SANTA ROSA BEACH
Founded in 1910, Santa Rosa Beach includes miles of sugar white sand beaches, thousands of acres of state forest preservation land, unique coastal dunes and coastal dune lakes, plus great restaurants, galleries, and shopping. This popular tourist destination welcomes families with its relaxed atmosphere and a boat load of activities.
Santa Rosa Beach is an eclectic group of neighborhoods nestled between the southern shores of Choctawhatchee Bay, known locally as Hogtown Bayou, and the Gulf of Mexico. SRB encompasses most of the western end of 30A and takes up a large part of South Walton County. The popular neighborhoods of Seaside, WaterColor, Grayton Beach, Dune Allen Beach, and Blue Mountain Beach are all actually a part of Santa Rosa Beach but these communities all have a personality and vibe uniquely their own.
Along the coast in SRB is Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. One of my favorite spots in the entire country and one of the best kept secrets in Florida. This gorgeous 1,640-acre park is home to three miles of pristine and isolated beaches, majestic sand dunes (some over 40 feet tall), three coastal dune lakes, wetlands, sand pine scrub, and long-leaf pine forests. The park is also home to some great fishing (don’t forget the permit) on either the freshwater coastal dune lakes or in the Gulf. Pompano, Redfish, Catfish, Spanish and King Mackerel are abundant. Plus, Topsail includes one of the best RV and cabin rental parks in the U.S. and over 13 miles of stunning trails that make it a dream for hikers and mountain bike enthusiasts alike.
Also in Santa Rosa Beach you will find several entrance points to Point Washington State Forest, a 15,000-acre preserve with hiking trails and access for bikes as well as vehicles. Put all of that together, along with quick access to Sandestin and Destin, and it is easy to see why Santa Rosa Beach consistently makes everyones list of Best Beach Towns in America!
DUNE ALLEN BEACH
Rare coastal dune lakes sit side by side with the Gulf of Mexico in Dune Allen. Oyster Lake and Stallworth Lake are the two local gems of this heavily residential area. Keep in mind that the 17 area coastal dune lakes along 30A are so rare that they are only found here and in Oregon, South Carolina, and remote areas of Africa and Australia.
The lakes are home to an abundance of rare wildlife, some of it so unique that it’s not found anywhere else in the world. Oyster Lake is actually shaped like an oyster shell and was once filled with oysters. Local Tip – The scenic walking bridge across the lakes is well known as a perfect spot for amazing photography.
Dune Allen has an unique mix of old and new Florida. Everything from simple older houses perched high on the sand dunes to modern multi-million dollar homes to golf properties at Santa Rosa Beach Golf Club. You will see a lot of old school, wooden beach houses with tin roofs that are a reminder of a simpler way of life, long before Scenic 30A was discovered and developed – and when Dune Allen was the vacation destination of choice for families all over the area.
Dune Allen boasts two of the best public beach access spots on the entire 30A corridor. Dune Allen Beach Access to the west (a great place to catch a sunset) and Ed Walline Park to the east, located where Highway 393 meets 30A and right across from the popular shopping and dining destination known as Gulf Place. Walline is ADA accessible, with a lot of parking, restrooms, picnic shelters, and an elevated viewing platform.
At the western end of Dune Allen is Stallworth Lake and the amazing Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. If you have read the section above then you know how much I love Topsail but, no matter where you hang out in Dune Allen Beach, you will absolutely have a great time!
BLUE MOUNTAIN BEACH
This small, unassuming stretch of paradise is named for the native Blue Lupine flowers that grow in the tall white sand dunes along the shore. That is the “Blue” part. The “Mountain” part is named for the fact that the highest elevation along the Gulf of Mexico is found here… a towering 64 feet above sea level!
Blue Mountain is home to three of our famed and rare coastal dune lakes, Little Redfish, Big Redfish, and Draper – all great for paddle boarding, fishing, kayaking, and of course stunning photography and sightseeing. There is public beach access at the end of Scenic Highway 83 and you also have access to Point Washington State Forest off of Highway 83 as well. Get off the road and venture into the amazing park. Not only will you find miles of hiking and off-roading trails but it is also home to Cypress swamps, towering forests of Longleaf Pines, large fields of wildflowers, and an assortment of amazing and unique wild life.
With an unofficial slogan of “Nice Dogs, Strange People,“ Grayton Beach is often referred to as the “Heart and Soul” of the South Walton area. Founded in the late 1800s, there is a fun, laid back, anything goes, undeniably cool vibe to this hip and funky old-fashioned Florida beach community.
