The sands of the Gulf Coast were where many of my childhood memories took place. The first time I rode a bike. The first time I swallowed a pill. The first time I swam in the ocean. My family and I rented houses all along the coast from Alabama to Florida, but my strongest memories are in the South Walton area of Florida, also known as 30-A, named after the highway that runs through it. It had been many years since my last visit, the year I graduated from high school, so I was overdue for a visit. My mom, a teacher, had time off work in September so we took a week off to relax. While I had planned on using the time simply to read and enjoy myself, I had to lock myself indoors to work for a bit. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t time to explore. We rented bikes and rode to many of the resorts and communities, browsing bookshops and stopping for snacks along the way. It had changed a lot since my last trip, but there’s never been a better time to start planning your own visit.
Long before resorts covered this part of South Walton, there was Seaside. Founded in the 1980s, what made this town so unique was that all of the buildings were made to look similar. This is where most of my childhood visits took place, at houses with signs featuring whimsical oceanic names like “Fantasea” and the names and hometowns of the owners. They were all in pastel hues and stocked with board games and colorful decor. It’s easy to see why the whimsical town would be the perfect setting for the film The Truman Show, shot here in 1998.
What to Do: Browse the shops like Sundog Books and adjoining Central Square Records. Other shops carry clothing and art. Catch a performance at the amphitheatre where storytellers share the tale of Rikki Tikki Tavi with children. The repertory theatre also performs seasonally.
Where to Eat: Airstream Row has food vendors ranging from juice to Thai to grilled cheese, open daily. Modica Market is where you’ll pick up sandwiches and other essentials. Bud & Alley’s is another favorite, but usually has a wait so enjoy a glass of wine at 45 Central Square in the meantime.
Where to Stay: You can rent the colorful cottages of seaside through one of three agencies: Homeowner’s Collection, Seaside Cottage Rental Agency, and Sunburst Beach Vacations. If you’re traveling solo or in a couple, Motor Court 1 is right off the square and looks very much like it did in the 1950s.
Watersound and Watercolor
Just down the road from where we stayed in Santa Rosa is the communities of Watercolor and Watersound. Both have community events for their homeowners and offer vacation rentals for visitors. Watercolor has more to offer the public in terms of activities and dining.
What to Do: Watercolor’s location provides a number of water-based activities like kayaking and paddleboarding. You can also rent bikes here and take advantage of the miles of trails on 30A and within the resort. Watersound has its own golf course and trails.
Where to Eat: As its name implies, The Hub is the center of dining and shopping around Watersound. In addition to the events and live music here, choose from half a dozen eateries, including Mexican, fried chicken, barbecue, and burgers. The Wine Bar at Watercolor is another favorite, serving pizza and sandwiches as well as wine from around the world. Watersound Cafe offers light bites for breakfast and lunch.
Where to Stay: Watercolor Resort has both vacation rentals and a hotel, depending on your needs. Rent a house in one of the seven distinct neighborhoods. Hotel rooms come in standard rooms and suites. Watersound also offers rentals of their cottages.
You’re transported to the Mediterranean with the whitewashed buildings of Alys Beach. The resort community is still packed with dining and shopping options. The unique architecture is the design of Duany Plater Zyberk and firm. Landscaping around the town features native plant life and iconic entry gates.
What to Do: In between beach visits, explore the 20-acre nature preserve and the nature trail. The resort also has tennis and fitness facilities, a pool, fire pit, amphitheatre. Shop in the boutiques for souvenirs to take home.
Where to Eat: Fonville Press is a chic coffee shop that is a welcome respite from the humidity. They also sell juices and pastries. If you’re up early enough, grab a sweet treat from Charlie’s Donut & Yogurt Truck. The truck frequently runs out of their hand-rolled donuts. George’s At Alys Beach offers burgers and salads as well as a patio overlooking Alys Beach’s amphitheatre. Piper’s Kitchen serves breakfast sandwiches and tacos. Set alongside the pool, Caliza Restaurant can’t be missed for their Gulf Coast cuisine. Neat Tasting Room is your bottle shop and wine bar for the community. Pick up a selection of international wines and craft liquors.
Where to Stay: Stay in one of the adorable houses in Alys by renting a vacation home through their website. They have properties to suit any group size.
