Hidden 30A: A local’s tips on the best ways to sneak around the crowds

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If you’ve been craving some time on the Emerald Coast after a long, hard year, you are not alone. The little beach towns that dot Highway 30A in Santa Rosa Beach have been operating near 100% capacity all summer long, making most weekends feel like holiday crowds. As a full-time resident of South Walton, I have seen it firsthand.

RESTAURANTS GOING ‘THE DISTANCE’

Outdoor dining is the name of the game these days. Several local restaurants have taken extra measures to expand their outdoor seating — including adding tents in parking lots. Remember to make reservations if possible, but to always call and cancel if you can’t make it.

Redds Fueling Station www.reddsbar.com  850-325-0252 Best made from scratch dining on 30A – from 20 hour slow cooked brisket to BBQ Ribs and Tacos. Jalapeno Burgers are a favorite and will be yours too. Experience the Singing Bartender on the nights with a T – Tuesday Thursday Saturday

After spring break shutdowns and summer trip cancellations, it seems even more people are road-tripping down in search of some much-needed R&R. While crowds typically drop significantly after summer, many predict a busier than usual fall. Even so, there are ways to distance yourself from the throngs of people if you know where and when to go.

“Part of what has always made South Walton so special is the fact that even along one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, more than 40% of our land area is in preservation, and our communities are built with walkability and bikeability in mind,” says David Demerest, director of marketing and communications for Walton County Tourist Development Council.

HITTING THE BEACH

South Walton’s preserved lands include the best-kept secret for beating the beach crowds on 30A: the state parks at Grayton and Topsail Hill Preserve. Even on a busy Saturday it’s possible to find stretches of empty sand. If you really want to escape, these parks also offer beachfront camping opportunities.

In addition to RV and campsites, Grayton Beach State Park offers cabins that feel like private oases tucked into the bustling neighborhoods of 30A. The 2,000-acre park also offers nature trails, swimming and a coastal dune lake with a boat ramp.

Topsail is located at the western end of 30A and offers 3 1/2 miles of pristine white quartz sandy beach with almost 2,000 acres of unique habitats, including coastal dune lakes, cypress domes and wet prairies. The Gregory E. Moore RV Resort ranks in the top 1% in the nation, according to Florida State Parks, and offers 156 RV sites, a swimming pool, laundry facilities and shuffleboard courts.

For a completely different adventure, you can book a tent through Fancy Camps, which sets up glamping experiences at both locations. Starting at $120 per night, you can enjoy a bell tent with a real bed, boho furnishings and a cooling unit.

EXPLORING THE UNKNOWN

The beaches are a mere fraction of South Walton’s preserved land. Stretching from Blue Mountain to Seacrest Beach, Point Washington State Forest offers 15,000 acres of protected longleaf pine forest. Explore a different side of Florida with palmetto-lined trails for walking, biking or running. Pick up an “Explore” guide at the South Walton Visitor Center for a trail map, or access it on the Visit South Walton website.

Of course the best way to beat the crowds is to hit the water you drove so many miles to see. Adventure 30A offers several options, including paddleboard trips, reef snorkeling excursions, or inshore fishing on the Choctawhatchee Bay. If you prefer deep-sea fishing, numerous guides offer Gulf charters, launching directly off of Grayton Beach.

Paddleboards are the ultimate socially distanced beach activity, and 30A offers an abundance of beautiful places to explore. In addition to the Gulf, South Walton’s coastal dune lakes are a rare feature only found in a handful of locations around the world, such as Australia and Madagascar. Paddle one of the 15 lakes and find your very own patch of sand.

The WaterColor Boathouse’s SUP and kayak rentals are open to everyone, or you can rent a board through 30A Paddle Board Rentals and they’ll deliver for free to your house or condo. They’ll even give you a free demonstration if it’s your first time on a board.

LODGING

Another benefit of South Walton is its building codes, which have limited hotels and ban high-rise condominiums. When you are in your own home — or that of someone offering it as a vacation rental, in this case — you don’t encounter a front desk agent or share an elevator or lobby with strangers. You simply arrive at your address armed with a keypad code.