Massive live oaks and southern pines line oyster-shell covered roads filled with a mix of historic cottages and modern homes often built in the same Old Florida style. Life moves pretty slow in Grayton and you often feel like not much has changed in this village since it was founded more than 100 years ago. Grayton Beach is a popular spot for locals to hang out and chill out. The town is part of the gorgeous Grayton Beach State Park and the ideal beach spot is where the fresh water of Western Lake mixes with the salt water of the Gulf. Life doesn’t get much better than hanging out here on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon! (it is the beach of choice for my son and I).
Funky shops, fun restaurants (of course you’ve heard of the famous Red Bar), local boutiques, and numerous galleries are also part of Grayton Beach allure. You will fit in perfectly anytime of the day or night in shorts and flip-flops. With everything from bonfires to beach parties, hiking to hammocks, and music to magnolias, there is a lot to love about Grayton. Its unique vibe and style may not let you leave… and you probably won’t want to!
One of my favorite areas on Scenic 30A mainly because of the architecture and ammenities, WaterColor is a hugely popular resort and beach town. that has something for everyone. The community is a 500-acre residential development situated just east of Grayton Beach State Park and Western Lake and it also wraps around the north side of “historic” Seaside and it is bordered by two state parks, Grayton Beach and Point Washington.
WaterColor is one of the planned “New Urban” communities that define so much of 30A. Beautiful homes stretch from the beach to the coastal forest and it is all anchored by a gorgeous town center and the highly acclaimed WaterColor Inn, Florida’s only four diamond AAA hotel.
The Town Center is a lively area that hosts all types of events from art shows, to wine tastings, to family fun. Here, you can rent a bike, visit a gallery, do some shopping, and sit down for dinner or lunch all in a few block radius. Inspired by homes and neighborhoods throughout the South, WaterColor is known for a very welcoming, easy going style. Covered porches, manicured lawns, tin roofs, rocking chairs, and tree-lined streets make you feel right at home in this piece of paradise.
While WaterColor is one of the most luxurious spots on Scenic 30A, it is also hugely popular with outdoor enthusiasts because of its close proximity to Western Lake, a landmark of South Walton county. The Western Lake Boathouse provides rentals of all kinds, or just a spot to take in the peaceful water. In addition to the Gulf and Western Lake, WaterColor has numerous parks, greenways, and nature trails. Plus the neighborhood extends north to Highway 395 and Watercolor Crossing, a popular and convenient shopping destination.
You know it, you love it, you’ve taken pictures of the iconic tower… this is where it all began!
Seaside is the place that started it all. The picturesque town hit the scene in the architectural world in a big way almost 40 years ago when Time Magazine said “developer Robert Davis achieved the most astonishing design achievement of its era!” The New Urbanism movement was launched here and the rest, as they say, is history. Seaside was the first town of its kind, creating the model for similar communities across America and the world. Newsweek Magainze even proclaimed “…with its cozy, narrow streets and its jumble of pastel-colored homes, Seaside is probably the most influential resort community since Versailles.”
Seaside, and its master plan, are home to nine differently styled beach pavilions, cobblestone streets, unique picket fences, and story book architecture where each home is named and unique. The neighborhood is specifically designed to encourage walking and bicycling and promotes a tight knit community experience. Every store, shop, restaurant, and business is easily accessible on foot or bike in just minutes.
If Seaside looks familiar it might be thanks to Hollywood. The town was home to Truman Burbank in the movie The Truman Show and it was filmed on location right here on 30A. And keeping with that theatrical experience is the REP Theatre. It is widely known as Northwest Florida’s premier professional theatre company and has built a stellar reputation attracting some of the best talent from around the country.
Seaside has a thriving central square with well known eateries, one-of-a-kind shops, an outdoor amphitheater, legendary Airstream food trailers (instead of food trucks), and even what locals affectionately call “the smallest post office in America!” Life in Seaside definitely feels like living on a movie set but it is all real and you will instantly see while it is such a special place… an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Seagrove Beach was one of the first “towns” on 30A… even before 30A actually existed. Early visitors, dating back to the 1940s, stayed in the original Seagrove Hotel and back then, the only way to reach Grayton Beach from Seagrove was by boat across Western Lake.
Seagrove Beach was named after the thick groves of oaks that still grow along the beach. There are also two coastal dune lakes nearby, Deer Lake and Eastern Lake. Deer Lake State Park is home to hundreds of acres of great hiking and biking trails and eleven distinct natural habitats. A long boardwalk spans the dunes, with access to one of the less crowded beaches on the Gulf.
