don’t even have to leave your chair for lunch — place an order for some of the tastiest barbecue in the region with Barefoot BBQ. Owner James Murphy, who to the locals is just Murphy, serves slow-smoked ribs with a giant smile and friendly chatter. Be warned that his warm, gravelly laugh is infectious. If you get lucky, Murphy will be busy manning the pit in his Airstream trailer/kitchen across from the beach, and one of his cute servers will deliver your pulled-pork sliders and bucket of cold beers (order 30A’s own Grayton Beer Company brews).
The best way to get acquainted with 30A’s eclectic beach communities is by bicycle. Rentals, from cushy beach cruisers and mountain bikes to tandem bicycles, are available almost anywhere. Ride in synch with your sweetie on a bicycle built for two and veer down cobble- stone pathways to one of Rosemary Beach’s pristine parks (don’t forget the picnic basket). Take a close-up look at the stark white, angular architecture of homes in Alys Beach that conjure up images of a village on the Mediterranean Sea, or pedal the off-road trails past dune lakes in Watercolor.
A rental cottage in Seaside puts you in the middle of the action. Pick a Gulf-front spot for easy access to those stunning sunset views from second-story porches. If a bed-and-breakfast is more to your taste, Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse is just down the road in Grayton Beach, where owner Cheri Peebles is friendly hospitality personified, and her Waffle Wonderful lives up to its name.
“We’re friendly, open people,” Murphy says. “We all know each other and have the common goal to make this a great town to live in and visit.” Getting to know the locals is half the fun of a visit to 30A. Start at Seaside’s Central Square, a collection of shops and restaurants anchored by a newly renovated amphitheater park. On any sunny day, you’ll find residents in shorts and flip-flops sipping mojitos and margaritas at the Great Southern Cafe, where the favorite dish is grits à ya ya (shrimp with applewood bacon, spinach and portobello mushrooms). Wine lovers gather ay the trendy 45 Central Wine Bar. A sophisticated wine list isn't the only thing you'll find here—award-winning chef and owner, Jim Shirley, serves up seasonal delights using local ingredients.
Besides being a beach town with the best sand and surf, 30A has an artsy side too. Take a peek at Ruskin Place behind Central Square and you’ll find galleries like An Apartment in Paris, which is set up to look like, well, a Parisian apartment where all the original artwork and decor is for sale. The area’s artsy residents include people like makeup artist Jill Van Otten, who created her very own line of organic cosmetics, for sale at the Elliott Boutique. Plus, standing ovations abound when the cast and crew of the Seaside Repertory Theater take the stage in their own productions of off-Broadway hits like Matt & Ben from March to December. At this year’s Academy Awards party, held at the theater, ritzy locals forfeited their latest Armanis and Oscar de la Rentas for evening gowns with flip-flops and tuxedos with crisply pressed shirts tucked into comfortable shorts. This is a beach town, after all. beachesofsouthwalton.com
More Favorite Beaches
- Deer Lake State Park - Bring your paddle board. A trek over a boardwalk and sprawling sand dunes lands you in clear Gulf waters. Launch your board and glide away.
- Pensacola Beach - A stone’s throw from Alabama, Pensacola Beach has an Old Florida vibe, a very long pier, a fun boardwalk and cool places to hang — Paradise Bar and Surf Burger.
- St. Joseph Peninsula - Like crisp, white snowdrifts, the dunes at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park gleam against gin-clear water. Book a cabin far in advance and hang out with nature.
- St. George Island - Take a walk with shorebirds and sand crabs as you marvel at this beach’s unspoiled beauty.