This Slice of the Florida Panhandle Is Extra Chill and Extra Gorgeous
Funky or bougie, you’ll find your ideal Florida here.
Blue, teal, and tan swirls like watercolors as a coastal dune lake slowly spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Watching this scene, feeling blissfully chill in the salty breeze, for a second I forget that less than an hour down the beach is a completely different world: one of cheesy nightclubs, crowded boardwalks, and gaudy box hotels.
South Walton has that kind of transportation effect. This is one of the most stunning IYKYN situations in the Sunshine State. And, well, now you know too.
South Walton is a sleepy region of the Panhandle made up of 16 laid-back beach communities. It’s a stone’s throw from some of Florida’s most popular beach destinations—about 10 miles from Destin, 30 from Panama City Beach—but it feels lightyears away. It’s everything you love about Florida—soft white beaches, turquoise waters (they don’t call it the Emerald Coast for nothing), seafood and sea creatures—minus the bleary-eyed crowds and crass commercialization.
South Walton is also home to the coastal highway known as 30A, a compact 24-mile stretch where gorgeous sights follow one after another. Here, you’re literally forced to slow down a bit. The towns alternate between funky and casual (like Grayton Beach, home of iconic dive Red Bar) to exclusive and chic (like Seaside, which you might recognize from a little film called The Truman Show.) In other words, flip-flops are fine, but the option to don a sparkly dress for dinner is there too. You do you.
Here are the essential stops along this criminally overlooked slice of Floridian heaven hiding in the Panhandle.
Where to stay: Miramar Beach
Miramar Beach is the most bustling South Walton neighborhood, and thus an ideal base camp for a 30A vacation. It’s where you’ll find Sandestin, a 2,400-acre complex filled with vacation rentals, hotels, restaurants, and four golf courses—so pack your clubs.
But it’s hard to resist the allure of Hotel Effie, which opened in February. The 250-room hotel is shiny and new, but most critically, it’s home to a rooftop pool and bar called Ara with panoramic views of the bay. The drinks menu was crafted by nationally lauded bartender Kellie Thorn, so expect to find potent cocktails presented beautifully (their piña colada with toasted coconut is a showstopper). Plus the onsite restaurant, Ovide, is backed by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. The hotel isn’t on the beach, but it’s only a five-minute complimentary tram ride away.
If you’d rather stay in the heart of 30A, consider booking a room at The Pearl at Rosemary Beach.The 55-room hotel is intimate and creates a sense of place with local art throughout its halls and an easy-to-get-to private beach. Bonus points for the spa.
Santa Rosa Beach
Natural beauty, art, and indulgence are the three defining features of South Walton’s largest community. Santa Rosa Beach is home to the artist colony at Gulf Place, the sprawling Point Washington State Forest, and beaches with powdery sands.
If donuts are a quintessential part of your vacation experience (they are for this writer), beeline to Donut Hut first thing in the morning: The shop has a 77-year-old recipe and offers a huge variety of flavors, though the simple old fashioned remains a standout. For a wider array of carbs, head to Black Bear Bread Co. for pastries and sandwiches. Then, a stop at the sunshine yellow Blue Mountain Beach Creamery is mandatory for a scoop of key lime pie or whatever is on the rotating menu.
All of that indulgence calls for…more indulgence. Distillery 98 specializes in small-batch vodka poured in an off-the-beaten-path warehouse. Their signature spirit, Dune Laker, is made with Florida-grown corn and filtered through Gulf oysters, adding a little something-something to the flavor. For beer lovers, Idyll Hounds Brewing Company (just next-door!) has 12 beers that rotate often, but keep an eye out for the easy-drinking Ghost Crab Pilsna.
For a taste of the arts, visit Modus Photography, where Chandler Williams sells his photographs capturing the dreamy landscapes of the South Walton beaches and wetlands. Next door is Andy Saczynski’s gallery, worth a stop to drool over whimsical, funky art made with found materials.
Grayton Beach is a funky hamlet that offers eclectic charm in spades, but its real draw is one of America’s most unique coastal phenomena: Grayton Beach State Park, home to three coastal dune lakes formed thousands of years ago when shifting sand created shallow basins. These lakes can only be found in a few countries around the world. South Walton has 15—the only US coastal dune lakes aside from Oregon.
Incredibly, these lakes are filled with fresh water despite only being a few feet away from the Gulf. Consider renting a kayak and paddling around Western Lake to get the most of this unique feature: if you go in the late spring you might see the water lilies in bloom.
If you’re a scuba diver, hit the Underwater Museum of Art located less than a mile off of the shore of the park’s beach. It’s a permanent underwater sculpture garden with exhibits like the Grayt Pineapple, which provide eye candy for divers and homes for marine life.
Don’t leave without stopping by the iconic Red Bar. The place is beloved for its kitschy decor (watch out for that disco ball) and fresh-from-the-Gulf seafood. The restaurant burned down in 2019, but the community chipped in to resurrect it a year later, right down to the art on the walls and posters on the ceiling. Afterwards, stroll around the neighborhood to admire the colorful houses and the outdoor art wall.
One of several planned developments along 30A, Alys Beach recalls Santorini with its crisp white architecture. It’s the most high-end and exclusive of the neighborhoods: many amenities are off limits to visitors and there’s a strict photo policy. That said, walking down the pathways lined with lush landscaping is a delight. You can also book a luxury rental if you want to stay there.
The neighborhood’s new restaurant, The Citizen, has a vibe to match its upscale locale. The beautifully designed dining room sets a coastal tone with its deep blue hue and gold accents against white walls. The standouts dishes here have been prepared in the wood-burning oven—think Korea-inspired smoked short rib—or caught locally, like the seared gulf grouper. Start with a Boardwalk Bound made with Empress gin, passionfruit, and velvet falernum.
Take a stroll through the colorful downtown area and visit art galleries like Curate30A and Sea Contemporary Art Space. While you’re there, grab a bite at the popular Cowgirl Kitchen, which serves casual Tex Mex, or opt for the elevated seafood (literally, it’s a rooftop) dishes at Pescado. This is an 18+ spot for dinner, but all ages are welcome for brunch and lunch. Either way, it’s an ideal spot to grab a table and a cocktail and soak in the Gulf views.
In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey played a guy who unknowingly stars in a reality show, set in an impossibly idyllic beach town. That’s Seaside, and it required very little effort to make Truman’s hometown seem like an Earthbound paradise of pastel-colored houses and dreamlike beaches. It’s worth a stop if you want to squeal with delight while strolling through town and stopping at landmarks like the famous white post office.
One of the coolest features of Seaside is Airstream Row. A group of restaurants—like Crepes du Soleil and Frost Bites—set up shop in Airstreams along 30A, lending a little funk to the picturesque scenery. If you prefer to sit-down with a grand view of the water, grab a table at Bud & Alley’s which serves classic Gulf fare like grilled head-on shrimp and seafood gumbo.
There’s more than cute eateries and buildings in Seaside. Sundog Books is an absolute must: an independent bookstore that’s been open for 30 years. If you need a beach read, or just want to support a cool local business, this is a worthy stop.
Good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight indeed.