As a road, 30-A stretches out along the coast of northwest Florida, but west of Panama City Beach, where the stretch of highway dips south of Hwy 98 and winds through picturesque towns nestled into beautifully preserved natural landscapes, 30-A becomes both a brand and an idea. That idea is a half-step backward in time, and a step forward in luxury, as idealized beach cottages and beach towns are connected by bicycle paths and sprinkled with parks and forests. It’s a place where artists thrive, the wealthy turn living well into an art form, and visitors live out the beach vacations of their dreams.
Once nearly empty, this stretch of road is now dotted with small towns - some historic, some just dreamed up. They’re the jewels in a necklace hugging the white sand coastline, beginning with Rosemary Beach at the east end of 30-A, and including such gems as Alys Beach, Seaside, Watercolor, Grayton Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, and dune Allen, among others, as you follow the sun nearly 19 miles to the western terminus.
In each of these towns there’s much to love, and much to discover. This guide to the towns of 30-A will get you started, provide a taste of each town, and highlight some examples of the restaurants, wine bars, beaches and vacation rentals that this picture perfect stretch of highway offers.
With a good mix of shops, restaurants, vacation rentals, condos, and even hotel rooms, the first town you’ll encounter when driving down 30-A from Panama City Beach has also become the most popular in recent years. Families pour into the town in the summertime, and the open areas become the scene for impromptu pick-up soccer games, or host art fairs on the weekends.
Rosemary Beach is situated around a main square, divided into a north side and south side by Highway 30-A. Sitting on a prominent corner on the north side, you’ll find a casual but upscale spot for an outdoor lunch or bottle of wine at Wild Olives. You can order off their menu, or choose an assortment of prepared snacks (motzerella salad, olives, salmon and more) from their display deli. If you’re entertaining youngsters, there’s a good spot for casual eats (hotdogs or hamburgers) across the square at the Summer Kitchen Cafe.
On the south side of 30-A, follow Main Street toward the beach and past an assortment of boutiques, as well as eclectic places to enjoy a drink or snack, like the Cowgirl Kitchen (ideal for grabbing a beer and watching a game if you can find a seat - and their Rum Runner is NOT to be missed!) or at LaCrema (the perfect setting for a night time glass of wine, but the appetizer portions here can be laughably small). A little further down Main Street you’ll find “The Pensione,” a fun and funky place to stay the night (though a tad small).
Recently, coded locks have been installed on the gates leading to the beaches at Rosemary, which is discouraging to day-trippers, but guests at any of the vacation homes or rentals should be provided with the access code.
Just west of Rosemary Beach you’ll find Alys Beach, a master-plan neighborhood whose theme is said to be mediterranean inspired. One thing’s for sure, the stark white buildings, full of straight lines and plain fronts is so unique in this setting that you’re sure to either love or hate it.
Alys Beach has become a haven for artists, and the homes and opens spaces connected by winding natural paths and cobblestone streets create the perfect setting for two signature parties: Digital Graffiti (in which light art projects are projected against the building’s white walls); and the annual Halloween party, “Noche de los Muertos.” Both parties center around the Caliza pool, which is a truly beautiful pool (and not a bad place to grab a drink or meal - though it’s only open to the public Tuesday - Saturday after 5:30 p.m.).
Sitting just off 30-A, Fonville Press offers friendlier hours, and serves as a place to grab a prepackaged snack, fresh cup of coffee, or an alcoholic drink while the kids play at the playground next door.
As you approach the halfway point of 30-A, you’ll find Seaside, a cute little town that anyone who has seen the 1998 movie, “The Truman Show,” will already be familiar with. The film starred Jim Carey, playing a man who was raised unaware that he was on a giant television set, being filmed as the star of the ultimate reality show. The point, as far as Seaside residents and visitors are concerned, is that Seaside fits the bill as a town that is so perfect and picturesque, it seems “too good to be true.” With the easy access to the beach, the assortment of shopping, dining, and vacation rentals, it very nearly is.
Seaside’s main square even contains a small grocery store, the Modica Market, where you can stock up on high end groceries. Alternately, there are plenty of places to dine, including the Great Southern Cafe (Southern classics with a modern twist), and Bud ‘n Allys (the town’s anchor, with a view from the upstairs bar that might be the best anywhere). Once a week on summer nights, outdoor movies play in Seaside’s amphitheatre, which also hosts frequent musical performances, from rock and roll acts to symphonies or ballet.
