Birmingham may be landlocked, but youâd be hard-pressed to find a local who doesnât spend a significant amount of their leisure time on the water. The city is a hub for beach bums in disguise, who use any and every excuse to escape to the coast. Memorial Day? Letâs head to the beach! Fourth of July? Nothing better than a barbecue by the water! Labor Day? Itâs our last chance for a long weekend! Spring break? Well, is it even really spring break if you donât come back with a tan?
For many Birminghamians, a yearly beach trip is a must. And for some, vacationing by the ocean is a way of life. With a plethora of beach destinations within a four- or five-hour drive from the âHam, thereâs no shortage of options to dive right into. Alabama boasts Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, and Floridaâs Panhandle is swimming with beach towns from Pensacola to Panama City. But thereâs no question the impact South Walton has had on Birminghamâand vice versa. Last year, more than 4.1 million people visited the beaches of South Walton from all over the country and beyond. Of those visitors, Birmingham tied with Nashville to have the third highest number of visitors.
So, what (and where) exactly is South Walton? Itâs 26 miles of idyllic beach towns located along the Gulf of Mexico in Northwest Florida. It also goes by a few different names: The Emerald Coast and 30A (after Scenic Highway 30A, the two-lane road that runs along the iconic strip of beaches). If you drive around Birmingham, especially among the over-the-mountain communities, then youâre likely familiar with 30A, namely in the form of a bright blue and yellow bumper sticker made by a former Birmingham resident who moved to the beach and developed â30Aâ as a major lifestyle brand.
Across South Waltonâs 26 miles are 16 diverse beach neighborhoods, each with unique personalities, architecture, and energy. With more and more people making the trip to the Emerald Coast, these neighborhoods have continued to grow, adding options for activities, dining, and lodging, year by year. But even with the incredible development, South Waltonâs natural elements always are put first. For example, 40 percent of the 25,000 acres that make up South Walton is state-owned and protected from future development. That includes four state parks and one state forest, where you can fully experience the areaâs native flora and fauna, as well as the largest concentration of rare coastal dune lakes in the world. South Waltonâs growing popularity, coupled with dedicated protection of the environment, means visitors get the best of both worlds: vibrant beach communities and some of the worldâs most pristine, awe-inspiring shorelines. In the following pages, we spotlight six South Walton beach towns that each offer a little something different. So, pack up your car and throw on your favorite tunes, because weâre taking a cruise along 30A.
One of South Waltonâs lesser-known communities, Gulf Place has a casual vibe thatâs accentuated by its palm tree-lined streets, wide sidewalks, and outdoor patios that entice you to stay for a spell. Located on the corner of County Highways 30A and 393, the 25-acre community is known for its healthy mix of full-time residents and vacationers who gather for art, shopping, live music, and flavorful cuisine.
Locals and visitors alike love to start their morning with a cup of Amavida coffee from Sunrise Coffee Co. With most restaurants on the coast specializing in seafood, The Perfect Pig Grill and Fish House is a welcome change. Offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a Southern-chic environment, The Perfect Pig does just about everything under the sunâand they do it well. Try the Pork Tenderloin Medallions with creamy gruyere grits and blackberry pinot noir sauce. After your meal, head next door to the adjoining Deep South Market offering specialty food products, as well as gift items like jewelry, candles, wine glasses, and more.
The areaâs newest restaurant, Shunk Gulley (named after a legendary fishing reef off the Florida coast), was voted as 30Aâs Best Casual Dining Spot for 2019. With a second-story panoramic bar overlooking the beach, Shunk Gulley is perfect for unwinding with a fruity drink to the tune of live music with waves crashing in the background. The restaurant serves shrimp, oysters, and fish caught exclusively in the Gulf. Pro tip: Go between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. for happy hour featuring $5 Yellowfin Tuna Dip, Duck Fat Gulley Fries, margaritas, and select wines.
A hidden gem along 30A, The Artists at Gulf Place is a collection of eight colorful galleries featuring local artists whose mediums include tie-dye art, sculpture, painted vintage windows, recycled outdoor furniture, acrylics, pottery, photography, jewelry, and more. In addition to their individual galleries, each artist teaches weekly drop-in art classes during the summer where participants can learn about the artistâs techniques and try their hand at creating. While youâre strolling Gulf Place, take time to seek out its outdoor art installation of three larger-than-life turtle sculptures painted by different local artists.
