Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love.
Highway 30A, just a stretch of country road in the Florida Panhandle, has so many quaint, must-stop destinations that you might forget it's in the same state as Miami.
Odessa beach pavilion, one of ten in a range of styles that lead to the beach in Seaside, Florida.
Consider "the Panhandle," that strange bit of mainland Florida that seems swept out from under Alabama. What goes on there? Who goes? Who cares? Yes, there's Panama City and its little sister Destin, with their spring break crowds and Bass Pro Shops (where yours truly may or may not have wiled away a rainy afternoon or ten in her life), but it's actually a country highway sandwiched in between them that should put this Gulf Coast stretch on your list of destinations.
Just 20 miles from end to end, Highway 30A is dotted with the sweetest string of neighborhoods posing as small towns—from west to east: Santa Rosa Beach, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside, Seagrove, Alys Beach, and a few others—featuring pristine white beaches, nature preserves, and mom-and-pop establishments just waiting to beckon you inside. There's seafood to rival Charleston's, architectural (and urban planning) marvels, and vista after vista to Instagram. The area goes by many names: Valparaiso if you're looking for an airport, Miramar Beach if you want to check the weather, and South Walton if you feel like mentioning it around a Hamptons crowd with your nose in the air.
But there's nothing snooty about it. The neighborhoods of 30A differ in age and look and feel, meaning there's one for every type of traveler, each with can't-miss destinations. Some are developments with post offices, some have the feel of quiet hamlets. Between them: stretches of sandy country roads and beach cottages. Intirgued? These are the can't-miss destinations on Florida's Highway 30A.
Left: Consider an evening swim across Stalworth Lake; right: shrimp from Goatfeathers is the freshest dinner to-go for miles (image via @jasonherren).
The defining feature of the stoplight where you turn onto Highway 30A is trees upon trees; it's like driving through a forest. That's Topsail Hill Preserve, locally known as Topsail ("topsl"), a state park characterized by 25-foot dunes and freshwater fishing (bass, bream, panfish, catfish). Boating is banned in the dune lakes, so they're gorgeous for swimming, and the terrain is just hilly enough to call it a hike if you want to scale the topography before the sun really comes up. Where Stalworth Lake, just past Topsail, meets the ocean, its brackish waters bleed into the Gulf in a ying-yang line.
The neighborhoods in Santa Rosa are quiet and rustic, with houses meant for long lazy dinners on the porch after long lazy days on the beach. Goatfeathers Seafood Market is the best place to pick up fresh, local shrimp, crab legs, and fish—and they'll steam it for free. Get shrimp by the pound, flecked with fragrant red spices, or everything you need for a crawfish boil. If you want to sit down and eat, Stinky's Fish Camp offers an epic platter of oysters "all day, all ways," meaning you can have them with garlic butter, smoked cheese and bacon, raw, Bienville, Rockefeller, or Gratin.
Left: The Red Bar, where you can't go without getting a t-shirt (image via @codyn210); right: the famous (to me) veal meatball at Borago.
No matter where you stay on 30A, you must spend one evening at The Red Bar. The menu is simple—think catch of the day over mashed potatoes with a butter sauce—and dished out quickly in generous portions. On weekends you should expect to wait for a table, but with frequent live music and a great bar there's not usually much to complain about. The best place to wait, of course, is with your toes in the Gulf of Mexico (about twenty paces from the front door).
The neighborhood of Grayton beach is dense with foliage and even unassuming; it's small enough that the residents probably know their neighbors, and there are charming beach pads of all shapes and sizes. If you're looking for something a little more upscale than dinner at the local bar—or if you simply cannot resist the best bowl of pasta in town—go to Borago for Italian, where they will gladly serve you a giant veal meatball atop your otherwise textbook Aglio e Olio.
One of the newer developments along 30A, Watercolor is a pretty massive network of attractive houses that stretches across both sides of the highway. Many of its perks (like the pool with a view of the ocean) are only for residents or renters, but it's worth going for a bike around town, an area so large and winding you can actually get lost. Make your way to peaceful Western Lake. The Boathouse Paddle Club is right at its banks, where you can rent a stand-up paddle board, get a lesson, or sign up for an idyllic eco-tour of the area—a much calmer place to paddle than the ocean.
