There are public beaches in Santa Rosa Beach with free parking, along with bike paths and plenty of street-ready golf carts available for rent. Picking up dinner …
A few months ago, I thought “30A” was a window seat assigned in the economy section of the airplane. And — it is. But, it is also a collection of small, unique, beautiful Florida beach towns nestled between the much busier areas of Panama City and Destin along County Road 30A.
Here you’ll find the beach communities of Rosemary Beach, Seaside and Santa Rosa, to name a few. What you won’t find in 30A are tourist traps, big hotels, massive condo units or really chains of any kind. Instead, you’ll find a much quieter approach to beach life with more families than college kids, more local shops with cult-like followings and all the shrimp, grits and Emerald Coast views your stomach and soul could possibly want.
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While you may have never heard of 30A until now, those that have been once often return year after year. You’ll find loyal 30A visitors from Georgia, Tennessee and from across the Southeast. And while this Texan is still a 30A newbie after my one-week visit, I’ve learned enough to be actively planning my own return trip. It’s that good.
So whether you’ve heard talk of 30A for years, or just heard that strange-sounding phrase for the very first time, here’s what you need to know to plan your first trip to this breathtaking portion of Florida’s Emerald Coast.
Where is 30A
The 30A name comes from an actual road in South Walton County (County Road 30A) that spans roughly 20 miles along the Florida Panhandle coastline. The area can be found in the middle of the stretch between Destin and Panama City.
The closest airport is Panama City — Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), which is 35 miles from Seaside in the 30A area. It’s a small, but modern airport that is easy for getting in and out without a lot of hassle.
However, the Destin – Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) is another very viable option, as is the slightly further afield Pensacola International Airport (PNS). But regardless of which airport you choose, you’re likely going to want to rent a car so you can explore the area at your own leisure.
Related: Tips for visiting Destin
The beach communities of 30A
From west to east along the road 30A, you’ll find Dune Allen Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside, Seagrove Beach, WaterSound Beach, Seacrest Beach, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach and Inlet Beach. Some also consider Carillon Beach, which is technically just off U.S. 98 an honorary member of 30A. I’ve also seen Sandestin and others included in the line-up, so what is considering 30A may depend a bit on who you ask.
But aside from a specific line-up of town names, here’s the very important thing to know about 30A — these communities all have their own very strong personalities.
And it seems to be common to prefer one over the others. I heard (many times) things like, “My family only goes to Watercolor.” Or, “Rosemary Beach is by far the best part of 30A.” Every area has its own evangelists and there is sometimes only a few hundred yards separating one little community from the next. So while you aren’t talking about extremely distinct geographical areas in many cases, you are absolutely dealing with different vibes, layouts, architecture and price points.
Related: Best beaches in Florida
Where to go in 30A
While it’s not a big area, there are many layers and nuances to 30A. Here’s a stab at what a few of the communities within 30A are like for those planning a first trip.
This is a laid-back, golf cart-friendly, more architecturally diverse part of 30A. You’ll see fancy four-story homes and smaller A-frame style beach houses all on the same street.
There are public beaches in Santa Rosa with free parking, along with bike paths and plenty of street-ready golf carts available for rent.
You’ll find plenty of houses to rent in Santa Rosa on sites ranging from VRBO to Marriott Homes & Villas. For us, it served as a very easy entry point to vacations in 30A.
Some good places to eat in Santa Rosa include Goatfeathers (which also has a to-go seafood market), Local Catch and Cafe Tango. Cafe Tango is even offering small group catering and family-sized meals to go, which can be really handy when you just don’t feel like cooking for your crew but don’t want to dine in a restaurant.
Related: Best Airbnb home rentals in Florida
One of the oldest communities in the area, Grayton Beach has been attracting vacationers from the inland towns of Northwest Florida and Alabama for more than 100 years. I’ve heard Grayton Beach be described as the soul of 30A, a “crunchy” town or even a “funky little beach town full of free-spirited folks.”
In Grayton, you’ll find hand-painted peace signs along the streets and a prominently placed VW van. You’ll also find Red Bar — which is an insanely popular institution. Unfortunately, the original Red Bar burned down in 2019. However, it has been reborn in the same spot and reopened in summer 2020.
While there’s obviously drinks and music here, don’t skip a meal. The crab cakes (available on Friday and Saturday) are popular, and I can personally vouch for the Shrimp Po Boy that we ordered to-go (you know, it being a pandemic and all).
Here you’ll find Grayton Beach State Park along with cabins within the state park that are relatively basic, but also more affordable than many area lodging options starting at just $110 per night.
Related: Best state parks in Florida
Ever seen “The Truman Show”? If you have, you’ve seen at least some of Seaside. It’s a picturesque town so well-planned and photogenic it may seem fake … which made it perfect for that film.
But, it’s not fake and while it is perhaps slightly more upscale than Santa Rosa, it’s still pretty approachable and extremely walkable, though you’re going to have to pay for a cabana/beach chairs to access the main beach area.
Even if you don’t actually visit the beach here, airstream trailers are serving the role of food trucks, and plenty of places to sit outside and enjoy your food. But come with a fully charged smartphone as several of these trucks require you to order and pay on your phone.
You also may have to wait to get into the shops as distancing and masks in the stores is enforced here much more than in some other parts of 30A.
We very much enjoyed an outdoor meal at 45 Central Wine & Sushi Bar. Do not miss the fig and prosciutto naan — the poke bowl was also worth writing home about.
Bud & Alley’s Taco Bar was also pretty good. Other popular options in the are The Meltdown on 30A (think grilled cheese Heaven) and Shrimp Shack.