Gulf Place offers a variety of places to stay, including condos and townhomes that all have access to a variety of amenities including pools, private beach access, an amphitheater, tennis courts, seasonal kidsâ camps, bike and chair rentals, shuffleboard, and more. For central access to all Gulf Place has to offer, stay at The Inn at Gulf Place, located above the commercial shops in Gulf Placeâs Town Center Loop. The luxury studio and one-bedroom suites are ideal for couples and families looking for a great stay with Gulf views.
Thereâs not really a âmountainâ in Blue Mountain, but the beach town is home to South Waltonâs highest elevationâa whopping 65 feet. The âblueâ portion of Blue Mountainâs name represents the blue lupine flowers that bloom along the beach and sway in the coastal breeze. In keeping with its name, the small Blue Mountain community is known for a quiet atmosphere where itâs to easy focus on the beauty of your natural surroundings.
Dine on cuisine from around the world without leaving Blue Mountain. Head to Johnny McTigheâs Irish Pub for an authentic pub experience thatâs fun for the whole family. Irish favorites on the menu include Corned Beef & Cabbage, Bone-In Pork Shank, and Fish & Chips. For fresh sushi and upscale Asian cuisine, Basmatiâs has you covered. Inside the elegant candle-lit dining room overlooking Draper Lake, find specialties like Chinese Barbecue Duck, Cantonese Rack of Lamb, and Thai Red Curry Shrimp. For an easy South of the Border-inspired lunch, Red Fish Taco offers an uncomplicated menu of tacos (blackened shrimp, crispy catfish, grilled red fish, or pork carnitas) along with typical accompaniments.
After a meal, Blue Mountain knows how to satisfy a sweet tooth. Blue Mountain Beach Creamery is the obvious choice for its handmade ice cream, plus sorbets and frozen yogurt. The family-owned business serves their ice cream from a window only, so you get to enjoy your treat in the open-air, as ice cream is best served. If baked goods are more your speed, head to La Loba, another longtime Blue Mountain business. The bakery and cafĂ© serves nearly every sweet under the sun and even offers gluten-, dairy-, and nut-free treats, as well as some vegan cakes. Donât leave without trying their famously fluffy cinnamon rolls with homemade vanilla cream icing.
One of the best ways to explore Blue Mountain (and its fellow 30A South Walton neighbors) is on two wheels. Pay a visit to Big Daddyâs Bike Shop to rent any style of bike, then hit the Timpoochee Trail, a wide, paved, and relatively flat 18.6-mile trail that parallels the entire length of Scenic Highway 30A. One must-stop on your bike tour is Justin Gaffreyâs Gallery. The works of Walton Countyâs 2005 Artist of the Year transcend multiple mediums from heavy acrylic impastos to metal sculpture. He combines his passion for âsculpting with paintâ in a special sculpture series using paint, string, and metal that defies both gravity and the bounds of imagination.
Match the laid-back vibes of Blue Mountain with a private home rental that gives the luxury of feeling right at home while on vacation. Check out the listings on 360 Blue to find the perfect house; the rental company has the largest collection of luxury homes on the coast. The majority of rentals are within a short walk from the beach and include bikes to use during your stay. And many, like the âMint to Beâ home are designed with slow vacation living in mind. That means large outdoor living spaces, a private pool, outdoor fire pit, and plenty of room to relax with 10 guests.
If you donât know where to start among the beaches of 30A, Santa Rosa Beach might be just the place to wade (with or without floaties) into the vast ocean that is the beaches of South Walton. The largest of the South Walton 16 is also one of its oldest. Founded in 1910, Santa Rosa has remained a favorite for visitors more than 100 years later. It even was recently named as one of Travel + Leisureâs Top 5 Favorite Towns in America. The careful balance of old and new in this thriving beach town is why itâs so loved among even the most seasoned beachgoers.
As expected, the range of dining options in Santa Rosa Beach is expansive. Though the options are seemingly endless, The Donut Hole is one most can agree on. The iconic joint serves fresh donuts (in a myriad of flavors), pastries, hearty breakfasts, and classic diner food for lunch and dinner. If you want your pick of donut specialties like Red Velvet, Key Lime, and Chocolate Peanut Butter, go early. The line is typically out the door by 7 a.m.
Another institution in Santa Rosa is Goatfeatherâs Seafood Restaurant. The no-frills, family-friendly eatery is known for its fresh seafoodâand you know itâs fresh because itâs all sourced from the restaurantâs downstairs seafood market. For another good bite without the fuss, head to Local Catch Bar & Grill where you can dine on classic beach menu options along with more creative dishes like the Shrimp & Grits Tacos.
