We’ll begin our journey down scenic highway 30A in the town of Grayton Beach. This gulf shore community is widely recognized for its wide white sand beaches and its charming atmosphere. In 2020 Grayton Beach was named the best beach in America by environmental evaluator “Dr. Beach”.
A long day playing in the surf or soaking up the sun can work up quite a thirst, and the Red Bar is the place to quench it. Set in an old general store, this spot is infamous in Walton County for its strong drinks, laid-back vibes, and wild interior decor. Even the ceiling is covered in signs and posters! Start your day here by ordering the “House Salad” – Red Bar’s nickname for their popular Bloody Mary.
The Red Bar features a lunch menu stuffed with classic gulf coast seafood favorites, like po'boys, fish sandwiches, and gumbo. For dinner, they offer fresh-caught grouper, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, and, if you’re there on a Friday or Saturday night, homemade crab cakes.
The other hot spot here in town is called Chringo. They have a relatively small menu focused on Gulf and Caribbean cuisine. Kick off your dinner with some guacamole or Jamaican jerk chicken wings, then dig into a basket of fried shrimp, a grilled Cuban sandwich, or a round of tacos.
Chringo features a specialty cocktail menu that puts a twist on classics like the margarita, Moscow mule, and bourbon smash. Their house specialty is named for Trinidad-born singer Billy Ocean. They blend fresh ginger, pineapple, and mango with a “boat load” of rum and serve it up frozen – perfect after a hot day at the beach.
Once you’ve had your fill of Grayton beach, let’s head back to the highway to see what else this beautiful stretch of Florida Coast has to offer.
With nearly 2,000 acres of pristine coastal forest, Grayton Beach State Park is a destination for families and campers from all over the country. The park extends from the beach on your right-hand side all the way to the Point Washington State Forest on your left.
Park entry costs five dollars per vehicle, and grants you access to a whole host of amenities and events. The park borders Western Lake and features a boat ramp for launching canoes, paddleboards, and other non-powered watercraft. Both the ocean and the lake are fishable with the proper Florida game permits. A 4.5-mile hiking/biking trail winds around the backwaters of the lake, and a 1-mile nature trail takes you on a loop through the distinct dune, salt marsh, and pine flatwood ecosystems.
Camping here is a popular way to experience everything the park has to offer. There are 59 campsites for tents and RVs, all of which have access to electricity and water. Pets are welcome in the campground and throughout the park, and reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance. The park also has several cabins that sleep up to six people. The cabins are equipped with gas fireplaces, screened-in porches, kitchens, and outdoor grilling areas.
Grayton Beach State Park hosts events throughout the year, including a weekly garden circle for the green-thumbed. Guided hikes with rangers, pancake breakfasts, and game nights are common occurrences, as well as chats and lessons from local artists and artisans.
Reasonably-priced rentals are available for kayaks, canoes, and other watercraft. The park has accessibility resources on hand, too – four campsites are designated as accessible, and mobi-mats and beach wheelchairs are available so everyone can enjoy the gorgeous gulf coast surf.
The next community we’ll pass through as we make our way along the Emerald Coast is WaterColor, a 400-acre master-planned neighborhood. Designed in the 1940s, WaterColor and its next-door neighbor Seaside are a slice of nostalgic Americana preserved by the salty gulf air. While I’m talking, keep an eye out for Natchez Street, where you’ll make a left turn.
WaterColor is home to the WaterColor Inn, a 60-room beachfront resort designed by architect David Rockwell. While the Inn is certainly a destination for visitors, it’s also the home of the WaterColor Beach Club, a private social association reserved exclusively for neighborhood homeowners. The Beach Club features three pools on terraced decks, resort dining, a health club, and a 4-star spa.
Across the street from the Inn is Wine Bar, a popular spot for “casual fine dining”. Their menu features twists on American classics and Neapolitan-style brick oven pizza. The wine list is, needless to say, extensive, and they even have "wine happy hours" daily from 11am-6pm
Turning left on Natchez takes you into our next neighborhood. If driving through this small seaside town is giving you the distinct feeling that you’re being watched, it’s probably because you’re a fan of the 1998 hit film “The Truman Show”. The house on the left with the green door was used as the home for the title character.
