Paddling and pedaling through a slice of old Florida.
In South Walton County, steer away from U.S. 98 on the Panhandle’s Gulf Coast and let Highway 30A take you to Grayton Beach, the place where time takes a detour. Founded in 1890, the town remains true to its Old Florida roots thanks in part to its secluded location, the built-in buffer of a state park, and residents who like things just the way they are.
The area's popular Red Bar.
As a result, quiet lanes—some paved, some not—skitter through neighborhoods where weatherworn wood-framed cottages rest beneath a hammock of oaks. Bicycles and kayaks set the pace, and the rhythm of nature does the rest. Nowhere is this more evident than at Grayton Beach State Park (floridastateparks.org/graytonbeach). Here, nearly 2,000 acres of largely untouched Florida woodlands merge with several miles of undisturbed crystal white shoreline trimmed by sea oats and accessed by boardwalks. Miles of walking trails encourage you to explore the coast, marshes, and scrub oak and piney woods. There are picnic pavilions and changing facilities, bird watching and wildlife viewing, and on-the-water activities like canoeing, fishing and sailing on dune lakes. A delightful feature is the opportunity to stay the evening at the campground or in a more upscale “cabin.”
Quaint cottages serve as shops and coffeehouses
Just outside the park, outfitters set up shop to rent kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards and take reservations for guided trips on local waterways. Around the small village, independent merchants welcome locals and visitors into their shops, art galleries, markets, eateries, and coffeehouses. As the sun is dropping and everyone has lazed on the beach, finished a book, or explored the estuaries and marshes, tradition finds a line forming outside the town’s most popular restaurant, the Red Bar, where locals gather to toast another day in paradise.
Should you need more variety and activity, a few miles east are the communities of Seaside and Watercolor and, further on, Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach. Then again, you may just want to limit your tour of discovery to Grayton Beach.
Because when you’re there, chances are you'll find yourself, too. visitsouthwalton.com/beaches/grayton-beach
Just a short walk from the shore, Grayton Beach State Park has 30 fully equipped air-conditioned cabins (in reality, duplexes) that sleep six and feature full-size kitchens complete with linens, pots and pans, gas fireplaces, barbecue grills, and screened porches. The campground loop is equipped with sewer, electric, and water. reserveamerica.com
The Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse has a dozen rooms decorated in vintage Florida fashion and outfitted with modern conveniences. Some rooms are pet-friendly, kid-friendly, or have kitchens. A complimentary breakfast is served. hibiscusflorida.com
The Red Bar is home of the Piccolo restaurant, whose quirky, kitsch décor has helped make this Grayton’s de facto gathering spot. The contemporary menu centers on blackened grouper, shrimp, crawfish, and crab cakes. Expect a wait. theredbar.com
When the sun comes up, you’re up… and you’re looking for breakfast. Another Broken Egg Café is a popular chain that serves omelets, grits, pancakes, cinnamon-roll French toast, and an array of specialty egg dishes. anotherbrokenegg.com
Indian burial mound
Thirty miles west in Fort Walton Beach is an unusual sight: An Indian burial mound in the heart of the commercial district. Featured at the Heritage Park & Cultural Center, the mound was built and in use between 800 and 1400 A.D. and is one of the largest prehistoric earthworks on saltwater. A small museum explains the impressive mound and the people who built it. fwb.org/museums