If Miami’s love language is spicy, then northwest Florida’s comes through in a syrupy coo. This mellow stretch of Florida (just don’t call it by its passé Panhandle name, please) includes Pensacola Beach, South Walton, and Scenic Highway 30A, among other laid-back beach towns luring visitors with their natural assets. Sure, you’ll come for the dreamy beaches and sparkling coastal dune lakes, but then you’ll try the local seafood and brewery scene and never want to leave.
Here’s what to get up to in northwest Florida this winter.
The day trip (or road trip) to plan your visit around
Florida is full of places to cruise with the top down, but it’s hard to beat a Sunday (or any day) drive along Scenic Highway 30A through northwest Florida, home to a postcard-perfect stretch of seaside towns known as South Walton.
The roughly 28-mile route through South Walton County kisses the coast for nearly all its length, taking you through gorgeous residential Gulf-front communities like Rosemary Beach, Grayton Beach, and Blue Mountain Beach. Roll down the windows and let the emerald-hued views in.
Pull over to explore, too—maybe to admire the New Urbanism architecture in Alys Beach or to swim in the clear waters at Grayton Beach State Park. (The beach here has been lauded among the best in the world.)
Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance to at least admire, if not paddle a kayak through, one of Florida’s incredible natural phenomena: coastal dune lakes. These ancient freshwater lakes formed near the coastline by wind are found in only a handful of places around the world: Madagascar, New Zealand, and yes, Walton County.
There are 15 coastal dune lakes in Walton. Western Lake, near Grayton Beach, is a good one to visit, with onsite kayak rentals and a backdrop of coastal wetlands for your paddling pleasure. Cap off the day at a beloved brew pub, Grayton Beer Co., where the shrimp po’ boys are the real deal and served with a selection of 15 local beers.
The best hotels for a truly local stay
The grand-dame property in these powdery-sand parts is WaterColor Inn on Santa Rosa Beach, stretching out between a dune-backed beach and a freshwater coastal dune lake. (We also love biking through the surrounding longleaf pine forests.) The hotel will debut new one- and two-bedroom family suites in spring 2022 as well as a new zero-entry family swimming pool and an indoor/outdoor bar.
In nearby Rosemary Beach, The Pearl Hotel’s turrets and clock tower have also received a fresh coat of paint, and guest rooms and lounges have received a bright, tropical refresh as well. Pour a glass of bubbly on your balcony at sunset or grab a mojito on the breezy rooftop of Havana Beach & Grill. The hotel’s adult-only pool has a sophisticated vibe, and guests have direct access to Rosemary Beach’s private stretch of sand out front.
Hotel Effie, a Preferred Hotel, opened in 2021 on the bay side of Miramar Beach in Sandestin, fronting Choctawhatchee Bay, and has a stunning rooftop pool deck and lounge, Ara, with panoramic Gulf and Bay views.
If you’re not eating seafood here, you’re doing something wrong
Whether you’re settling in to eat at a casual Gulf-front seafood spot or doing a white-linen-tablecloth affair, it’s all about indulging in flopping-fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood along this stretch of Florida’s coastline.
New in 2021 in Destin’s HarborWalk Village, East Pass Seafood & Oyster House serves freshly shucked oysters with harbor views and other Gulf specialties such as local shrimp, amberjack, and blackened red fish.
Classic French culinary techniques meet the Gulf’s bounty at Ovide at Hotel Effie in Sandestin, where multiple James Beard Award–winning chef Hugh Acheson gives Southern fare his spin. (Think pan-roasted snapper with pigeon peas and rice and a Thai chile emulsion.)
New and sustained sustainability efforts
To support the health of marine life along the coast of northwest Florida, the South Walton Artificial Reef Association expanded its artificial reefs program in 2021, with more than 700 artificial structures now in place across 16 different underwater locations.
Among the artificial reefs close enough to shore to explore and snorkel, consider visiting Dolphin Reef in Miramar Beach, Turtle Reef in Grayton Beach State Park, and Seahorse Reef in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. From overhead, the artificial reefs have the shape of the animals they’re named after. Every day is different underwater here: you might spot sea turtles, spade fish, nurse sharks, and perhaps even a manatee or octopus on any given outing.
Drawing attention to the migratory path of the monarch butterfly through Walton County, the Watersound Monarch Art Trail opened in November 2021 along Watersound Parkway’s mile-long walking and bike path. Eight curated sculptures pay homage to the magnificent winged things that pass over Scenic Highway 30A every autumn.
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