Seagrove Beach still retains much of its old Florida charm. 70 years ago families started vacationing at Seagrove in old school cottages with sleeping porches and nature all around. Today, the third and fourth generations of many of those same families still call this spot their beach home. Keeping with great traditions, if you want killer seafood in a cool atmosphere, Seagrove Village Market Café (one of my fave lunch hang-outs) has been a South Walton institution since 1949. The popular spot (now in a new home at the original location) has been featured in Southern Living, Travel & Leisure, and Coastal Living magazines and the Café’s grouper sandwich was named one of the “100 Things You Must Eat Before You Die” by Garden & Gun magazine.
Seagrove Beach is a perfect spot right in the middle of everything… literally. Seaside, WaterColor and Grayton are just a couple of miles to the west and WaterSound, Seacrest, Alys Beach, and Rosemary Beach are just a few miles to the east. An old school favorite with lots of new urban appeal.
I like to call WaterSound the perfect mixture of luxury, style, and nature and it’s one of my favorite 30A communities to live and play.
The beautiful homes in this Scenic 30A community lend a little Cape Cod/Nantucket or even Lowcountry/Charleston style to the Emerald Coast. On the south side of 30A, the community features miles of pristine beach bordering Deer Lake State Park as well as dozens of boardwalks through the dunes and the coastal ecosystem which is home to beaches, woodlands, and wetlands.
WaterSound is actually a trio of New Urbanism enclaves including Origins at WaterSound, Watersound West Beach and the main destination, WaterSound Beach. The WaterSound Beach gated experience includes the exclusive WaterSound Beach Club with a 7,000 sf. zero-entry pool that mirrors the natural shape of the dune lakes found throughout the area. The club also features a full-service restaurant and exhibition kitchen, indoor and outdoor terrace dining, an open-air full-service bar, and shaded arbors. It is truly one of the most luxurious spots in all of South Walton.
Moving away from the gulf, the beach dunes give way to sandy pines and a stunning coastal dune lake known as Camp Creek. Just west of WaterSound Beach, near Deer Lake State Park, is WaterSound West Beach. In keeping with the same architectural spirit as its neighbor, WaterSound West is a quaint spot full of nautical influenced homes. This small coastal retreat has fewer than 200 houses surrounded by beautifully crafted boardwalks, lush green parks, winding trails, and natural areas… and it’s an easy walk to the beach. Also located between the two WaterSound communities is the popular eating and shopping spot known as The Hub.
North of Highway 98, and backing to Lake Powell, is the third stop in the WaterSound Trio, WaterSound Origins. A new and quickly growing community sitting perfectly next to the sprawling Point Washington State Park.
If you are a golfer, WaterSound may just be your personal slice (pun intended) of paradise on 30A. The community, and the St. Joe Club, also has access to three golf courses, including the Tom Fazio designed Camp Creek Golf Club, the Greg Norman designed Sharks Tooth Golf Club, and the Davis Love III designed Origins course.
Need a pool? Seacrest has one, and it’s a HUGE one! The main amenity for residents of this fun community is the 12,000 sf. lagoon pool built on multiple different levels and nestled in the gorgeous Seacrest residential community. But Seacrest is much more that just aquamarine fun.
One of Scenic Highway 30A’s newest (founded in 2004) and most visually striking communities is Alys Beach. You can’t miss the towering palms and stunning architecture influenced by the brilliant white traditional homes of Bermuda. Ultimately, the 160 acre resort town will be twice the size of nearby Seaside and will consist of almost 1000 custom villas and courtyard homes.
As you enter Alys Beach, the first thing you’ll notice are the white “butteries” that stand towering at the property’s edge. Before refrigeration and pre-made ice, homeowners in Bermuda’s hot climate often maintained butteries, which were unattached minaret shaped buildings designed to make, store, and preserve butter, milk, and other perishable foods. (Now you know the story behind the towers you have been photographing!) But the four butteries perched along 30A in Alys Beach hold something quite a bit different, sixteen unique mosaic murals depicting scenes of the region’s history and heritage.
The community also features an amphitheater, the Alys Shoppe, neighborhood parks, tennis courts, and Caliza – one of the most elegant swimming pools and unique restaurants in the world. Caliza’s dramatic design, by town architects Erik Vogt and Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, features a 50 x 100 foot saltwater pool as well as large family and lap pools, and fantastic secluded outdoor living areas flanked with tropical palms and gardens. It is all housed in stunning alfresco architecture featuring arched colonnades, private cabanas, and bubbling fountains. And if that wasn’t enough, don’t forget the wonderful restaurant.