While lodging can be hard to find, Rent 30A is a great resource. Operating as a localized VRBO, the website includes virtually every rental property listed on 30A. If you sign up for their newsletter, you’ll receive regular notifications of availability for any last-minute getaways.

Most property management companies are going the extra mile to provide a safe environment for all guests, such as sterilizing high-touch surfaces. One company, 30A Cottages and Concierge, has taken an extra step.

“We have purchased nontoxic fogger sanitizing systems,” says Millie Patrick, co-owner alongside husband Carson. “With each changeover, we go in and spray the entire house — cabinets, drawers, silverware — and let it sit at least 30 to 45 minutes before our cleaning staff arrives. Then we spray again after they leave and before the next guest arrives.”

The typical 4 p.m. check-in time is still honored, even though these extra steps are being performed at 100% capacity while juggling absent employees (anyone who has been exposed to COVID-19 or is exhibiting symptoms must present a negative test before returning to work), Patrick says.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

More work with fewer workers is a common struggle for 30A’s service industry, whether it’s restaurants, beach service or rental companies, even grocery stores. Everyone is trying to find that delicate balance between keeping people safe and offering the same experience they always have.

At nationally recognized chef Jim Shirley’s restaurants, designated people sanitize the bathrooms after each use, which can make the already long line even longer. His restaurants — Great Southern Café, 45 Central Wine & Sushi, The Meltdown on 30A, The Bay, Baytowne Provisions and the brand-new Farm and Fire — also shut down all of their indoor dining and are requiring reservations for the first time ever.

At Great Southern Cafe in Seaside, Shirley’s signature restaurant, a 100-by-40-foot tent in the parking lot is the new dining room. Staff are required to work in the heat with masks and gloves, trekking the new distance between kitchen and tables. They’re also intentionally slowing the pace so they can sanitize tables between each party.

All of these changes are appreciated for safety, but can be resented for inconvenience.

“Everyone is really happy to be working again and welcoming back our guests,” says Dan Tinghitella, director of culture and operations for Shirley’s restaurants. “The main thing we ask is to give people grace. We have the same amount of customers but only 50% occupancy and about 65% of our staff. We’re constantly figuring out new ways to do everything.”

That has meant mobile ordering only at their airstream walk-up, Meltdown on 30A, and curbside pickup at The Bay. During the shutdowns, Shirley even converted Farm and Fire to a temporary grocery store, providing produce and hard-to-find essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer to locals.

Of course you could always explore lesser-known restaurants, such as Grayton Brew Pub or Cafe Tango in Blue Mountain Beach. Michelle Harris, founder of 30A Local’s Guide, highlights such gems on her Instagram account. She has also created an interactive map on her website, the30alocalsguide.com, which includes curated categories of all local businesses along 30A.

Every restaurant on 30A is innovating how they operate, but the 50% capacity rule has made dining out particularly challenging. Reservations are highly recommended, and owners emphasize the importance of calling if you can’t make it. Tinghitella says it’s not unusual to have 30 no-show parties in one evening, while walk-ups are begging to be seated. For restaurants that don’t accept reservations, plan for the early bird special or expect one- to two-hour wait times.

“Obviously, these aren’t normal times,” Demerest says. “On top of asking everyone to follow social distancing and CDC guidelines, we want to remind visitors that a little patience and kindness can go a long way.

“Traveling has always been a partnership between the visitors and the people who live and work in the destination, and it’s more important now than ever to extend courtesy and respect to your fellow humans. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but it’s no less true that we really are all in this together.”

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RESTAURANTS GOING ‘THE DISTANCE’

Outdoor dining is the name of the game these days. Several local restaurants have taken extra measures to expand their outdoor seating — including adding tents in parking lots. Remember to make reservations if possible, but to always call and cancel if you can’t make it.