For the quintessential beach dining experience, head to The Bay, where youâll enjoy views of both the Choctawhatchee Bay and the restaurantâs own sandy beach. With a multi-level expansive patio, dinner al fresco is a must. The open-air bar and boardwalk provide the perfect distraction if thereâs a wait (on in-season weekends, itâs almost guaranteed). Once seated, go all out when ordering off the Southern- and Asian-inspired menu. Themed appetizers include Thai Shrimp Lettuce Wraps, Vietnamese Style Wings, and Thai-Mollys (corn tamales filled with curry pork and chicken). Fresh seafood and made-to-order sushi always are good options.
If youâre looking to go fully upscale, hit up Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Clubâs signature restaurant, Vue on 30A. The elegant dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows offering panoramic views of the beach, so youâll feel like your feet are in the sand, even as you dine on delicacies like Seafood Ceviche, Venison Rolls, and Pan Seared Scallops.
One of the most unique activities to South Waltonâand beaches everywhereâis located in Santa Rosa Beach. The Underwater Museum of Art, the nationâs first permanent underwater museum, opened almost a year ago in a one-acre patch of seabed less than a mile off South Waltonâs beaches. Seven larger-than-life sculptures (including a pineapple, skull, and octopus) created by local and national artists were deployed to rest 55 feet below the surface, where they will eventually metamorphize into a living reef. This summer, 12 new sculptures will be added to the museum, which can be accessed by scuba diving (Emerald Coast Scuba schedules private charters) or snorkeling.
Experience true historical Southern charm at Eden Garden State Park, where you can picnic under the shade of magnificent moss-draped ancient live oaks, stroll through flower gardens filled with camellias and azaleas, tour a stately 1897 mansion, or fish off the dock at Tucker Bayou. The 163-acre park was once part of the historic Wesley Homestead.
Continue your tour of Florida state parks at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, which boasts 14 unique plant communities, including 1,600 acres of bald cypress swamps. The park is home to two coastal dune lakes, as well as 3.2 miles of secluded beach.
For every manner of house, condo, resort, or hotel in Santa Rosa, check with rental groups 30A Escapes or Sterling 30A. Another great option is Sanctuary at Red Fish, one of Newman-Daileyâs properties. The unique condominium is set amid a natural preserve with views of a rare coastal dune lake, and it offers a private water taxi directly to the beach. If youâre looking for a more organic experience for your beach vacation, consider camping beachside in a tent or cabin. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park offers more than 200 campsites and cabins that suit any level of camping experience. From an RV campground complete with public bathrooms and a swimming pool to tent sites equipped with water and electric hook-ups, beach camping is easier than expected.
With a motto (unofficial albeit) like âNice Dogs, Strange People,â you can expect to find a bit of both in this funky, eclectic town. Although, the people arenât so much strange as they are colorful creativesâand yes, most of them have dogs. Considered South Waltonâs original beach neighborhood, Grayton was founded in the mid-1880s by Army Major Charles T. Gray, but the communityâs laid-back vibes couldnât be further from military life. With pastel-colored shops within walking distance of Grayton Beach State Park, and quaint beach cabins sprinkled throughout, Grayton is a tried-and-true beach community that will have you feeling like a local in no time.
Nothing could ever take the place of Graytonâs most iconic dive, Red Bar, which sadly was the casualty of a fire in February. With its disco balls, road signs, crazy murals, and red Christmas lights, the atmosphere inside the local joint truly was in a league of its own. But until the vine-covered cabin is rebuilt (to its exact former specifications according to owner Oli Petit), there are plenty of other places to add to your Grayton rotation.
For a menu as light and comforting as a calm ocean breeze, head to Black Bear Bread Co. The tiny bakery and all-day cafĂ© serves gourmet tartines like the Banana with whipped ricotta, local honey, sea salt, mint, chili, and pecans on sourdough, or the Avocado with house pickles and zaâatar on multigrain. Donât leave without a homemade pastry; the Kouign Aman, a sweeter and more complex version of a butter croissant, is a stand-out.
Just steps off the beach, find yourself at Chiringo for an experience inspired by beaches around the world, from the shiplap walls and multi-colored bar stools to fish tacos and a frozen fruit-and-rum number called the Billy Ocean. Other casual restaurant options include Grayton Beer Brewpub, where you can grab a pint of the areaâs namesake 30A Beach Blonde along with bar bites like smoked wings and beer cheese nachos. Hurricane Oyster Bar + Grill is known for raw oysters on the half shell served in styles from countries around the world.
