A Less-Traveled Highway 30A
by Marla Norman
For decades, the Florida Panhandle was the South’s best kept secret. An easy drive from Alabama, Georgia or pretty much anywhere in the Southeast, the Panhandle’s powdery-white Gulf Coast beaches provided the vacation of choice for many Southerners — so much so, that the area was famously nicknamed “The Redneck Riviera.”
These days, however, both Panhandle visitors and full-time residents are just as likely to have come from Chicago as Birmingham. In particular, Destin and the 30A beach villages, from Watercolor and Seaside to Rosemary Beach, have become ground central for a massive influx of tourists and new homeowners. The South’s secret vacation paradise is now an international destination.
Highway 30A, once cherished for its cute cottages, funky shacks and laid-back style, is often clogged with traffic, golf carts, bicycles and anything on wheels. Long lines of swimsuit-clad, umbrella toting families parade to beaches each morning and return en masse by evening. Hour-long waits are typical at diners that used to be quick roadside stops.
Fortunately, the natural beauty that drew visitors to the area to begin with is still abundant. You just have to work a little harder to enjoy it.
FLORIDA’S COASTAL TREASURE
Beyond the spectacular beaches and dazzling emerald-cyan water, 30A offers an astonishing number of rare geological features. Most unusual are the area’s 15 dune lakes. A mix of fresh and salt water, these lakes are among the most intriguing places in Florida.
The beach sand itself is another geological wonder. For centuries, fine powder quartz from the Appalachian Mountains was carried downstream to the Panhandle coast. The result is an incredibly white, fine, powdery sand — like acres of sifted flour.
Also noteworthy are the Longleaf Pine Forests along 30A. These remarkable pines once stretched across the South, nearly unbroken, from Virginia to Texas. Today, almost nothing remains but for Point Washington State Forest, just off 30A. Some 300 bird and 2,500 plant species can be found in the forest as well.
The beaches along 30A are home to two endangered sea turtles: Green Sea Turtles and Loggerheads. In the late spring, female sea turtles lay eggs, which hatch in late summer to early fall. Another endangered species that nourishes in the area are Blue Lupines, whose purplish-blue blossoms emit a lavender scent.
All these coastal treasures are easily accessible. Over 200 miles of hiking and biking trails extend throughout the forests and nature areas. And the earlier in the day you arrive the better!
As you head east on 30A, off US 98, you’ve driving just on the edge of Topsail Hill Preserve. With 1,600 acres of stunning bald cypress swamps, 25-foot high sand dunes and three coastal dune lakes, Topsail is one of the most pristine pieces of coastal property in Florida. The park is open from 8:00 a.m. to sundown, every day of the year.
Escape the crowds on 30A along one of the many hiking trails within the park. Maps are available at the Ranger Station. If you tire of walking, there’s even a tram that goes back and forth to the beach.
At its “summit” of 56 feet, Blue Mountain is the highest point along 30A. Visitors from mountainous regions might not be impressed, but views from Blue Mountain are especially panoramic. Communities from Destin to Panama City can be easily seen from the high beach dunes. Blue Mountain also draws its name from the Lupine flowers that are prolific here — one of several endangered species that are protected along 30A
Savor the views over a cup of coffee at Blue Mountain Bakery. Freshly baked cinnamon rolls, frittatas and quiches make for tasty accompaniments.
Mountain biking on Blue Mountain seems like a natural. Big Daddy’s Bike Shop rents any type of bike you could possibly imagine: road bikes, tandems, beach cruisers, kids bikes and — of course — mountain bikes. Numerous accessories are also available. Be sure to first call in or order online. Free deliver and pickup are also available.
The oldest community along 30A, Grayton Beach, recently celebrated its 130th birthday. The village is named for the area’s first settler, Major Charles Gray. By early 1915, rental cottages began to multiply and Grayton was promoted as a vacation spot.
In the late 1960’s – as the “Summer of Love” spread from Woodstock to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and beyond — Grayton Beach became a destination for free-spirited Hippies. Their laidback lifestyle continues today, in spite of the growing number of visitors. The community still proudly displays their “Nice Dogs, Friendly Folks” sign and, although there are many signs of gentrification, the old bungalows continue to be treasured.
The largest of the 30A dune lakes is located in Grayton Beach State Park. Western Lake covers over 100 acres and is surrounded by towering sand dunes and salt marsh. A kayaker’s paradise, the lake also has a boat ramp. Yellowfin Ocean Sports provides kayak and paddle board rentals at three locations along or near 30A. There, you can also stock up on fishing gear and purchase a license.
Or you could also hike the one-mile nature trail that begins near the beach parking area and winds through sand dunes and pine flat wood. Brochures with trail guides are available at the park entrance.
Ready for a break? One of the most beloved restaurants on 30A — or North Florida for that matter — is The Red Bar. You will absolutely NOT avoid the crowds here. Owner Olivier Petit and his staff serve lunch, dinner and great jazz to hundreds of devoted fans every day of the week. The crab cakes and Key Lime Pie are scrumptious — well worth the wait.