Redds Fueling Station www.reddsbar.com  850-325-0252 Best made from scratch dining on 30A – from 20 hour slow cooked brisket to BBQ Ribs and Tacos. Jalapeno Burgers are a favorite and will be yours too. Experience the Singing Bartender on the nights with a T – Tuesday Thursday Saturday

Shunk Gulley, Blue Mountain Beach

850-622-2733, shunkgulley.com

Shunk Gulley was built for open-air dining, and their upstairs porch has always been one of the prettiest Gulf-view dining options on 30A. A recently added tent on their side lawn expands their outdoor seating.

Great Southern Cafe, Seaside

850-231-7327, thegreatsoutherncafe.com

As one of the leaders in safety during the pandemic, Great Southern closed its indoor dining room and replaced it with a large tent in the parking lot. Tables and restrooms are sanitized between each use.

Food trucks in Seaside

(Meltdown on 30A, Barefoot BBQ, Frostbites, Wild Bill’s Beach Dog, Crepes du Soleil)

Most Seaside food trucks have moved to mobile ordering to cut down on crowded lines, and tents have been set up in Seaside’s circular parking area for eating. Tables are regularly sanitized.

Grayton Seafood Co., Grayton Beach

850-714-2155, graytonseafood.com

Tables in the parking lot have become an impromptu dining room, and a text reservation system helps manage the crowds.

Black Bear Bread Co., Grayton Beach

850-213-4528, blackbearbreadco.com

This uber-popular bakery limits one customer at a time in their front room to place your order, but has expanded their outdoor seating with an additional side porch and offers socially distanced tables inside. Masks are required to go in and place your order.

Seagrove Village Market, Seagrove Beach

850-231-5736, seagrovevillagemarket.com

To cut down on crowds, this popular restaurant now offers only takeout service, but has set up a large tent and tables outside if you wish to eat there. Restrooms are only available after 1 p.m. after the Seagrove Market Store opens.

Old Florida Fish House, Seagrove Beach

850-534-3045, oldfloridafishhouse.com

This popular fish house overlooking Eastern Lake was fortunate to already offer ample outdoor seating, with a boardwalk and other outdoor areas to space out and explore while waiting for a table.

Pizza by the Sea, multiple locations

850-267-2202, pizzabythesea.com

This locally owned pizza chain is the perfect solution for an easy dinner, especially for a beach picnic. While most locations offer limited seating, your best bet is a pickup order or one of their take-and-bake options. Call as early as possible as wait times can be 2+ hours at peak times.

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TIPS FROM A LOCAL

* Workers in 30A’s service industry are the unsung heroes of the area’s tourism industry. Extending some extra kindness for their efforts is much appreciated.

* Whenever possible, ride your bike or walk to the beach to avoid parking issues. New “no parking” zones seem to spring up every day.

* When heading to the beach, arrive before noon (the earlier the better) or late afternoon when there’s a changeover in parking.

* Regional beach accesses offer the most parking but are also the most crowded, so aim for neighborhood accesses when possible. For a complete map, go to Visit South Walton’s website and click “Beach Access” at the top. Note: There isn’t parking at neighborhood accesses.

* Grayton Beach has recently closed all beach parking and is offering a free open-air golf cart shuttle service.

* Find your own stretch of sand via paddleboarding one of South Walton’s 15 dune lakes.

* For a completely different 30A experience, consider one of its two state park beaches: Grayton and Topsail.

* Plan every meal — especially if you’re a big group. Grocery stores have limits on meat, and restaurant wait times are even longer than usual with COVID-19 restrictions.

* When dining out, prepare to wait. Always call ahead, and plan for non-peak hours.

* One of the most relaxing dinner experiences on 30A is a sunset picnic on the beach. If you want takeout, start calling restaurants before 5 p.m. to see if, a.) it’s available and, b.) to snag your place in line.

* Masks are highly encouraged, and required in some stores and restaurants. In order to not miss out, always have yours with you.

* Reserve everything — golf carts, bikes, dining — as early as possible. Treat every weekend like it’s a holiday weekend.

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