In terms of dining out and shopping, Rosemary now rivals Seaside. Founded in 1995, this 107-acre planned community is full of places to explore. The crystal blue water and white sand beaches are just the beginning of your vacation to this South Walton beach town.
What to Do: Shop for everything from swimsuits to artwork to kid’s toys. I loved wandering around The Hidden Lantern Bookstore, which has a great selection and cozy spaces to browse. Pamper yourself at Spa Pearl, which offers treatments like poolside manicures and pedicures.
Where to Eat: Head to Rosemary Beach for a meal as you’ll be spoiled for choice. Cowgirl Kitchen has an outpost here, which is great for breakfast. Summer Kitchen Café was the first business opened in Rosemary and has been a favorite since 1999 for Southern coastal cuisine. Havana Beach Bar & Grill is The Pearl’s rooftop bar and restaurant that takes inspiration from Hemingway’s Havana. For something a little more upscale, head to Edward’s Fine Food And Wine, which also has live music nightly. Restaurant Paradis is a cozy fine dining restaurant that offers Gulf seafood and quality steaks. Grab dessert and a nightcap at La Crema Tapas & Chocolate, which serves fondue and Spanish style tapas.
Where to Stay: In addition to the vacation rentals, which you can book on their website, Rosemary has two hotel properties. The Pearl Hotel is Rosemary’s newest property and is already winning awards for its amenities and design. It has under 100 rooms, but is the perfect retreat for the discerning traveler. Rosemary Beach Inn is another small hotel that is European-inspired with 11 rooms.
Santa Rosa Beach and Seagrove
Santa Rosa was the perfect base for our visit as it’s a short drive or bike ride from all of these communities. The greater area has some unique finds, not to mention great coastal eateries. Seagrove has two rare coastal dune lakes, a state park, and some of the best beaches around.
What to Do: Eden Gardens State Park is a unique find in South Walton, home to a stunning mansion that looks right out of the Old South. Coffeen Nature Preserve features 200 acres of former military space now home to animal habitats. Drop in for a yoga class at Balance Health Studio or rent a bike or paddleboard from one of the many nearby locations. Visit the shops around Cowgirl Kitchen for coastal attire and home decor as well as the nearby art galleries.
Where to Eat: Cowgirl Kitchen‘s Seagrove location was a favorite of mine, especially for their strong coffee and pecan waffles. Donut Hut is another good place to start your day. Go for the fresh seafood at Stinky’s Fish Camp, but don’t let the name deter you and be prepared to wait for a table. Angelina’s Pizzeria & Pasta was one of my family’s regular go-to dinner spots during our vacations for their hearty portions. Santa Rosa is lucky to have not one, but two craft breweries. Grayton Beer Company‘s taproom serves their locally inspired brews while Idyll Hounds Brewing Company is a smaller operation nearby.
Where to Stay: Here you’ll find a large inventory of beach houses for rent, which you can find through the realty websites. This trip, we stayed at Beachside Villas in a 3 bedroom condo close to the beach. Lisbeth’s Bed and Breakfast offers uniquely decorated rooms with porch access. Fancy Camps is the area’s glamping pop-up camps at local state parks on specific dates. Enjoy all the amenities of Santa Rosa for less at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park RV Resort.
If these towns were people, Grayton Beach would be the blissed-out hippie. The town is older than many of the others and is small, but retains the vibe it has had since its founding.
What to Do: Catch a class at SoWal Pilates or go on a fishing charter with one of the many companies in town. Funky art galleries and shops also line the streets. Try scuba diving with a local outfitter or stand up paddleboarding.
Where to Eat: The Red Bar is one of the area’s most well-known restaurants, showcased on countless bumper stickers and t-shirts in a three state radius. Expect a menu that changes nightly, live music, and red lights. Don’t forget to bring cash. Chanticleer Eatery is covered in colorful artwork and serves up lunch and dinner to hungry locals at their off-the-beaten-path location. The Craft Bar is an outpost of the Florida gastropub serving burgers, flatbreads, and craft beer and cocktails.
Where to Stay: Like in the other beach communities, Grayton Beach has some rental homes.Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse features three buildings and 13 unique rooms, tucked away in a quiet courtyard. Some areas are even pet friendly! Grayton Beach State Park has cabins, RV sites, and tent campsites.
There’s never been a better time to start planning your own vacation to South Walton’s cutest beach towns. Get a jump start before spring is here!