The classic Jim Carrey movie was filmed almost entirely here in Seaside, Florida. As a planned community with a unified architectural style, it provided the perfect blend of unique mid-century-inspired architecture and manufactured uniformity to feel like a television set.
After searching nationwide for the right setting, the producers had decided to build a town from scratch on a Hollywood sound stage, until Wendy Stites, wife of director Peter Weir, introduced the team to Seaside. The house chosen for Truman’s residence is owned by state senator Don Gaetz, father of US representative Matt Gaetz. Turn right at the end of Natchez and continue straight to return to 30A.
As you cruise through the unique brick-paved streets of Seaside, keep an eye out for other homes and landmarks from the movie. Planning for Seaside began in 1978 when founder Robert S. Davis inherited 80 acres on the coast from his grandfather. Because the land was undeveloped and privately owned, Seaside was designed without planning interference from the state.
Davis created this community according to the tenets of New Urbanism, a philosophical movement that encourages environmentalism through city planning. Seaside is a walkable community, with shopping, jobs, and residences accessible on foot by way of pedestrian alleys and open spaces.
Continue straight to the end of the road to return to 30A, turning left to continue onward. As you do so, you’ll pass by Seaside’s town center, a collection of shops, businesses, and restaurants surrounding a well-kept green space. The side that faces 30A is lined with food trucks and snack bars ready to serve hungry beachgoers.
If you feel like stopping for a bite to eat, this is the place to do it. Your options are limitless - Airstream Row, on your left, is a collection of vintage Airstream trailers converted into a series of delicious snack bars. Hit up Meltdown or Barefoot BBQ for delicious sandwiches and smoked meats, or grab an ice-cold snow cone from Frost Bites.
Behind Airstream Row, the town square is rife with hip cafes, delicious restaurants, and exciting shops. The Great Southern Cafe, for instance, is a perfect spot to sit down and enjoy classic comfort food, like Shrimp and Grits and Mac n’ Cheese.
Next to the Cafe, you’ll find Sundog Books, a small shop packed to the gills with gripping texts for every kind of reader. They have a particularly impressive Southern Fiction section, loaded with classics like Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird and contemporary bestsellers like Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Directly above Sundog you’ll find Central Square Records, a personal favorite shop of Candi, the sponsor of this tour. You’ll find classic and contemporary vinyl in genres from rock and roll to Brazilian Bossa Nova and beyond. You never know what hidden musical treasures you’ll find in their bargain bin.
Across the street, you’ll find restaurants and bars right on the beach. Pickle’s Burger and Shake is a great place to grab America’s favorite lunch foods. They serve juicy burgers made with a blend of Angus beef and brisket and offer a full menu of southern diner sandwiches like the turkey club or pimento cheese BLT. Their shakes are hand-spun with locally sourced ice cream, and their fried pickles are a local favorite.
If you feel like sitting down to a delicious dinner with pristine gulf views, Bud and Alley’s is the place to be. With food sourced from local farms and fishermen, this waterfront restaurant serves fresh seafood the gulf coast way, inspired by classic southern, Cajun, and soul food cuisines.
Seaside is also home to plenty of spots for shopping for souvenirs, beach clothing, and art. They even have their own theater company – the Seaside Repertory Theater, which is the only professional stage company on the Emerald Coast, offering both family-friendly and mature content.
Though it’s far from the only spot to rent recreational equipment on 30A, Butterfly Bike and Kayak, the colorful establishment on the left, gives me the perfect opportunity to tell you about one of the main attractions of the scenic highway - its bikeability.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Timpoochee trail runs alongside 30A for its entire 18.6-mile length. The trail is named for Timpoochee Barnard, a Yuchi chief known for his bravery in fighting alongside U.S. forces in the war of 1812. Biking the Timpoochee trail takes you alongside the gorgeous blue-green waters of the gulf, through the pine flats of Point Washington State Forest, and around North America’s only dune lakes, water formations only found on the Florida panhandle, Madagascar, Australia, and New Zealand.
