A first-timer’s guide to Seaside, Rosemary Beach and the rest of 30A on Florida’s Emerald Coast
SEASIDE, Florida – Hardly a hidden gem, this stretch of beach in Walton County on the Florida Panhandle. It is one of the fastest growing regions in the state.
And yet, in all the years I’d traveled to Florida, I’d never ventured here and didn’t know much about it – until last month I was looking for an easily accessible, drivable destination in Florida, closer than the southwest corner of the state, where I usually go on vacation.
Texans, Georgians and Alabamans have been descending on this section of the Emerald Coast for years, which is so named here because of the beautiful green hue of the Gulf of Mexico.
In 2020, when the pandemic squeezed tourism almost everywhere, Walton County actually saw its visitor numbers jump to 4.5 million, up 4% year over year.
Despite its growing popularity, the area is still relatively unknown to many of us in the Midwest.
When I walked into Modica Market, a little gourmet food story in Seaside wearing a Cleveland, Bad to the Bone sweatshirt, the woman behind the register said to me, “I love Cleveland, Tennessee.”
This has never happened to me in Fort Myers, where apparently half of all visitors are equipped with Ohio State equipment.
One of the reasons the area is not more popular with northerners is the weather, which varies greatly in winter, when Clevelanders need the most warmth and sunshine. The main season here is from April to October.
During my last four day visit, the temperature fluctuated widely from the low 30’s to the mid 60’s. Even so, the North Florida weather in February almost always beats the North Ohio weather.
And the beach was still beautiful even when I was wearing my winter coat.
The target of my affection was a 26-mile stretch of the Florida coast known as 30A, named for a two-lane county road that runs parallel to the beach in South Walton County, roughly between Destin to the west and Panama City Beach to the east.
On the go: quaint towns, rugged state parks, and miles of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.
The dozen or so towns on the coast along the 30A are an interesting mix, all without legal personality, most privately developed, some with restricted access.
Each has its own personality, from relaxed and liberal (Grayton Beach) to affluent and formal (Alys Beach).
The most famous destination is the town of Seaside, founded in the early 1980s as a model of New Urbanism, an urban planning movement that promotes pedestrian-friendly, densely developed communities.
It’s a stunning, welcoming place with a small downtown area, many restaurants, and unique boutiques.
Cars are forbidden in the city’s central square, which is organized around a large amphitheater and where films, concerts and other performances take place during the season.
Although the buildings were designed by different architects, they appear unified and integrated, a mix of classic and neoclassical cottage adorned with porches, pillars and picket fences. Most are painted white, with the occasional pastel blue or yellow adding a splash of color.
It all seems a little too perfect. So it makes sense that the 1998 film “The Truman Show” was shot here, which is about a man who doesn’t know he lives in a fictional city.
Rentals are high in Seaside, so I booked an apartment about 2 miles east in the area known as Seagrove. On our first morning in town, we rented bicycles which we used as a central means of transportation during our visit.
The 18-mile paved Timpoochee Trail is a mixed-use trail that runs along most of the 30A, making biking an easy way to get around.
It’s not the most scenic bike path as it runs parallel to the lane for most of the time and sometimes forces cyclists to dodge cars in driveways and cross the highway. But it was accessible, well-kept, and gloriously flat.
Inspired by a pimento, cheese, and bacon sandwich we bought from one of the Airstream food trucks in Seaside, we cycled a few miles west of town to Grayton Beach State Park. It is one of several state parks in the area and is home to three rare dune lakes on the coast.
These lakes – there are 15 in the entire county – are found in few places in the world, including Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar. These brackish waterways, created by the wind and separated from the gulf by a narrow sandy bay, are home to a variety of fresh and salt water species.
On a nicer day, I might have been tempted to rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard on Western Lake, despite the alligator signs.
Instead, we hiked the 1 mile nature trail that winds around part of the lake up and down modest dunes and through a stand of long-leaved pines. After that, we found a perfect spot in the sand to rest our legs.