If you brought a dress and would like a reason to wear it, Watercolor also has a fancy (by beach town standards) restaurant called Fish Out of Water—but the best food choice in the neighborhood is the Watercolor Coaster Farmers Market, where vendors line up around Cerulean Park. There's nothing unique about this very quality arrangement of vendors (it's basically the same ones who line up at the Saturday market in Seaside next door), except that—woohoo!—it's on Sunday. In case you spent all of Saturday on the beach and couldn't be bothered to go grocery shopping, this market will save the day.
Left: Seaside, as seen through Odessa pavilion, is a cottage-lover's paradise; right: stacks on stacks at Sundog Books (image via @sundogbooks).
Full disclosure here: My family first came to Seaside when I was merely a tween and proceeded to book a house for every Spring Break thereafter, so it occupies a special place in my heart. If it strikes you as suspiciously quaint, that's because—as part of a movement we now call New Urbanism—it was engineered to be that way. In the 80s, developer Robert Davis had a vision for an adorable, harmonious beachside town and had it built, just like that, on a quiet stretch of road called 30A. There's a post office in the center of town and all the houses have names. Ever seen the Truman Show? That's Seaside.
But don't be deceived by the cheerfully pastel facades and small-town feel; Seaside has evolved to be quite the bustling destination. There are all kinds of shops worth wandering into on Cinderella Circle, but the best ones are the oldies: Sundog Books (and Central Square Records above it, where you can plug into a set of old-school headphones and listen to records), Frost Bites—the original of the town's many airstream restaurants and the place to get a snow cone—and Perspicasity, an outdoor market celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Modica Market is a must-stop for groceries, novelty condiments, and chicken biscuits in the morning.
Left: The open-air market Perspicasity, where you can buy a woven beach tote in 60 seconds; right: the view from Bud & Alley's rarely lets you down.
Don't leave Seaside without going to Bud & Alley's, the restaurant and bar on the beach-side of 30A that marks as much of a downtown as Seaside has. The bar upstairs, where my dad and I have a standing happy hour date every beach trip, serves dynamite margaritas and appetizers (like an addictive smoked tuna dip) with a view of the Gulf, and the restaurant downstairs is a little more upscale. Going twice to Bud & Alley's in one 30A trip is pretty typical and never regretted.
Seagrove has been around much longer than some of the other towns, nestled in a haze of magnolias, oak trees, and pines. Since it's not a formal development, like Seaside or Watercolor, Seagrove's beaches tend to be a little less populated for extra undisturbed napping in the sun. But the restaurants here are worth traveling for. Café Thirty-A is considered a local institution, where the menu changes daily and you can get very fresh fish prepared simply, and Angelina's Pizzeria is great for families: a red-checkered tablecloth and marinara sauce affair.
The biggest culinary draw in Seagrove might be a single grouper sandwich, however, served in a plastic red basket at the Seagrove Village MarketCafé (and their fried shrimp aren't too shabby either). The line's out the door by 11:30, so go ahead of the crowds. And if you're looking for nightlife in the 30A area outside of the Red Bar and Bud & Alley's, Old Florida Fish House has live music on weekends that plays way past bedtime.
One of the newer developments on 30A is Alys Beach, located at the far east end of the highway. It's the architecture that people really talk about ("Bermudan"), which is notably modern and even futuristic for an area so characterized by big southern-style porches and craftsman bungalows. Fonville Press serves up what's arguably the best cup of coffee on the Panhandle, and they also have wine and beer on the menu so there's more of a café vibe happening in the evenings. George's, nearby, is known for its local, seasonal lunch menu.
If you've made it this far and still haven't gotten your fix of the outdoors, head to the Alys Beach Nature Trail, which winds through 20 acres of preserved wetlands surrounding the development. It might not be Miami, but you'll be just as tan and with a whole lot more adventure under your belt.
Have you been to Highway 30A? Which towns and eateries do you love most?
Photos by writer unless indicated otherwise.