As you continue west from Seaside, you’ll ease into the boundaries of WaterColor without quite realizing you’ve left Seaside. The style changes only slightly, though WaterColor was built with the idea of being able to more easily accomodate the large summer crowds that eventually discovered the area. Here you’ll find summer camps for the kids, a boat dock where you can rent Stand Up Paddleboards (Yolo is a local brand and heavily represented in the area), or the WaterColor Beach Club Grille, with a terrific swimming pool overlooking the beach!
For those interested in an upscale dining experience, check out Fish Out of Water, and if you’re looking for a wide selection of wines, do check out Wine World at WaterColor - the staff is friendly and helpful, and will help you find a nice wine in any price range.
You’ll pass Grayton Beach State Park (beautiful beaches, and a nice option for camping) before you reach the intersection of 30-A and County Road 283. Turn south, and you’ll find, tucked away between the scrub oaks, the ultimate beach town: Grayton Beach. Rustic and real, Grayton Beach is laid back and friendly, and well known for the Red Bar, a colorful restaurant and bar that has steadily gained popularity since it’s Belgium-born owner opened up shop, pasting French-titled movie posters across the walls as cheap decorations and lighting the establishment with red lights to add ambiance and hide dirt. Despite it’s seedy beginnings (or because of) and an advertising budget that was initially non-existant, the Red Bar and Picolo’s Restaurant have become incredibly popular, and with succes have lost most of their initial seediness, while retaining much of the color. They still host jazz bands regularly, as well as local favorite Dread Clampitt, who offer a bluegrass-reggae-country-rock fusion that always gets the crowd going.
For late night entertainment, the outside bar at Pandora’s Steakhouse has become very popular, though the crowd can take on a rough element that’s at odds with anything else you’re likely to find along 30-A. Nearby, just north on CR 283, you’ll find Hurricane Oyster bar, which offers what is probably the best happy hour special on 30-A (dollar draft beers!), along with tasty Bloody Marys, and good bar food.
If you choose to stay in Grayton Beach, you’ll want to rent a house, as there are only a very few smaller options to choose from. Be warned: Grayton Beach lacks the storybook perfection of the carefully manufactured towns of Seaside or Rosemary Beach, but for those who want to feel like they’ve stepped back in time to a beautiful, authentic Florida beach town, it’s hard to beat Grayton Beach.
Blue Mountain Beach - Blue Mountain Beach shares many of the attributes that makes Grayton Beach so nice: Surrounded by state forest, Blue Mountain Beach is natural Florida at its best, with hiking trails connecting to bicycle paths, leading to a beautiful beach. Rumored celebrity residents of Blue Mountain Beach range from pop-icon Miley Cirus to once-presidential-hopefull Mike Huckabee. However, the town itself is laid back, anchored by a neighborhood pub (Johnny McTighe’s Irish Pub) and bicycle shop (Big Daddy’s Bike Shop).
At the intersection of Old Blue Mountain Beach Rd. and 30-A, you’ll find Redfish Village, a high-end condominium complex sitting on Big Redfish Lake, and also home to several shops and restaurants. Most notable of these is the First Note Music Hall. At this incredible venue, you’ll get to enjoy a rotation of musicians in a single evening, with multiple acts ensuring that there’s something for everyone, and the venue’s founder, Tommy Jackson, ensuring that the acts performing are top-notch musicians.
Santa Rosa Beach
The next stop on a westward tour of 30-A is Santa Rosa Beach, where once again a central square serves as a starting point to discover a host of restaurants, bars, boutiques and craft shops. You might grab a bite at the Smiling Fish Cafe, or, once the sun goes down, grab a glass of wine or a craft beer at Crush, where you’ll find excellent atmosphere and often, live music. In addition to the many options available for shopping and dining, Santa Rosa Beach can also claim the largest public beach access area.
Dune Allen Beach
At the far west end of 30-A, you’ll find Dune Allen Beach. Less touristy than most other sections of 30-A, Dune Allen beach is home to Topsail Beach State Park and some of the highest dunes on the Gulf Coast. It’s also a predominately residential location, with one condo complex offering very reasonable long-term rental rates (Topsail Village is a typical condominium complex - Clean and nice, although lacking the unique charm of many of the more typical 30-A beach rentals, while 30-A Suites is a short-term spin-off of the same group), Butler Elementary School, and Kindness Pet Hospital.
If you’re looking for a bite to eat in this area, check out Stinky’s Fish Camp (better and more upscale than it sounds!) or Elmo’s Grill for good seafood and burgers in a casual setting.