When you come to the Emerald Coast for the first (or even the second or third) time you might have a habit of forgetting where exactly you are. There’s no denying this is the South—the local accent make sure that much is clear. But the landscapes? Well, those require some contemplation. The white sand beaches and turquoise waters could be the Caribbean or even the Maldives. The coastal scrub and longleaf pine flatwoods, meanwhile, may have you mistaking this Florida slice of paradise for the barrier islands of South Carolina or Georgia.
Make no mistake. This stunning stretch of coast reaching from the notorious spring break destination of Panama Beach City to the quiet family getaway of Destin is nothing short of a revelation, as rich in experiences as it is beautiful—especially for those who cruise 30A, a scenic span of coastal highway that connects all of the region’s charming sea towns.
Highway 30A is something of a celebrity around here. You’ll see T-shirts and bumper stickers with the route’s logo just about everywhere you go. Large stretches of it are friendly to golf carts—the preferred local method of transport, along with colorful beach cruisers—and traffic is slow and leisurely, making it evident that this is one of those roads that serves a far greater purpose than simply getting from point A to B.
For an easy day’s road trip on 30A, start first at WaterColor Resort, where Exclusive Resorts members can explore nine miles of nature trails and one of the Emerald Coast’s most pristine beachfronts. The 500-acre community is home to boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops, plus country club style amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts, a kids club, and a watersports center on Western Lake.
WaterColor sits just west of quaint Seaside, a utopian neighborhood developed in the 1980s that today remains an idyllic picture of small-town life, so much so that the 1998 film The Truman Show was filmed there. Stroll the 80-acre town’s colorful homes and cottages—many with signs displaying their family name and city of origin by the front door—and shop its eclectic shops, including Sundog Books (where you’ll find plenty of books about 30A), Central Square Records (a throwback consistent with Seaside’s 1950s vibes), and Art of Simple (brimming with upscale and eclectic home décor). Visit the row of Airstream food trucks and other quirky restaurant shacks lining either side of 30A, then bring your tacos, lobster roll, or “beach dog” to the edge of the town amphitheater to people watch while you eat in an Adirondack chair.
Back on 30A, you’ll start to understand the slow pace of life around here. Just seven miles east, you’ll already be at your next destination, Alys Beach. It will be easy to spot: Either end of the town is marked by a pair of majestic white folly towers. Another master-planned community, it’s the modern evolution of Seaside, spearheaded by developer Elton Stephens (and, charmingly, named for his wife Alys). The design here is a mix of Dutch East Indies and Santorini, and everything is so pristine you get the sense that even the tiniest details have been carefully planned, right down to the placement of each palm tree. The intended lifestyle here is evident too—one of juice bars and oyster bars, chic boutiques and stylish spas, and public artworks sprinkled throughout the 158 acres. Arrive early and make sure to visit Charlie’s Donut Truck, which serves a throwback of its own with 1920s-style donuts. Shop fashion and home decor at Alys Shoppe and Mast, then pick up a nice bottle of wine at the NEAT Bottle Shop before sidling up to the raw bar at the newly opened Citizen seafood restaurant.
After a bite, it’s back into the car—but not for long! You’ll know you’ve left Alys Beach when the perfectly manicured green lawns suddenly morph into oak trees. Less than a mile later, you’ve already arrived in Rosemary Beach, another town made for Instagram and easy living. You’ll find the all-white architecture of Alys Beach and Seaside here, plus some surprising nods to a classic European village. Stop by Luminary, a home and fashion boutique with one-of-a-kind pieces from local and international designers, then stroll through the town square before dropping in at the Havana Beach Rooftop lounge for cocktails and views over the Emerald Coast. If you time it right, you’ll be sipping a mojito just as the sun slips below the horizon—a fitting ending to a perfect day on 30A.
Photos courtesy of Jackie Caradonio.