The Panhandle Travel Guide

13 Quirky & Beautiful Road Trip Stops in Florida’s Most Underrated Destination

PHOTO: Visit South Walton

Start your engines: this is a tasty, quirky, and design-rich road trip.

Whatever you’ve heard about this stretch of the Florida Panhandle—the beaches of Walton County, 26 miles of coastline along Highway 30A—during the ‘80s or ‘90s (does “Redneck Riviera” or “Cracker Country” ring a bell?) is no longer. It’s been replaced with seaside chic: a collection of small towns along 30A, hugging the Gulf of Mexico’s emerald-green waters and white-sand beaches, bursting with colorful architecture and just enough eclecticism to not spill over into tacky territory. From munching on chocolate-dipped bacon to wandering gardens literally inspired by Claude Monet’s Giverny, not to mention glimpsing rainbow-hued cottages seen on the silver screen and diving the country’s first permanent underwater sculpture museum, here’s where to point the car in this trending section of Florida. And if you’re an architecture nerd, this is the country’s highest concentration of New Urbanism communities, an artful blending of live-work-play spaces that foster community through small yards, wide front porches, and shared sidewalks.

Here are 13 must-stops on your Highway 30A road trip.

Visit the Underwater Museum of Art

Where: Grayton Beach

If you like diving and art, the Underwater Museum of Art (the country’s first permanent underwater sculpture park) might be your utopia. It’s located just under a mile off the coast of Grayton Beach State Park in Grayton Beach, 58 feet below sea level. Note that you should be a certified diver before going under. Emerald Coast’s Scuba in nearby Destin hosts trips to the park, which may be your best—pardon the pun—to have a deeper experience.

Drool Over Rainbow-Colored Cottages

Where: Seaside

If Seaside’s streetscape looks familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it in the 1998 film “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey and designed to mimic a real-life television-filming set. Created in 1981, Seaside (pop. 12,000, over just 80 acres) is the first U.S. master-planned community to embrace New Urbanism. And, great news: these cute cottages aren’t just for sale, you can rent them by the night, via Airbnb or VRBO.

Visit South Walton

Eat at Airstream Row

Where: Seaside

Who doesn’t love Airstreams? And they are even more decadent when pimped out as a food truck, which is the tale of every single parked Airstream at Airstream Row in downtown Seaside, across 30A from the Gulf of Mexico. Eats sold include grilled-cheese sandwiches, sno-cones, hot dogs and crepes.

Rent a Beach Cruiser

Where: Rosemary Beach

A town named after an herb? We’re so in. Meet Rosemary Beach (pop. around 4,000), a successful follow-up sibling to Seaside when it was created in 1995. Its curvy Main Street emulates a seaside town in Italy, complete with chunky cobblestones, and if you adore home design you’ll seriously be gawking on your bicycle ride. Rent bikes from Bamboo Bicycle Company in Rosemary Beach.

Brake for Donuts

Where: Alys Beach

This town may be tiny—basically only a few blocks—but it’s one of the most intensely focused design areas in the country. White-washed buildings with hipped roofs paired with expansive courtyards seem more Bermudian than they do Florida. Take it all in over 1920s-style donuts (hand-rolled, dipped and filled; in flavors like red velvet cake and sprinkles) from Charlie’s Donuts’ converted Sunbeam bread truck, parked near the Alys Beach Amphitheatre beginning in the early morning and until they run out.

Pause for “Wine Hour”

Where: Alys Beach

Every road trip needs a happy-hour break but this one is a little more high-class. At NEAT—a bottle-shop-meets-tasting room for wine lovers—the menu expands to include cocktails with grin-worthy names (like M.C. Yammer) and artisan spirits, as well as snacks such as deviled eggs with smoked paprika and French macarons to snap with your phone before you eat. (Don’t worry, there are incredible mocktails for the designated drivers.) Cheeses stray from the typical (hello, Wisconsin and California!) for options from Georgia, Vermont, Italy, and France.

Grayton Beach Catering

Take a Walk Through Monet-Inspired Gardens

Where: Grayton Beach

This artful riff on French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, is a popular site for booking weddings. There’s a lily pond, fountains, gardens and more at the appropriately named Monet Monet. But you don’t have to be a wedding guest to experience it all. Keep an eye on the venue’s website for news of art shows and other events.

La Crema Tapas & Chocolate

Munch on Chocolate-Dipped Bacon

Where: Rosemary Beach

As its name suggests, La Crema Tapas & Chocolate is a spot to indulge in tapas. But it’s also a chocolate shop and one way the owners bridge the gap between tapas and chocolate is with chocolate-dipped bacon. What is this exactly? Imagine chilled Applewood smoked bacon smothered in dark chocolate.

Create Mosaic Art

Where: Grayton Beach

One way to commemorate a road trip is by acquiring art. Only instead of scooping up a piece that speaks to you in an art gallery, what if you made it yourself? At The Shard Shop, a DIY-art gallery, are scheduled classes that coach in how to take pieces of broken glass and turn them into masterpieces on canvas. Check out the shop’s website for news of class dates and times.

Visit South Walton

Experience Coastal-Dune Lakes

Where: Various locations

Found only in four countries, coastal dune lakes (formed by nature about 10,000 years ago when winds redistributed the sand to carve out shallow basins) are a rare-but-beautiful sight. In the U.S. these are located in this area of Florida (a total of 15) as well as in Oregon. (Curious where else in the world? Australia, New Zealand and Madagascar are the other three countries.) Consult this link for the exact locations of the 15 lakes in this area.

St. Joe Hospitality

Dine Like You’re in Havana

Where: Rosemary Beach

Every region has its love letter to a certain type of ethnic cuisine. At The Pearl, a boutique hotel in Rosemary Beach, this means Havana (just look for the black-and-white striped awnings out front). Plunk down at the El Floridita-inspired (this was Hemingway’s favorite restaurant in Old Havana) Havana Beach Bar & Grill, indoor restaurant or rooftop lounge—and enjoy dishes like “Hemingway’s Mariscos.”

Support Local Art

Where: Seaside

Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery is much more than your corner art gallery. It’s located in the former Ruskin Place Artist Colony, a gorgeous park setting. Artisan-made wares for sale include jewelry, straw purses, splashy-and-bold paintings inspired by the sea, and hand-painted cutting boards for the kitchen. All of the artists represented here are local.

Linger in a State Park

Where: Santa Rosa Beach

It’s not a proper road trip without a state-park visit, right? Eden Gardens State Park is a 163-acre spread that’s the former Wesley homestead. It’s also ideal if you just want to poke around but don’t want to commit to a strenuous or long hike. Anchored by the property’s two-story 1897 mansion—which offers guided tours and is loaded with antiques—on a pretty lake, you can also fish off the dock in Tucker Bayou, hop into a canoe or kayak, or enjoy a picnic.

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