When we arrived in Panama City Beach, the first east coast resort town along the fabled Florida Panhandle, Mr. Wonderful and I thought we’d be dining on boiled peanuts and pickled okra at a rustic fish camp. Everyone who’d ever been, or not, to the Panhandle had told us, “Redneck Riviera, cool spot, great beaches.”
The very last thing we imagined was discovering a 20-mile stretch along Route 30A of spectacularly beautiful and unique communities nestled next to the magnificent dunes that border the cobalt Gulf of Mexico. My friend Jennifer who lives in Watercolor, one of those tiny beach towns, had emailed, “I can’t wait to show you 30A.” I assumed she was talking about a bra size.
On a sunny Thursday in early March, with temperatures in the mid-70s, we left the 10-plus-story high-rise hotels of Panama City Beach, driving towards 30A, aka the Emerald Coast. Suddenly, stunningly, the Florida we knew — gated golfing communities, Disney World, Miami glitz and Ron Jon Surf Shops — showcased instead a village of stark white Mykonos-inspired homes, another with pastel painted bungalows fronted by narrow wooden boardwalks leading to the beach, still another where the main street is canopied with live oaks dripping with lush Spanish moss.
A local told me, “Aesthetically, each town has its own architectural angle, appeal, feel, followers and reason to visit.”
Every one of these pristine villages — Rosemary Beach, Alys, Seaside, and Watercolor, to mention a few — hug the Gulf and offer a “mixed use” town center, with shops and restaurants. Each is a “master planned community” reflecting "new Urbanism" and built in the past three decades. Each is designed to offer residents and visitors a feeling of neighborhood, community and convenience. Each is an endless photo op.
We strolled through Seaside, featured in the popular television series “The Truman Show” and often called the hub of South Walton County. We noted countless bike racks (residents walk or ride bikes everywhere; parking is at a premium). We passed green “common areas” for picnics and corn hole competitions, a 75-seat repertory theater, plus a year-round Saturday Farmer’s Market.
A magazine article about Seaside stated, “Individuality is enforced in Seaside, as no two early-1900 Florida homes or Southern antebellum-designed houses on the same street can have the same picket fence.”
Especially cool and plunked right in the belly of Seaside are five Airstream trailer food carts — Meltdown (yummy grilled cheeses), Barefoot BBQ’s brisket, Wild Bill’s Beach Dog (“without hormones and antibiotics”), a juice bar and Frost Bites’ shaved ice. There are additionally 16 restaurants, many with amazing Gulf views.
During our two-day “poke through the Panhandle,” we enjoyed an al fresco lunch with Kennebunk neighbors at the Wine Bar in Watercolor. We lapped kid-size cones at Heavenly’s Shortcake and Ice Cream parlor in Seaside. We oohed and aahed at the all-white village of Alys. But the 30A town that blew us away was Rosemary Beach.
A canopy of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss shaded 30A as we drove into town. Needing a “potty stop,” we immediately went to Amavida Coffee and Tea, ordered two green libations and used the facilities. “That pit stop cost us $18 plus tax,” Mr. Wonderful groaned. I was already thinking lunch!
Lunch at La Crema Tapas & Chocolate restaurant began with Serrano Wrapped Figs marinated in red wine….and went on, calorically and deliciously, from there. Afterwards we strolled the pedestrian footpaths, boardwalks and secret pathways of this picturesque village, admiring Charleston-style balconies overhanging gracious front porches with pillowed rockers. We discovered that cars are restricted to alleyways behind the homes.
Developed in 1995, the 105-acre planned community of Rosemary Beach features 400-plus homesites. Every home is architecturally unique and trigger silhouettes of seaside Spanish villages with a hint New Orleans style. Nothing is farther than a few minutes’ walk from the town square. There's a surprise around every corner.
Visitors to this area of the Panhandle have their choice of inns and rental condos along 30A. Or they can book hotel rooms at the bookends of this scenic drive in Panama City Beach or Destin.
Just be sure you don’t miss sunset in Seaside. This is a Florida I didn’t know existed.