The secret is out—South Walton’s 16 beach towns are Florida’s next hot spot.
Not far from Panama City Beach, and yet a world away, is Florida’s big secret. The one some locals don’t want you to discover. This cherished spot is South Walton, a coastal county with the whitest powdery sand and sparkliest emerald waters in all of Florida—and along it, 16 beach communities with their own personalities. Collectively, they offer what no other Florida beach does: a unique mix of Southern charm, unspoiled nature, and small, carefully crafted communities where you can walk or bike everywhere.
Better known to locals as 30A for the Scenic Highway connecting most of the towns, the area has been a regional favorite since the towns were planned about 30 years ago. Now, direct flights from Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, and New York between the two regional airports Destin Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) and Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), have made it easier to access—and have opened the Gulf to a whole new world of travelers.
Thankfully, South Walton should stay small, due to rules that prohibit buildings over four stories, or building on the 40 percent of land designated as nature reserves here. Big-name beaches on either side of South Walton—Destin and Panama City Beach—also draw the rowdier crowds away.
The only question is: which town fits your beach vibe? From the luxurious Alys Beach to the bohemian Grayton Beach, here’s a guide to South Walton’s 16 communities, whether you want to relax in one town or hop through a few.
For Modern Luxury
WHERE: Alys Beach
Striking all-white buildings, rows of palms, and secluded courtyards are signatures of this ultra-luxurious community, the most upscale (and, we think, aesthetically pleasing) of the South Walton towns. Streets like “Sea Foam Alley” and “Nonesuch Way” hideaway high-end boutiques, a stunning pool, a wellness center, and a new beach club for owners that will open in 2020. Everything is in place, everything is brand new, and the multi-million-dollar homes are Architectural Digest-worthy. Only 20 percent of the properties are rented out to travelers (the rest are residences), making a visit feel all the more exclusive, like you’re a neighbor and not a visitor.
Where to Stay: Gawk over the vacation homes at Alys Beach Vacation Rentals. You’ll never want to vacation anywhere else.
INSIDER TIPGo to Alys during one of its signature social events: In October, the Oktoberfest-like Firkin Fête draws local breweries and live music, and in May, Digital Graffiti features artists who use the white buildings as a blank canvas for their colorful, illuminated projections.
This All-American small town was planned to be picture-perfect—pastel homes, a classic post office, a community park, and all. So perfect, in fact, Seaside was the setting for the film The Truman Show in which—spoiler alert!—Jim Carrey slowly realizes he’s the subject of a reality TV show. The film put South Walton on the map not long after it was first built in the ’80s and showcased the “New Urbanist” architecture made popular here (meaning, the style of building community-driven, walkable towns). It’s no wonder families love to bike along Seaside’s winding pathways and grab ice cream at little shops right off the beach.
Where to Eat and Drink: Bud and Alley’s laidback rooftop bar is perfect for sipping a 30A Beach Blonde Ale and watching the sunset over the emerald water.
Where to Stay: Going through Cottage Rental Agency is the best way to rent a vacation home here.
For Outdoor Lovers
Similar to Seaside, and just a minute away by bike, WaterColor has the same sense of strong-knit community, but even more outdoor activities. Try stand up paddleboarding at The Boathouse –you’ll paddle past lily pads and pine trees before you see something very rare: coastal dune lakes. They’re only found in a few other places in the world, including New Zealand. There are also ample nature trails and butterflies to be seen at Cerulean Park. If you’re not an outdoor-lover, you’ll still find plenty to do, including the Harvest Food and Wine Festival that draws foodies from all over each fall. It’s entirely possible to bike back and forth between WaterColor and Seaside.
Where to Eat and Drink: Laidback but elegant Fish Out of Water is the spot for views of the beach and Southern classics like pimento cheese, Sweet Tea chicken, and the area’s famous Gulf oysters.
Where to Stay: WaterColor Inn has gorgeous water views—even from your shower.
For Foodies and Romantics
WHERE: Rosemary Beach
Rosemary Beach, another of the planned New Urbanist towns of South Walton, is reminiscent of a coastal European village, or perhaps a clean French Quarter of New Orleans. Either way, the architecture is award-winning and highly photogenic. Pop into high-end boutiques before grabbing a spot on the water, or head to several art galleries and the finest restaurants in the area. It’s all very luxurious and romantic.