Biking the Timpoochee trail is one of the best ways to see southern Walton County. With numerous shops, restaurants, and beach communities right on this scenic bike path, you could spend days meandering through the Emerald Coast’s towns and villages.
In addition to the main trail along the highway, greenway trails at Dune Allen and Rosemary Beach are great places to take a bicycle. These accessible trails wind their way through the state forest, exploring natural wetland environments.
You may recall driving across Western Lake earlier in our trip, and now we’re making our way across – you guessed it – Eastern Lake. As we head over the bridge, take a second to notice the vast, empty forest to your left. This is one of the Emerald Coast’s main geographic features, the Point Washington State Forest. Because of the gulf coast’s unique environment, this Forest preserves 10 distinct biological ecosystems, including sandhills, wet prairies, and basin swamps.
The forest abounds with recreational opportunities. There are campgrounds sprinkled throughout the park, one of which sits right at the north end of Eastern Lake. Unlike Grayton Beach, these campsites are primitive, with no water or electricity. Even though reaching the campsites requires an off-road drive, walking trails into town give you easy beach and shopping access.
Speaking of trails, the State Forest has miles of them. The Eastern Lake Trail consists of three double-tracked hiking and biking trails, allowing users to customize the length of their trek. You can choose a 3.5, 5, or 11-mile path through marshes, flats, and dunes. The Longleaf Greenway trail runs 27 miles along the length of the forest, connecting hikers to state parks and preserves including Grayton Beach, Deer Lake, and Topsail Hill. North of route 98, a section of the forest is set aside for horseback trail riding.
As we meander through this more remote section of 30A, let me tell you a bit about this scenic county highway and its history. 30A is known locally as “The Crown Jewel of the Southern Riviera”, and it’s easy to see how it got its reputation. The Southern Riviera stretches from Gulf Shores, Alabama in the west to St. George Island in the east, and is made up of white beaches and barrier islands along the north edge of the gulf.
Most of the Riviera is overtaken with resort towns - folks from all over the south spend their hard-earned vacations enjoying the gulf’s pristine blue waters. What sets the stretch along 30A apart from the competition is its commitment to a smaller-scale beach lifestyle. You won’t find any 20-story resort hotels or beaches crowded with identical lounge chairs on this part of the coast. The unique historic architecture of towns like Grayton Beach, Alys Beach, and Seaside preserves a more personable atmosphere and amplifies the area’s natural beauty.
This section of coastline has been a vacation spot for Floridians and Alabamians since the late 19th century. The town of Grayton Beach, founded in 1911, is the oldest of the towns that line 30A to this day. By the 1920s, wealthy southerners were buying up swathes of land along the shore and building large vacation homes, which the locals called “air castles”. Many of these 1920’s homes can still be seen in the spaces between the planned communities.
The modern history of 30A really begins with the construction of Seaside in the early 1980s. As the birthplace of the New Urbanist movement, Seaside became the model for the master-planned communities you see today, with distinct architectural styles for each. You’ve already seen the Old Florida style of WaterColor and the mid-century Americana buildings of Seaside. Along our route, keep an eye out as we go through communities based on Mediterranean and Southern Revival styles.
As you can see along both sides of the road, the state of Florida has committed to preserving both the natural and cultural charm of the 30A corridor. Massive swaths of forest have been set aside for conservation, ensuring new construction won’t harm the delicate ecosystems around the western hemisphere’s only dune lakes.
As you cruise along this serene coastal highway, let the sun and salt air soak into your bones and embrace the laid-back beach vibe of Emerald Coast living.
As you cross over Camp Creek Lake, you’ll find yourself in the town of Seacrest. Unlike some of the other planned communities on our route, Seacrest is marked by an eclectic architectural style. Lots here were sold empty during the development of Seacrest, and owners were allowed the freedom to construct the beach house that best fit their needs. This side of Seacrest is only half of the original town - the construction of Alys Beach to the east split Seacrest in two, with the smaller and denser Seacrest Beach now situated further down the road.