In addition to the beautiful Gulf backdrop, Alys Beach boasts an array of sites for nature lovers to enjoy. Lake Marilyn, and it’s towered bridge, is tucked into the back of the community along side pine forests and whitewashed houses, and the nature trail through 22 acres of preserve feels miles away from the beach. Alys Beach is truly one of the most unique and stylish places you will ever visit or call home!
Did you take a wrong turn and end up in the Dutch West Indies? Rosemary Beach is a visually stunning community that brings a very unique style to the eastern end of Scenic 30A and South Walton. Another of the “New Urban” towns in our corner of paradise, Rosemary Beach was founded in 1995 and its name comes from the local Rosemary plants which grow among the sand dunes and trails in South Walton
The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village! Yep, that’s what they call it and it truly is a world class fishing destination. But it is also so much more.
Destin is just west of the famous SoWal beaches and has long been the center of the Emerald Coast. Located midway between Pensacola and Panama City Beach, Destin is a vibrant, exciting, year-round community with unmatched access to the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. Its roots as a fishing village go back more than 150 years. The town’s namesake, Leonard Destin, was a fisherman from Connecticut who stumbled upon the area during a trip in the Gulf. He found the harbor inviting, and the fish plentiful, and ended up settling there with his family. His descendants still live in Destin today
Obviously water plays a major role in the Destin lifestyle. The Gulf of Mexico and nearly seven miles of gorgeous sand beaches border the city on the south side and to the north is the large Choctawhatchee Bay. Because the city is nestled on the East Pass, the Bay’s main connection to the Gulf, it’s an ideal spot for boating, fishing, kayaking, and beach combing. A hotspot for both locals and visitors is Crab Island, a shallow sandbar inside the East Pass where people on boats, tubes, kayaks and paddleboards enjoy playing in the water and on the white sandy bottom.
Destin is known for its wide range of restaurants that showcase the best gulf seafood. HarborWalk Village is a major attraction with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes overlooking the boats and the popular boardwalk. Henderson Beach State Park, with over a mile of beach access, is another great way to explore the beauty and fun in Destin. Almost 20,000 people now call Destin home year round but that numbers easily doubles “in season.”
PANAMA CITY BEACH
A long time, very popular vacation (and let’s admit it, party) destination on the Northwest Florida gulf coast, Panama City Beach is not just for spring breakers anymore. PCB has a wealth of activities, attractions, and housing options set against 27 miles of white sand and shimmering gulf waters. The eastern edge of PCB begins with the thriving Pier Park development and its huge array of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. High rise condos line the coast with amazing views and a world of amenities.. Numerous residential neighborhoods offer a great break from the hustle and bustle of the beach, and the public Frank Brown Park features over 200 acres of recreational fun. Also, St. Andrews State Park is located along the far eastern border of PCB and is hugely popular for camping, hiking trails, a boat ramp, and beautiful beach access.
As you move west toward Scenic 30A and South Walton, fabulous new beach cottages are intermingled with high-rise condominiums. The western edge of Panama City Beach is home to Camp Helen State Park, a breathtaking piece of Old Florida reaching across Lake Powell. The area also includes the upscale communities of Carillon Beach and Wild Heron, the latter being a private gated community built around the award winning Shark’s Tooth Golf Club.
Panama City Beach is bustling with activity, offering a fun and busy contrast to the quieter beaches further west. It is often called the “Wreck Capital of the South” for its many shipwrecks so, it’s no surprise that scuba diving is a popular pastime in the area, as is sport fishing. The famous pier is another great spot for fishing and even more so for sunsets. Make no mistake, this is not the PCB you knew in college!
Never heard of it, right? Well you might want to check it out… you could be missing a great little secluded spot with a lot to offer.
The historic community of Point Washington (known as “where the locals live”) is located along the banks of the beautiful Choctawhatchee Bay and just north of the eastern edge of the Scenic 30A beach communities of Grayton Beach, WaterColor, Seaside, and Seagrove. This peaceful area is characterized by Spanish-moss draped oaks and is made up of quiet residential neighborhoods, state forest land, amazing outdoor wilderness areas, and the historic Bay Elementary School. At the heart of Point Washington is Eden Gardens State Park, a charming 163 acre park with gardens, walking trails, bay access, and the beautiful Wesley House – a historic plantation and mansion built in 1897.
All of this plus affordable homes nestled in the heart of Point Washington State Forest and on the banks of the beautiful bay, just 15 minutes from the beach. Told you it was a sweet spot!
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