Once dubbed the Redneck Riviera, this 28-mile stretch of Florida shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico is now clustered with hip beach towns sporting high design, fine dining, and—best of all—no crowds. Whether you lust after architecture (the region’s New Urbanism design, marked by walkable neighborhoods, inspires architects nationwide) or can’t get enough of fresh-catch seafood, say hello to this lesser-known corner of Florida. Pro tip: rent a two-wheeled beach cruiser to feel even more like a local as you zip past emerald-green waters (there’s a reason it’s called the Emerald Coast) and sugar-white sand. And bring comfortable shoes: this is a walkers’ paradise.
While two airports service the area, the smallest, newest, and most convenient is Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (airport code ECP) in Panama City. United, Delta, and Southwest all fly into this LEED-certified airport that opened in 2010 as the country’s first airport to earn the eco-friendly certification.
Arrive mid-day and check into your accommodations. The first thing you should do is lock in a bicycle rental (not difficult to do as there are more bike-rental places than gas stations along 30-A) as your main form of transportation this weekend. Sip a Hemingway cocktail and take in the sunset at the area’s only rooftop lounge—Havana Beach Rooftop Lounge at The Pearl Hotel in Rosemary Beach, open since the spring—overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Fire pits and hammocks help you ease into your vacation in this New Urbanism town that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The houses have all been built under tightly regulated design guidelines, creating a cohesive look of deep eaves, metal roofs, and high ceilings, all in nature-inspired hues or stark whites reminiscent of the West Indies. Multiple boardwalks lead to the beach.
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From casual to fancy, Downtown Rosemary Beach is filled with many dining options along Main Street. Save some of those for later and book a table at Havana Beach Bar & Grill—either the indoor dining room on the ground level or right where you already are, on the roof. Dishes span Spain, France, and Portugal—entrees include paella featuring Gulf shrimp and grouper with chorizo—culling from local farms whenever possible. Cap off your first meal with a Mojito trifle.
After a hearty breakfast at the super-cute Cowgirl Kitchen Market & Café in Seagrove Beach, where dishes highlight a Southern twist ( the “Heartache” features pimento cheese and praline bacon on a biscuit), try your hand at stand-up paddleboarding with YOLO Board + Bike in Santa Rosa Beach. You can rent by the hour or for a half day.
For lunch, head to Seaside, a New Urbanism community along the Gulf of Mexico made famous in the 1998 Jim Carrey film The Truman Show. The airstream trailers permanently parked on the Central Square are food trucks serving lunch bites like grilled-cheese sandwiches from The Meltdown to grass-fed hot dogs from Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs. Linger in Seaside a little bit longer: this was the town that, incorporated in 1981, spawned the rest of the region’s development over the past two decades. A farmers market on Saturday mornings is held behind food truck Raw & Juicy. Browse the stacks at Sundog Books and be sure to check out the record-shop upstairs, Central Square Records, also a fun place to pick up rock-themed gifts.
Burn off your lunch with a self-guided walking tour of Seaside’s brightly hued cottages that look like a movie set (which, of course, they once were). Next, head to nearby Deer Lake State Park for a hike on the boardwalk along coastal dunes and wind down with a glass of wine at the area’s newest wine bar, Neat in Alys Beach, another New Urbanism community where all of the buildings are white and inspired by Antigua, Guatemala, and Bermuda. In addition to sipping wine in the Tasting Room, you can pick up a bottle for later from its Bottle Shop.
Taste local oysters sourced from Apalachicola (named for the small town) at Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill in Grayton Beach. Happy Hour is from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily, folding in deals on oysters on the half shell. If you like shellfish, this is your place, with fresh-out-of-the-water oysters prepared several different ways: raw, grilled, steamed, and baked (nine options total, including Rockefeller). Depending on the time, catching the sunset from Grayton Beach State Park is a must.
Enjoy one of the few nightlife spots at The Red Bar, a locals’ institution in Grayton Beach with boho flair. Pay homage to another local business by ordering a cold brew from Grayton Beer Company. Live jazz performs most nights.
Get up early so you can snag some donuts from Charlie’s Donuts, a truck parked in Alys Beach. Donuts in decadent flavors like red velvet are only served until they run out.
Hit the local shops selling everything from beachy tunics to handmade soaps along Main Street in Rosemary Beach. Alys Beach’s Alys Shoppe is another great spot for picking up preppy beachwear (cue polos and fedoras for the guys and tasseled scarves for women). After spending time in these pedestrian-friendly beach towns, you might even feel inspired to pick up some home décor, like a throw pillow from Rosemary Beach Trading Company.
For lunch, dine outdoors at La Crema Tapas & Chocolate on Main Street in Rosemary Beach. Start with Serrano-wrapped figs and saffron scallops; end with chocolate-dipped bacon and chocolate molten cake.
Relieve yourself of any sunburn or sore muscles with a spa treatment at WaterColor Inn & Resort. Treatments inspired by nearby waters include Seascape Serenity, 80 minutes of pampering including a green-sea-algae body wrap. For your last dinner, get a window seat at Fish Out of Water, a fine-dining restaurant overlooking the beach at WaterColor Inn & Resort. From the ceviche to the key-lime pannacotta, Southern cooking techniques shine through with the help of local ingredients and the chefs’ whims.
WHERE TO STAY
The bulk of options are vacation and cottage rentals, but if you don’t want to cook your own meals, check into The Pearl Hotel in downtown Rosemary Beach, a block from the Gulf of Mexico and just south of 30-A. Behind its black-and-white striped awnings are a Havana-inspired eatery, rooftop pool, and spa. With just 55 rooms, it’s been open since 2013. The brightly hued WaterColor Inn & Resort in Santa Rosa Beach right on 30-A boasts a private beach, a pool overlooking the water, four dining options, and a spa.
Rosemary Beach Cottage Rental Company and Cottage Rental Agency in Seaside are a one-stop shop for finding a place to crash. You’ll have a full kitchen and an outdoor living space (either a porch or a courtyard), and be in close proximity to amenities, in keeping with the New Urbanism philosophy.
WHEN TO GO
Outside of holiday weekends, autumn is a great time to visit the region because many of the residents are second- or third-home owners now occupied with school activities in their primary city of residence. Temperatures tend to hover between the high 70s and mid-80s.
If you’re using Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, you’ll likely get routed through a hub city if you don’t already live in one. On United, flights go through Houston, while Delta’s connections are through Atlanta. Southwest utilizes Nashville and Houston. Four commercial airlines service Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (airport code VPS): American, United, Delta, and Allegiant. Cities that fly directly to VPS include New Orleans, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Charlotte, and Washington D.C.
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