For the upscale diners, tuck into seafood-inspired modern cuisine at Chef Nikhil Abuvalaâs Roux 30A, where there are only 34 seats and an ever-changing menu. For the adventurous, grab a pizza from the Pickle Factory. The Kee Mao, a spicy Thai-style pizza was inspired by the chefâs 10-year stay in Bangkok.
Experience Graytonâs eclectic artist community with a stop at the Shops of Grayton, a row of adorably identical beach shacks, each in a different pastel shade. Mary Hong creates enchanting sea life, nature scenes, and more in her whimsical style of glass mosaic art. Take your inspiration next door, and create your own recycled glass art piece to take home at The Shard Shop. Bringing out the vibrant feeling of beach living, artist Andy Saczynski (located just across the street) creates mixed-media assemblage art and paintings on wood panels. His paintings are largely inspired by all the regular sights and sounds of the beachâsurfing, music, coastal landscape, and wildlife.
After seeing art inspired by Floridaâs landscape, see the real deal at Grayton Beach State Park. The 2,000-acre park offers undisturbed beaches and quiet trails that wind through sand dunes, pine flatwood, and sand scrub oak on the way to Western Lake. The picturesque scene of towering pines over the 100-acre coastal dune lake, with kayakers and canoers gliding peacefully below, is one of the most well-recognized views in the area.
Celebrate Graytonâs distinction as South Waltonâs first beach town by staying at Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse, a traditional bed and breakfast devoted to delivering the feeling of nostalgic Old Florida to its guests. Located just a short 10-minute walk from the shoreline, Hibiscus offers 13 flats and rooms that can accommodate 2â4 people. Breakfast at Hibiscus CafĂ© is served to guests each morning from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
One of South Waltonâs more resort-style destinations, WaterColor gives the feeling of being in the lap of luxury while youâre in one of the most naturally stunning locations in the world. The community is best-known as the home to Western Lake, South Waltonâs most visited coastal dune lake. The feeling of comfort and familiarity is central to WaterColor, which is why youâll often find neighbors enjoying drinks and chatting across their front porches well into the evening. Quaint streets and pathways connect homes to the communityâs parks, lush green spaces, and shops, further promoting community. Every detail, down to the communityâs logoâthree watercolor strokes representing the beach and oceanâevokes a sense of inviting serenity.
Dinner and a view is the name of the game at FOOW, the WaterColor Innâs signature restaurant, previously known as Fish Out of Water. Back with a more casual approach to dining, FOOW continues to offer the same impressive menu of locally sourced Southern dishes with a heavy emphasis on seafood. Grab a seat on the Gulf-facing back patio and sip on a Mai Tai or Caipirinha while listening to live music and watching the waves crash against the shore. For a casual lunch, try a FOOW bucket filled with your choice of fried shrimp, oysters, or grouper with FOOWâs spiced bubble chips or fries. At dinner, creative turf options like Sweet Tea Fried Chicken with bourbon-cider glaze intermingle with fresh fish dishes.
For the best wine selection in town, head over to The Wine Bar and peruse their award-winning wine list. Located next to Cerulean Park in the center of town, grab a seat under the shade of palm trees on the expansive patio during happy hour (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) to get a carafe for the price of a glass. To pair, create your own gourmet cheese plate with selections from the restaurantâs cheese shop. For a grazing lunch, order the Grand Cru Board: five cured meats, five gourmet cheeses, olives, pickles, marinated fava beans, hummus, nuts, grapes, lavosh, and baguette.
Get out and explore WaterColorâs natural wonders beyond Western Lake by visiting Point Washington State Forest. The protected lands consist of sandhill, basin swamps, wet flatwoods, wet prairie, and cypress swamps, so youâll get a different outdoor experience than youâre accustomed to when on a beach vacation. When youâre tired of exploring on foot, take to the water with Shallow Water Expeditions, where you can take an expedition to fish from the bay or the beach.
In the town center, stroll through the perfectly manicured butterfly garden at Cerulean Park. Consider visiting on a Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the weekly WaterColor farmerâs market takes place. Then, stop in the WaterColor Store for official WaterColor apparel, as well as lifestyle products from Florida SweetTea Style that carries brands like Reese Witherspoonâs Draper James, Lululemon, and Yeti. Kids and adults alike will love ending an active day at The Candy Bar, a specialty candy shop and ice cream parlor.