My friend let me work for a few hours from her two-bedroom cottage on Tupelo Street, right across from where Jim Carrey went around and around the gazebo. And if it’s representative of the houses for rent in the area, you are in for a treat if you stay in Seaside.
Related: The 9 foods in Florida you have to try
Alys Beach is … fascinating.
I can all but guarantee if you aren’t familiar with the area, that you’d never guess Alys was located in the Florida Panhandle. Alys is a secret hidden in plain sight. In fact, whether by design or coincidence, even the pronunciation of the name will give away whether you’ve actually been there or not as Alys is actually pronounced Alice.
Here the buildings are all white and the Alys Beach website states that the area has, “… its foundation in Moorish and Mediterranean flairs, with architectural styles founded in the beauty of Bermuda, and with courtyards inspired by homes in Antigua, Guatemala.”
I’d throw in some nods to Mykonos, Turkey, Portugal and basically everywhere else in the world that’s beautiful and exotic. And while you can — and should — walk around Alys Beach and explore, it has a very “members only” vibe. You aren’t getting on that beach if you aren’t a resident or guest and the area was wildly devoid of people just milling about.
If you are hungry while in Alys, George’s is open for lunch and dinner and gets high marks. Even Charlie’s Donut Truck in Alys gets positive reviews. (We didn’t get to visit Charlie’s yet, but while we are on the topic, my favorite donuts in the area were from Donut Hut near Seaside.)
Rental cottages in Alys are insanely beautiful, but also start at around $1,000 per night and go up from there. On the plus side, your Instagram feed (and maybe even the next issue of Architectural Digest) will thank you for the photos you capture while in Alys.
Rosemary Beach is like a mixture of Seaside and Alys. It’s even listed as one of the best places to visit in the U.S. in TPG’s own round-up.
It’s beautiful, to say the least, but not quite as starkly uniform as Alys. It has a bit more visible life and diversity mixed into the Forest Gump-esque tree-lined, cobblestone streets. But here you won’t find the golf carts that are omnipresent in Santa Rosa — though you will see bajillions of bicycles, so drive slowly when coming into town.
While there are charming restaurants and shops up and down the streets of Rosemary Beach, the actual beach here seems to be one where you pretty much need a beach rental chair that lines the sandy shores.
Related: The best Florida vacation destinations for each type of traveler
Where to stay in 30A
Most of the lodging in 30A consists of home and cottage rentals. Some of the rentals are available via a nationwide vacation home rental site, and some are managed by local companies that have mini-monopolies in their area. For example, good luck finding an Alys Beach cottage on Airbnb, you’re probably going to have to book direct.
In Seaside, those charming cottages on tree-lined streets around Tupelo would be hard to beat as long as you don’t need front-row ocean views.
But regardless of how you book, a home rental in the area really is a great option — especially during COVID when having your own space and kitchen is at a premium.
Related: How to book a home rental using points
We had a private pool at our Santa Rosa home rental booked via Marriott, and that was a great amenity to add to the nearby public beach. That five-bedroom home could easily be shared between two or three families, starts at about $400 per night in the offseason months and then goes to around three times that amount per night during the peak season. Spring break and summer break rates in 30A will be double or triple the offseason rates. (Here’s the link to our specific home rental.)
There are resorts in the area, such as the Watercolor Inn, with standard rooms starting at $400 to $600 in peak summer season and $200 to $300 per night in the cooler offseason months. While you can’t use traditional hotel points at this resort, you can book via Chase using your Ultimate Rewards points at a value of up to 1.5 cents each if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
If you want to use your traditional hotel points, you’re pretty much out of luck in the heart of 30A as chains aren’t really welcome. However, you can stay pretty close.
There is a Hilton Sandestin bookable for 50,000 – 70,000 Hilton points per night. While not technically on 30A, this property is only about eight miles from Santa Rosa.
Also in Sandestin, you’ll find a Residence Inn and Courtyard bookable with Marriott points at the Marriott Category 4 and 5 award levels.
But, if you are looking to redeem a stash of Marriott points, there really are several lovely Marriott home rentals sprinkled about the area if you want to go that route. (Here’s the exact home we booked via Marriott.)
Related: Best Florida hotels
Far more travelers have heard of Destin and Panama City than the 30A area sprinkled between those two tourism juggernauts. And I’m not here to knock Destin or Panama City, as they also offer beautiful white sugar sand and captivating blue-green water. However, I like my vacations a bit slower-paced and more laid-back than what those two well-known beach towns can offer.
For us, 30A was a shocking, wonderful Floridian surprise.
It was the easy-to-access domestic beach getaway I didn’t know much we needed until we found it. And while I vacation in Florida frequently, and have stayed in places such as Gulf Shores, Pensacola and Destin, I’d never heard of 30A until this year.
Since this is 2020, know that mask-wearing was spotty across the region. However, many of the restaurants were already made for outdoor dining and others have developed solid to-go procedures so you can create your own distancing bubble. Bikes and golf carts are normal modes of transportation in the various communities (though some have banned golf carts), so there’s plenty of opportunities for open-aired fun while getting around.
Public beach access varies from community to community but was easy and free in Santa Rosa where we stayed. In fact, Santa Rosa may be a great entry point into vacation life in 30A.
Having taken beach vacations (thanks to points and miles) in destinations ranging from French Polynesia to the Maldives, Hawaii and the Caribbean, I feel confident in saying that the beaches in 30A stack up to those big names quite nicely. The beaches of the Emerald Coast are beautiful, special and worth visiting at least once.
Of course, as the regulars already know, once you visit once, you’re probably coming back.
Featured image by author