Seacrest doesn’t quite have the walkability of its neighbors. It isn’t home to many shops or restaurants. In fact, Seacrest prides itself on being a quiet, purely residential community. The side streets on the left feature small, tree-lined streets and picket fences. 30A through Seacrest is lined with rental condominiums, making the beach itself a little more crowded during tourism seasons.
Carrying on into Alys Beach, you’ll find yourself surrounded by spacious white-stucco homes inspired by the architecture of Bermuda and the Mediterranean. Many of these houses feature interior courtyards and evoke the feeling of the Spanish Riviera.
The east end of Alys Beach features several restaurants worth checking out. The Citizen is an upscale restaurant with an 18-seat raw bar and menu inspired by coastal French and Mediterranean cuisine – the perfect complement to the local environment. They have quite a few vegetarian options, like their mushroom Bourguignon, as well as gluten-free and vegan choices.
Another popular spot is George’s, an upscale American restaurant with a more casual ambiance. George’s features porch seating and classic gulf fare like grilled grouper and jerk crusted snapper. Try their famous shrimp plate, piled high with southern favorites: grits, slaw, and hush puppies.
The Alys Beach Amphitheatre is located on this side of town. Consisting of a stage and a wide lawn for sitting on chairs or picnic blankets, they offer numerous outdoor events such as concerts, movie screenings, and holiday celebrations. Shopping in the area includes the NEAT tasting room and bottle shop, where you can find and sample a healthy selection of spirits, wines, and craft beers from around the world.
Just on the other side of Alys Beach, the white walls will give way to tall beach homes in a variety of styles. This is Seacrest Beach, formed when Alys Beach split the town of Seacrest down the middle. This community is almost entirely made up of rental homes and condominiums, but there is a small town center with restaurants and shops. Highlights include LaCo, a modern Mexican restaurant, two pizza joints, and peddler’s pub, a small shack that serves ice-cold beers to thirsty bikers on the Timpoochee Trail.
Welcome to Rosemary Beach! This is the last stop on our tour today, where 30A rejoins the main road. If you’re not quite done exploring the coast, feel free to turn off onto the side streets and check out the shops and restaurants of this lovely seaside town.
Rosemary Beach is centered around a long green boulevard lined with restaurants and shops. The local architecture elicits images of old southern towns like Charleston and New Orleans. Upper-level balconies overlook streets planted with southern live oaks, giving the neighborhood a stately air.
Since we’re at the end of our tour, it’s very possible the sun is getting low in the sky. Rosemary Beach is one of the best spots to watch the sun sink over the Gulf – head down the cobblestone-paved Main Street to the Pearl, a 4-star hotel with hip dining and fantastic views. Several of the spots on Main Street have rooftop seating, so you won’t miss a moment as the sun slips over the horizon.
One particular rooftop of note is Pescado, located just off the central square on Town Hall Road. This exclusive spot only has a few tables, so you may need to make reservations in advance. As the name suggests, Pescado serves fresh seafood, offering a fine dining experience with a casual atmosphere. They serve family-style meals for parties of two or more, like the Chef’s Feast – a whole grilled fish garlanded with mussels, shrimp, and fresh vegetables.
If you can’t get a seat at Pescado, don’t worry – there’s plenty of fine dining to go around. Restaurant Paradis, on the other side of the square, is a destination for true gourmands. Their menu includes exotic flavors like Australian elk, classic French dishes like foie gras and truffled filet mignon, and of course, plenty of fresh-caught seafood.
Another highlight of Rosemary Beach is La Crema, a Spanish-style tapas restaurant featuring classic Mediterranean small plates and paellas. They also feature delicious chocolate in a variety of forms – try their creamy, delectable fondue, their homemade ice cream, or sip warm, thick chocolate the Spanish way, with flavor infusions like mint, hazelnut, or hot chili.
Well, folks – that brings us to the end of our trip today! I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know the communities that line Florida’s hidden gem highway. If you want to know more about the area, make sure to give Candi Miles a call at 850-596-6793 or send her an email at candisellsthebeach.com.