Synonymous with the town of WaterColor is the WaterColor Inn. The resortâs 60 rooms and suites marry the luxury of a boutique hotel with the comfortable convenience of a classic beach house. Guests have access to private golf and beach club access, complimentary bike use, watersport rentals, resort-style pools, and unparalleled beach views from private balconies. Donât check out without visiting the famous WaterColor InnSpa, where you can fully unwind with a massage or facial without sacrificing your view of the beach.
Color, comfort, and coastal charm come to life in Seaside. Every scene in the iconic town is straight out of a beach catalog: rows of vintage Schwinns against the backdrop of a bright purple mural; kids running around barefoot on the green where live music takes place in the evenings; swimsuit-clad visitors snacking on frozen custard from classic airstream trailers; and those Mayberry-esque picture-perfect pastel beach houses. Now one of the most popular beach towns in South Walton and all of Florida, Seaside started out in the â70s as the vision of Birmingham native Robert to a create a New Urbanist community where walking and slow living ranked supreme.
Seasideâs central town square is crawling with dining options to please any palate. The Great Southern CafĂ© is your quintessential spot for ânew-fashioned Southern cuisineâ any time of day. Start with a coconut-melon mojito (or one of nine other flavors), then dive into the signature creole-inspired Grits a Ya Ya, and finish with a slice of key lime pie. For the best view of the sunset, grab dinner at Bud & Alleyâs roof deck bar. The waterfront restaurant, known for its killer crab cakes, is a staple in the Seaside community.
If you canât get into the original Bud & Alleyâs, consider trying their pizza bar or taco bar, both also in Seaside. For a quick and casual meal before heading back to the ocean, check out Airstream Row, where options range from barbecue and grilled cheese sandwiches to smoothies and Hawaiian shaved ice. Or, pack a picnic from Modica Market to eat with your toes in the sand. The gourmet grocery sells pre-packaged to-go meals, as well as a great selection of perfectly snackable treats.
Seasideâs diverse cast of quaint specialty shops are almost as inviting as a dip in the cool ocean after an hour of sunbathing (the shopsâ air conditioning might also offer a welcome reprieve in the heat of summer). Pick up a beach read at independent bookstore Sundog Books, or add to your record collection at Central Square Records. For the cutest selection of gifts, from fine china to artisan beauty products, visit The Art of Simple. Most of Seasideâs shops are situated around Central Square, where you can find Seaside Farmerâs Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, as well as a special series of live music and movies under the stars. While youâre in town, donât forget to snap a photo in front of Seasideâs whitewashed post office, the unofficial calling card for the town.
If the thrill of the hunt doesnât excite, Austin Mageeâs Surf School might be more up your alley. Take a one-hour group or private lesson from the former pro surfer who now spends his time teaching the sport to beginners.
The best part about Seaside is that not only can you admire the adorable beach cottages from behind their mandatory white-picket fences, but you can actually stay in them. Use rental agencies like the Cottage Rental Agency or Sandpiper Vacations to search from hundreds of rentals that range from one bedroom to up to seven. Each home is named so you can easily remember your favorite rentals for future trips. For the ultimate Seaside experience, the âFeeling Good Againâ also known as the âVera Bradley Bed and Breakfastâ offers charming classic Southern style. The three-story home features a two-story veranda, a rooftop deck, and sleeps 22.
It all started with a little something longtime 30A vacationer Abbe Little liked to call a âprogressive 30A day.â She and her friend would take their time driving up Scenic Highway 30A, stopping at any restaurant that caught their fancy for a tasting before moving on to the next. Throughout 20 years of visiting the area, Little developed quite the list of favorite restaurants along 30A. So, in the summer of 2018, Little took her passion for the 30A food scene to the next level by moving to the area and starting A Little Taste of the Emerald Coast Food Tours.
The areaâs only food tour takes hungry foodies on a culinary excursion (via shuttle bus) to visit some of the areaâs best restaurants. Little currently offers two food tour options: the 30A West Food Tour and the Hwy. 98/Miramar Food Tour, both of which make five stops and cost $109. At each stop, guests get a hearty tasting of one of the restaurantâs specialty dishes. One of the best things about the tour is the opportunity to discover hidden gems like Italian restaurant Christianoâs on the Miramar Food Tour. In an unassuming strip mall, the restaurantâs Zucchini Ernesto (fried zucchini ribbons with tomato basil sauce) is out of this world, and the Snapper Elizabeth features some of the lightest, flakiest, butteriest fish you can find on the Coast. Did we mention the bus includes a karaoke machine and guests are encouraged to BYOB? Book your tour via emeraldcoastfoodtours.com.
For more information on South Walton or to plan your vacation, head to visitsouthwalton.com.