From the western fringes of Miramar Beach to the eastern edge of Inlet Beach, the beaches of South Walton, Fla. - 16 in all - are a sportsman's paradise and a gastronome's dream.
And for those wanting just to sit back and relax, there are plenty of places to get your fix along the 18-mile stretch of Highway 30A.
Architecture allows almost every beach its own personality. One community melds right into the next, and really the only way to tell them apart is through the architecture and colors.At Alys Beach, the stark-white homes and other buildings with a backdrop of green palms and blue skies set the scene for Mediterranean living. At Rosemary Beach, the cool ocean breezes and warm paint tones of most buildings adds to the Caribbean feel. "The biggest draw to our destination is the diversity in the experiences it offers," says Travis Currie, communications coordinator for the Tourist Development Council in Walton County, Fla. "We have gorgeous beaches for that romantic getaway or family vacation. The culture here is thriving with outdoor explorations, local artists, dozens of live music venues in a relaxed-yet-upscale area."
You can travel the 26 miles of South Walton in about 45 minutes along Highway 98, a big four-lane that runs east and west along the panhandle of Florida. You'll find businesses, national retail establishments, chain restaurants and hotels.
But if you want to get more local flavor, take 30A. It'll take you a little longer, depending on the season, but you've got the time ... you're on vacation. And it's worth it.
Here's a selection of places to stay, play and dine that should fit most every budget.
With all of the hotels, inns, B&Bs, camping areas and other overnight accommodations available in the area, your choices are as vast as the Gulf of Mexico. Most vacations for independently owned hotels and rental homes are booked through real estate agencies such as Garrett Realty (garrettrealty.com), Wyndham Vacation Rentals (wyndhamvacationrentals.com), and Southern Vacation Rentals (southernresorts.com). But you can also go to Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com) if you want to deal one-on-one with the property owner.
Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort is perhaps the most well-known. Now celebrating its 41st year, it's a planned community filled with shops, restaurants, four golf courses, tennis courts, several hotels, inns, rental condos and more. Rates start around $200 per night at the Grand Hotel, one of several on the property.
The Pearl is a newly opened boutique hotel and a gem among hotels at Rosemary Beach. Its artfully appointed rooms feature Apple TVs in every room and will soon include personal iPads for guests to order "room service" on the beach. It's pricey, though, averaging more than $400 per night.
Along the beaten path of 30A, amid high rises and other new dwellings, sits Hidden Beach Villas. Sitting across from the beach, this two-story complex of efficiency-type apartments is a good place if you're on a budget. Rates start at $72 per night.
Camping is a popular option for overnighters in two area state parks, Grayton Beach and Topsail Hill Preserve. Both have gorgeous beaches and good beach access as well as fully equipped cabins and campsites that have hook-ups for RVs. Prices range from $100 to $145 per night.
Camp Gulf is another camping area that's along Highway 98 with an assortment of RV sites, including some directly on the beachfront. Seasonal rates begin at $88 per night.
Most of us go to the beach to get in the water and play. In South Walton, some beaches are private, but there are numerous public-access beaches spotted along the coastal highway, nine of which offer restroom facilities and free parking.
Canoeing, kayaking and parasailing are common sights out in the water. There's also paddleboarding - which some call YOLO (You Only Live Once) boarding because of a company by that name in the area. There are paddleboard rental places around most beaches, and many will allow you to rent the boards and take them to nearby lakes or to the bay if you don't want to tackle ocean waves.
Or you can rent a bike. There are rental companies online. Give them a call and they'll deliver bikes to your place of residence. Then hit the trails. The state parks are wonderful places to connect with nature through hiking and biking their trails.
Can you eat your way down 30A? Oh yeah. Taste for yourself ...
Dominating the food scene of this pastel paradise is WaterColor's Fish Out of Water, a place with amazing water views and fresh, local fish. A good choice is the roasted black grouper with corn pudding, succotash and blistered tomato. Dinner entrees range from $26 to $38. Find the menu at watercolorresort.com.
At Rosemary Beach, the Havana Beach Bar & Grill at the Pearl offers a relaxing meal surrounded by the ambiance of the islands and a menu where Cuban fare meets Southern eats. Where else can you find Cuban Tostones with mojo sauce on the menu next to Mama's Chicken Biscuits? But for the flavor of Havana, try the El Cubano sandwich ($13). Check it out at thepearlrb.com.
The Marlin Grill at Sandestin is in the heart of Baytowne Wharf. From filets to flounder, there's a wide range of choices. Try the locally caught mahi-mahi, served with a champagne-dill-caper sauce ($22). Plan your feast at marlingrill.com.
At Santa Rosa, Goatfeathers has been a favorite South Walton restaurant since 1988. The fish is brought in fresh, and there's a fish market where you can buy some to take home. Try the fried shrimp po' boy ($12.95). Check out the menu at goatfeathersseafood.com.
• All along 30A you'll find rows of food trucks. Some of the more popular ones include The Meltdown and Barefoot BBQ in Seaside and Charlie's Donut Truck in Alys Beach.
Relatively new to the South Walton community is the Grayton Artist Collective in The Shops at Grayton at Grayton Beach. Artists such as photographer Chandler Williams, the 2014 Photographer of the Year for South Walton, have shops located in a collection of colorful buildings. "It's easy to find inspiration here," Williams says.
If you need a standard shopping experience, Silver Sands Premium Outlets, with more than 100 stores, is located on Highway 98 in Miramar.