The beaches here are wide, shallow and almost devoid of shells. The sand is mainly made up of quartz, which gives it a bright white color and soft texture. I could walk (and I did) miles on this sand.
After exploring the park, we cycled to the neighboring community of Grayton Beach, one of the older towns along the 30A, with a more relaxed vibe than its coastal neighbors. The outdoor Grayt Wall of Art features a selection of public paintings, as well as a sign with the city’s unofficial slogan: “Grayton Beach, nice dogs, weird people.”
We had a drink and a smoked tuna dip at the popular Red Bar, which was destroyed by fire in 2019 and rebuilt a year later.
(A note on dining in Florida, where there is no nationwide mask mandate: It was alarming to see, among other things, the waiters in the Red Bar with no face covering. I never ate inside, so I didn’t feel personally at risk, but it got me enough upset to include it here.)
Explore Rosemary Beach
On our second full day in town, we traveled 8 miles east to Rosemary Beach, another planned community developed by the same Miami architectural firm, DPZ CoDesign, that designed Seaside.
It offers a similar vibe, but with a different style and color palette – neutral browns and greens instead of light whites and pastels with wooden boardwalks instead of brick paths. Here, too, cars are highlighted with scenic hiking trails that meander through the city.
One of the few traditional hotels in the region is located in Rosemary Beach, the high-end 55-room Pearl Hotel, where we had an excellent lunch on the veranda. After that we took a long walk on the beach.
Beach access has become a controversial issue on both Rosemary Beach and the ocean. While the beach is open to the public, access to the beach is often restricted to residents or overnight guests only. In downtown Rosemary Beach we needed a code to open a gate to the beach. I went back to our lunch and asked the valet for the code. he gave it to me, though I’m not sure he should.
At Seaside, visitors are required to make reservations for beach access and rent expensive lounge chairs, a controversial policy introduced last year to combat overcrowding during the pandemic. The policy was not enforced during my stay in February, but I can imagine it might make some feel undesirable. (The county has numerous public access points along 30A.)
West of Rosemary Beach is a third community developed by DPZ, Alys Beach, which feels completely different from Seaside and Rosemary Beach – with pure white architecture and a more modern Mediterranean style. Described on its website as a “luxury beach community”, Alys Beach looks very good.
This isn’t your grandfather’s Redneck Riviera. If anything, the area felt too affluent and exclusive at times, albeit with a heavy southern accent. This part of Florida felt far more southern than any other region in the state, as reflected in the language, architecture, and food choices.
On our last afternoon in town, we dodged the raindrops and rode our bikes back to Seaside to try 30A again – shrimp and grits at the Great Southern Café and a huge slice of coconut cake from Modica Market.
The next morning we returned our bikes and then took one last stroll on the beach, sure this new coastal paradise would soon become an old favorite.
If you go: Seaside, Rosemary Beach, and Walton County 30A
Getting there: We drove from Cleveland, 950 miles, on Interstates 71, 75, 65, and US 331 through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. The closest airports are Destin-Fort Walton Beach and Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City. Allegiant Air is slated to resume nonstop flights from Cleveland Hopkins to Destin in late May.
Overnight Accommodation: A large number of visitors to the 30A region stay overnight in rented condominiums or houses. I rented a one bedroom unit in Seagrove across the street from the beach. It was around $ 150 a night in mid-February. This is the off season for North Florida. There are also a few high-end hotels in the area, including the Pearl, WaterColor Inn, and WaterSound Inn.
Where to Eat: We ate at the Great Southern Café in Seaside, Seagrove Village Market in Seagrove, and Havana Beach Bar & Grill in Rosemary Beach. We also bought a pound of shrimp from the Goatfeathers Seafood Market and cooked it in our apartment. Don’t miss the collection of Airstream restaurants in Seaside, including Meltdown on 30A, featuring gourmet grilled cheese.
More information: visitsouthwalton.com, rosemarybeach.com, seasidefl.com