If you’re visiting for the first time, take a deep breath before walking in — and encountering floor to ceiling decorations, posters, chandeliers and tons of crazy-cute bric-a-brac. The Red Bar is deliciously at home in whimsical, free-spirited Grayton Beach!
Created in the early 1980’s as one of the country’s first New Urbanist developments, Seaside has won any number of prestigious architectural awards. All pastel perfection, the community looks as if it fell from the pages of a storybook. The New York Times once called the village a “self-contained never-never land,” but hastened to add “that’s part of its charm.” (NY Times)
These days, Seaside’s irresistible charms seem to have generated the worst portion of 30A’s traffic gridlock. Cars inch along as pedestrians, skateboarders and bicyclists zip in between. Grab the first parking spot and escape to the inner calm of Sundog Books. The shop provides an outstanding selection of titles by local authors, trail books, magazines and bestsellers. Upstairs is Central Square Records, a vinyl record shop — perfect for shutting out the noise on the streets below.
Next door to Sundog Books is Modica Market, where you’ll find excellent gourmet and specialty items, along with sandwiches, deli meats, cheese and wine. Pick up a few goodies and find a shady spot to picnic in Ruskin Place, just behind the village center. You can also call in orders for pick-up or delivery.
With its enchanting old beach houses and thick groves of oaks and pines, Seagrove feels much like Grayton Beach. Turn off at Bramble Grove road and enjoy a tranquil side of 30A at Santa Clara Regional Beach Access.
If you’d like to picnic, select a few treats at Cowgirl Kitchen Market, where they specialize in “Kickback Cuisine.” Here you’ll find cheeses, sandwiches to order, specialty foods, craft beer and wine.
Hike the 15,000 acre Point Washington State Forest through Longleaf Pine flat woods. Imagine that these same pines once stretched from Virginia to Texas and now exist almost exclusively in Point Washington. Some of the other rare species that inhabit this forest include the American Kestrel and Gopher Tortoise. Mixed in with the Longleaf Pines is the world’s largest site of Curtis Sandgrass.
One of the most popular trails is the route from Eastern Lake to Cassine Garden. There you’ll walk through wet flat woods and cypress swamps. Six trails in all, ranging in length from two miles to almost seven, can be used to explore this truly unique forest.
On a first visit to Rosemary Beach, you might wonder if Pottery Barn has begun building homes. Created by the same architectural group that designed Seaside, Rosemary Beach also embodies the New Urbanism philosophy. The town center is postcard perfection, with a Dutch West Indies-themed Town Hall that looks as if it was plucked out of a travel brochure.
The best way to experience Rosemary Beach is on foot — particularly since walkability is one of the major tenets of New Urban design. Park near the aforementioned Town Hall and cross 30A — the highway runs right through the middle of the community. Stroll through the cute French-Quarter-styled downtown on Barrett Square.
Continue your wander down through Barrett Square. Stop in at The Hidden Lantern Bookstore, where you’ll find over 10,000 titles lovingly arranged on beautiful hardwood shelves. The shop also includes an impressive gallery of local and regional artists. Next, pop over to Charlie’s Café for a freshly brewed cup of coffee, tasty smoothies, sandwiches or their specialty Rosemary Cobb Salad.
Follow Georgetown Avenue until you reach Saint Augustine Park, one of the many Pocket Parks in the village. You can then head back toward 30A on East Water St. or roam to your heart’s content and enjoy the architecture.
Back on the southern side of 30A, take any one of nine dune walkovers to the beach and loll in the sand, or if you still have energy, rent a bike from Bamboo Bicycle Company and tour Rosemary a bit more.
Cap off your visit at The Pearl Hotel’s rooftop lounge or try out the terrace of their Havana Beach Restaurant. Sample a couple of the house specialty cocktails: “Rosemary Punch” (Junipero Gin, Le Grand Saint Sparkling Vodka & Watermelon Water) or “Stranded” (Paul Chenau Brut, Tequila & Prickly Pear Purée.) Linger on and order dinner. Options include Blackened Grouper, Wagyu Beef Burgers and authentic Cuban pressed sandwiches.
For a more intimate dinner, head back up 30A towards Blue Mountain. There you’ll find tiny Café Tango, serving European-inspired fare to a few very lucky diners. Needless to say, reservations are essential.
If you’re ready to rejoin the throngs of celebratory diners, grab a table and artisan brew at Grayton Beer Brewpub or select a glass of wine and cheese plate from The Wine Bar at Watercolor. With literally hundreds of different labels to choose from, you’re guaranteed to find a vintage you’ll love. Then sit and sip on the long, cool terrace and watch the world go by on 30A.
One last tip: At the end of the day — either solo or with a group — the best scene on 30A is the nightly light show over the Gulf. Find a beachside seat and watch the colors unfold. Return the following night for a completely different masterpiece.