© South Walton CVB
South Walton has bragging rights to the most beautiful beaches—snowdrift-white sands and translucent turquoise waters that allow you to see the ripples in the Gulf’s floor. Once on this 26-mile stretch (home to Scenic Highway 30-A) along the Gulf of Mexico in Northwest Florida, you’ll discover a string of beach communities with dreamy names like Seascape, Gulf Place, Blue Mountain and WaterColor. The area is dotted with eclectic homes—New Urban designs and sun-bleached Mediterranean structures. (You’ll want to rent a vacation home and stay for a week.) Tucked around the 16 beach towns are forests and coastal dune lakes for kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, plus small-town centers for shopping, strolling and dining.
If you’re going to hit the beach, start at Seaside, an active community in the center of Scenic Highway 30A that’s easily accessible to the public. Plant yourself on the shore, swim in the warm waters or rent a stand-up paddle board from Sunny Days Bikes (they deliver it to you). Off the sands, Seaside has a row of vintage streamline trailers converted into food outlets that serve everything from barbecue to shaved ice. Shops like Ono Surf and Fitness Fetish sell swimwear for the whole family—bikinis to board shorts. Insider tip: Seaside hosts one of the best wine festivals in the state, Seeing Red. It’s part of the Taste of the Beach food and wine festival held in November.
Two of our favorite places are on the opposite end of the style pendulum. The Red Bar in Grayton Beach is where colorful locals kick back to drink; it’s the place to start—or finish—your night out. Expect tables and chairs that don’t match and red walls covered with French posters and paintings. A jazz band gets the party started. For dinner head to George’s at Alys Beach, a cozy cottage with lights strung around its patio. Named after one of its owners (Ann and George Hartley), it has a sophisticated vibe that’s evident in its clientele and menu. Order the garden pea and blue crab pancakes, followed by lemongrass curry cioppino, a medley of fish, shrimp, mussels and clams in a spicy coconut broth.
If you’re the resort type, book a room at WaterColor Inn & Resort, where your backdoor is just a few steps from the Gulf beach. Modern in design, the property has a boutique-like quality. Meander through the resort’s 499 acres, where English gardens and footpaths lead to a boathouse lined with small watercraft. Then launch a kayak and paddle across a dune lake. When space matters, families find lots of comfort in a rental beach house. Browse the Seaside inventory at Cottage Rental Agency; choose from a one- to six-bedroom house near the shore or a bungalow surrounded by a picket fence and tucked away on a narrow street in this small-town neighborhood.