Above photo: The beach ball water tower is a symbol of Pensacola Beach.
Story by Anne Roderique-Jones; photos by Nathan Jones
Anne is a freelance writer who covers travel, food and lifestyle topics. She is based in New Orleans.
Relax, dine and play in the area’s charming coastal towns.
After just three hours on our road trip from Louisiana to northwest Florida, we hit the modern skyline of Mobile, Alabama, which meant the pristine beaches of the Panhandle were just around the corner.
There’s something special about the Panhandle, a swath of land about 200 miles long located on the left shoulder of Florida’s peninsula. It’s home to picturesque coastal towns, emerald waters and, more distinctly, sugar sand. The beaches here are made from pure white quartz crystal, produced when the Apalachicola River washes it down from the Appalachian Mountains into the Gulf of Mexico.
I’m familiar with this drive along the Panhandle. I grew up going to Pensacola Beach before there were hip bistros and cool galleries lining the downtown area. I also went to Panama City Beach for a college spring break trip with a group of friends. We piled into a borrowed convertible to spend a week in a cheap hotel room while sipping umbrella beverages on the beach.
A lot has changed since then, including a slew of entirely new towns that dot the coastline. So, I decided to take my husband on a road trip to explore today’s Panhandle.
We positioned ourselves at a condo in Seagrove Beach, smack in the middle of the Panhandle beaches of the South Walton region along the esteemed Scenic Highway 30A. The region includes 16 beach neighborhoods, and we were in a perfect spot to hop in the rental car and explore nearby towns and the new development in the area.
But first, we drove two hours west to revisit my childhood in Pensacola Beach. We ate at the Paradise Bar & Grill in the Paradise Inn, a vintage waterfront motel that reminded me of the kind of place where my family would have stayed on our yearly vacation. At the restaurant, locals and hotel guests come for the fresh seafood, pretty views and live music.
After our meal, I was ready to ditch my sandals for bare feet and a bathing suit. The beaches here are too tempting to be seen from the car.
I wanted to relax like the locals, so I hopped on a stand-up paddleboard, or as they call it, an SUP. For $20 per hour (or about $55 per day), you can rent a SUP on the beach. That may sound pricey, but what you’re really paying for is therapy. The feeling of gliding along the water is meditative, and the ride is a great workout — falling in is part of the fun. When I had enough, I plopped in a beach chair and planted my feet in that famous white sand for supreme people-watching. Southerners know how to do a beach day like no one else with big tents, souped-up chairs and waterproof sound systems. It’s a sandy version of tailgating, and my paltry beach towel was a rookie move. I vowed to do better when I returned to Seagrove Beach.
Thankfully, renting a bike sufficed. It’s how the regulars do it in South Walton. (That and a splendid floral cover-up.) We found Butterfly Bike & Kayak next door to our condo and chose two colorful cruisers to pedal 1 1/2 miles west into Seaside. This impossibly quaint town is chockablock with candy-colored cottages, each with a cheeky name like Serendipity or Vitamin Sea. You’ll also find tony boutiques, high-end dining, a bookstore and a row of trailers selling barbecue, cupcakes and fresh-pressed juice. Its pinch-me kind of charm made me feel as if I were on a TV set.
Anyone who frequents Seaside will tell you to eat at Bud & Alley’s, a waterside restaurant where families in matching clothes gather at sunset for the perfect group photo. Each evening, a cast-iron bell from an 1888 steam train is rung when the sun dips below the horizon. I found myself desperately wishing for that fancy cover-up so that we, too, could have our holiday card picture snapped on the beach during the golden hour.
If Seaside is your picture-perfect prom queen, then neighboring Grayton Beach is more like your kooky aunt. The town’s unofficial slogan is “Nice dogs, strange people,” and I felt right at home in my jean shorts and T-shirt. This funky town offers a less-busy beach experience and is home to the Red Bar, a dim dive among the diamonds that serves great food and is decorated with movie posters and Mardi Gras beads, and Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse, an old-school, this-was-Florida-back-in-the-day property.
At Grayton Beach, I spent a whopping $12 on a boogie board, also a favorite among locals. Cruising along the waves was the most fun I’ve had since, well, spring break.
On the east side of our condo lies Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach — each new and planned communities that feel more like the Mediterranean. We stopped first in Rosemary for a spin around the Pearl Hotel and a peek off their rooftop, which offers incredible views of — what else — the beautiful beach. From there, we zipped over to Alys Beach, where we found whitewashed homes designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk, a famous architecture and town planning firm. The homes made me feel as if I were wandering around in my own laptop screen saver. These towns are decidedly a bit more grown up and sophisticated, a far cry from the Florida that I grew up visiting. One fancy dinner later, and I was ready to get back to the comforts of our cozy condo — and maybe take one last spin on my bike.
The next morning, we woke up before sunrise to walk along the beach. If sunsets here are impressive, then sunrises are pure magic. As the light came up over the pink horizon, Nate grabbed the camera, and I hopped on my beloved boogie board, instantly transported back to summertime here as a kid.
On our final day, we headed 25 miles east to Panama City Beach. It’s still a popular destination among spring breakers, although a 2015 law banning alcohol consumption on the beach aimed to replace partiers with families. I saw further proof of this effort after a spin around Pier Park. The wholesome stores and restaurants and a new Ferris wheel give nightclubs a run for their money. And while the white-sand beaches and pretty waters haven’t changed much since college, I had. I traded my umbrella beverage in for a cone at an ice cream store. With my boogie board in one hand and dripping sorbet in the other, I wasn’t sure if this meant I’d really grown up or if this part of the country just makes me feel like a kid. Either way, I’m still looking for that cover-up.
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