Where to Eat and Drink: Try Restaurant Paradis for local grouper or shrimp and lobster linguini.
For Bohemian Spirit
WHERE: Grayton Beach
The most down-to-earth of the beach towns, Grayton Beach existed before the New Urbanist towns were built—so there’s nothing planned about it. Old Florida homes are tucked away behind scraggly trees, and top attractions include art galleries, lively bars, and plenty of natural beauty. At Grayton Beach State Park, you can climb sandy trails or paddleboard past coastal dune lakes to see how Florida was before it was ever developed. Or, check out the new Underwater Museum of Art offshore, where you can scuba dive past sculptures of a pineapple, a skull, and a deer along with the marine life swimming by. At night, head to one of the laidback bars for live music. Local institution Red Bar will be rebuilt here after burning down in 2018, but in the meantime, you can find the same vibes at AJ’s and Grayton Beer Company tap-room.
Where to Stay: Get the real “Old Florida” experience by staying at Cabins at Grayton Beach State Park.
INSIDER TIPGrayton Beach‘s unofficial phrase is actually “nice dogs, strange people.” There’s even a wall outside Black Bear Bread Co. where you can have your dog’s portrait painted, with proceeds going to a local animal shelter.
For Going Off the Grid
WHERE: Seagrove, WaterSound, and Seacrest
These small Southern communities have no big hubs, few vacationers, and plenty of relaxing spots. Locally-loved Seagrove is the picture of Southern laidback luxury with its oaks and magnolias, boutiques, cafes, and a state park. Seacrest sandwiches Alys Beach on either side, so consider staying here if you want to bike through to see the spectacle of Alys without paying for it. And WaterSound, next door, is private and tucked away; its “Hub,” an outdoor music venue surrounded by casual food joints, is great for live music performances.
What to Eat and Drink: In Seagrove, try Surfing Deer, which has everything from red snapper to bao buns (and which was named after a resident’s pet deer, Bambi). Or, try Café Thirty-A—it’s a crowd-pleaser.
Where to Stay: On vacation rental site 360 Blue, you might stumble upon a dreamy Gulf-front home in Seagrove like the towering Chivallionaire, which sleeps up to 34 and has an elevator and private heated pool.
For Nature and Relaxation
WHERE: Inlet Beach and Dune Allen
While not next to each other geographically, these two towns mark the beginning and end of the Timpoochee Trail, where you can bike or walk through the area’s most stunning natural landscapes. Both are quiet neighborhoods that allow visitors to focus on nature. Inlet Beach is the closest community to Panama City Beach, but is much calmer and smaller. Besides being the shortest ride from the ECP airport, it’s also home to the largest beach access point on 30A. It’s a less showy vacation than that of neighboring Alys Beach, but it’s close to the action. Further west just after 30A ends, Dune Allen is all about nature. In addition to the trail, you can paddleboard three coastal dune lakes—rare bodies of water that are only found in a few places in the world.
What to Eat and Drink: The Donut Hole has everything from breakfast food to sandwiches for lunch, and yes, amazing donuts.
Where to Stay: Vacation properties, like the oceanfront 30A Peace of Paradise on Dune Allen Realty Vacation Rentals, are the way to go here.
For High Energy and Trusted Hotel Brands
WHERE: Miramar Beach, Sandestin, and Seascape
The three adjacent communities of Miramar Beach, Sandestin, and Seascape are outliers of South Walton, because unlike the other towns, they aren’t on Scenic Highway 30A. That means they’re a little bigger and bustling, but super family-friendly. They also have trusted hotel brand names you won’t find in the smaller planned communities. Bigger and more active with lots of facilities, they’re definitely the choice for golfers, tennis players, and social butterflies. Check out the village of Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin for restaurants, shops, and nightlife.
Where to Eat and Drink: Seascape’s The Village Door is a good choice for dancing and drinks.
Where to Stay: Affordable for the region, the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort and Spa offers Gulf views and all you’d expect from a trusted brand. If that’s not your thing, you’ll find a more sophisticated luxury option in Hotel Effie when it opens here in summer 2020.