As a travel and lifestyle writer, I often have the opportunity to visit a surfeit of Insta-worthy vacation locals. After visiting South Walton for the first time, I can report this 26-mile stretch along northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast is one of the best and brightest places I’ve visited this year so far.
White sugar sand beaches and turquoise water
South Walton includes 16 unique beach communities — Sandestin, Seascape, Miramar Beach, Dune Allen, Gulf Place, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain, Grayton Beach, WaterColor, Seaside, Seagrove, WaterSound, Seacrest, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach, and Inlet Beach. Each has its own charm and style, yet two things stay consistent: the white-sand beaches and the brilliant turquoise-hued water. The sand is so soft and fine that it sifts through your toes. The beaches are made of white quartz sand, which originally eroded and traveled down rivers from the Appalachian Mountains. The reflection of the sun off the white sandy bottom of the Gulf of Mexico creates the water’s stunning color.
Not surprisingly, there are many great restaurants to choose from along Route 30A, the area’s main thoroughfare:
Craft Bar, with five different locations on Florida’s Gulf coast, is an excellent gastropub with loads of premium beer and cocktails. Enjoy bar bites, a wide selection of burgers (including a fried green tomato burger with green goddess aïoli), or Southern main courses on the large outdoor patio. When you leave, grab a couple 32-ounce Crowlers (in lieu of those 64-ounce growlers) of artisan draft beer and enjoy drinks at sunset on the beach.
For picture-perfect sunset views, visit 30A’s longest-running restaurant, Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant and Rooftop Bar, which was founded by a couple of local surfers and named after the town founder’s pooch and the restaurant owner’s cat. The environment is laid-back, unpretentious, and beach-casual — and yet the contemporary coastal cuisine, with European and Southern influences, is anything but. Executive chef and lifetime local, David Bishop, captains the kitchen ship to create these memorable dishes. A peek at the live roof deck web cam lets you in on the fun from anywhere. Also, relatively new are Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar and Taco Bar, great additions to the 30A food scene.
For all things Southern, check out the crowd-favorite Great Southern Café, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Treat yourself to a meal of sides and be as happy as can be: beignets, black-eyed peed hummus, collard greens, fried okra, hush puppies, and my favorite, smoked Gouda grits. Adventurous eaters can order frog legs and New Orleans-style seafood gumbo. No matter what you try, heed this advice: Order the Key lime pie!
“I believe our histories are told by the food we cook and eat,” said chef Jim Shirley.
Another choice is the sophisticated adults-only 45 Central, a 2015 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. Here you’ll find a well-crafted global wine list that also includes wines from the Seaside Wine Project, produced by Kokomo, Sonoma Valley, California. Order artisanal cheeses, roasted Brussels sprouts, and the Kale Maharaja Salad with halloumi cheese as sharable plates for the table.
Insider’s tip: Ask the chef to bring out some Fabbri Amarena cherries in their traditional blue and white ceramic jar. These cherries, which taste like chocolate fudge, are native to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where the Fabbri family has been preserving cherries since 1905.
Rest your head
Hands down, the paramount way to make your trip the best it can be is to book an enchanting vacation rental with Cottage Rental Agency. Whether you need to host your entire extended family or nestle in at a place built just for two, CRA can hook you up with full-service amenities, two complimentary bike rentals, wine upon arrival, cleaning service, and access to a swimming pool and fitness center. Special rates and packages are also available throughout the year to cater to each client. You’ll find the amiable staff here to be very helpful and available.
Keep busy … or not
The highlight of my trip was hopping on my fixed-gear bike and exploring the different beach communities. I biked 16.6 sand-dusted miles, through charming beach towns, past coastal dunes and protected forests, and I ended the adventure at one of the beach pavilions along the coast.
I spent time cruising through Seaside—where scenes from 1998’s The Truman Show were filmed—past charming mismatched white picket fences and polished aluminum Airstream food trucks. While biking through the town of Alys Beach, with its white-painted edifices, I found an amazing nature trail. I wandered through the Rosemary Beach farmers market. There are way more places to sit and far more bicycles to ride than there are people along the coast.
If biking isn’t your thing, you can check out the Rep Theatre, behind the famed Modica Market, for a live musical performance. Or, check out one of the many organized events that happen year-round: live music and movies at The Hub, free fitness on the lawn in Sandestin, Art Week South Walton, Digital Graffiti in Alys Beach, and the Emerald Coast Blue Marlin Classic. South Walton also has a myriad of wine festivals: 30A Wine Festival, Sandestin Wine Festival, and South Walton Beaches Wine and Food Festival.
Visit the Beach Ready Spa for a facial, massage, or freshen up those nails with a spa pedicure and manicure. This low-key spa oasis is very relaxing, and who could pass up a complimentary mimosa or a mug of hot tea on arrival? Spend an hour or a half day here, indulging in all that Beach Ready Spa has to offer.
And, saving the best for last, no traveler to South Walton should miss a chance to surf with Austin Magee’s Surf School , which is the main surfing outfit on the Emerald Coast. Whether you're a pro or a newbie, Austin will match the lesson to your ability. Amazingly, swimmers as young as five can hang ten with Austin. I spent the afternoon surfing, and he was adept at spotting choice waves for my skill level, give me pointers and suggestions to tweak my ride, and he did all of this with a positive approach that made the experience really fun.
South Walton, Florida and the new urbanism design of many of the beach communities, truly offers something different for vacationers. You’ll find that everyone is dressed in white or pastels and you may develop an appropriated Southern drawl, requiring you to talk (and eat) more slowly and more thoughtfully. Each beach town, easily accessible by bike or car, is entirely different, meaning the area as a whole plays host to a plethora of activities and restaurants. And the beaches are so pristine and lovely that they all fall in line with what can best be described as the South Walton aesthetic.