Hidden Gems: Northwest Florida
Although you could take your pick of lovely beach communities along Scenic Highway 30A in Northwest Florida, Alys Beach is the town that will stop you in your tracks. For first-time visitors, seeing it is a jaw-dropping moment—simply because its brilliant all-white architecture is almost blinding against cerulean skies. Its geometric shapes, especially the rooflines, are terribly intriguing. And frankly, it doesn’t look like any beach town you’d expect to find in Florida.
Moorish influences are evident in the buildings, but so are design elements from homes you may see in Antigua and Bermuda. Modern and minimalistic styles add a clean crispness, and guidelines require homes to be white and have a water feature and interior courtyard. Defined by New Urbanism, Alys Beach, whose development began in 2003, is a community where you can live, work, play and, most important, walk or ride a bicycle to everything you need. For someone wanting to rent a vacation home and not deal with the hassle of driving and traffic, a stay in Alys Beach could be Utopia.
Footpaths, leading to the Gulf shore’s alabaster sands and turquoise waters, were positioned to accommodate sea breezes. At the community’s Caliza Pool, a scene reminiscent of South Beach sophistication revolves around lounging, swimming and socializing. In the evening’s golden glow, the sublime setting of the Caliza restaurant, which is set off from the pool’s edge and guarded by billowing draperies, is chic and mesmerizing.
During the day, explore Alys Beach’s art collection on foot or rental bike. The Wooden Horse created by John Aspley and skilled Indonesian craftsmen is a towering teak equine sculpture. The installation piece, Turtle Bale Green, features bronze cast sea turtles, hatchlings and sculpted eggs, weaving a path through the town.
At the end of the day, stop in George’s for an après sol cocktail and watercolor-hued sunset views from the restaurant’s rooftop deck. Besides locals, you’ll mingle with visitors from neighboring Georgia and Alabama who vacation often along Highway 30A. After all, the farther north you go in Florida, the more Southern it gets.
Charlie’s Donut Truck
Doughnut lovers have been known to stand in line as early as 6 a.m. for Charlie’s glazed, chocolate-covered and maple-bacon offerings. The iconic truck has been delivering freshly baked doughnuts—known to sell out quickly—to Alys Beach locals and vacationers for 10-plus years.
Digital Graffiti Festival
A magical event combining art, architecture and technology, Alys Beach Digital Graffiti Festival (October 2-3) began in 2008 with kaleidoscopic projections on the town’s signature white walls. Today, artists of all sorts participate—their art and interactive displays bounce off doors, chimneys and trees to the delight of festivalgoers who meander the streets in awe.
Tranquil country roads and whispering waterways lure those in search of peace and quiet to Steinhatchee. There’s no big dot marking it on the map, and most people can’t even pronounce its name correctly (STEEN-hatch-ee). Yet this small town at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River in Florida’s Big Bend is home base for fishermen, kayakers and boaters who have their pick of saltwater in the Gulf or freshwater rivers and creeks.
In spring, for example, offshore fishermen may reel in grouper, king mackerel, and red or Florida snapper. In shallow beach, inshore, brackish river or backcountry waters, anglers can easily encounter redfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and crevalle jack. And that’s just a sampling of what is available.
Summer is the season for bay scallops (June 15-Sept. 7, 2020), and in-the-know snorkelers—equipped with masks, fins, snorkels and mesh bags—arrive opening day to dive the sea grass waters in search of the mollusk. It’s one of the few times of the year when sleepy Steinhatchee is buzzing. Another is February’s Fiddler Crab Festival.
For those who enjoy paddling, the river is a great waterway for exploring connecting streams and bayous. It also has a small set of rapids called Steinhatchee Falls, a limestone outcropping with a 1- to 3-foot drop. Kayak fishing, which is popular, is another way to unwind amidst nature. There are several area outfitters that rent equipment. A convenient place to start is the River Haven Marina, which offers various rental boats and kayaks, plus charter services and guides.
Those who want to stay for a few days can set up at Steinhatchee Landing Resort. A destination in itself, the riverfront property is rustic in a luxurious way and boasts a design inspired by the romance of 1920s Old Florida. Vacation houses are a mix of Victorian, Georgian and Cracker styles, some with front porch swings and gardens full of jasmine. The resort also has a chapel, petting zoo, and pier for launching kayaks and canoes.
Another place to keep your eye on is the Steinhatchee River Club. A new resort, it has cabins with screened porches for catching fragrant evening breezes, and a marina with rental pontoons and clear-bottom kayaks is scheduled to open this year.
A good time and place to mingle with the locals (and perhaps pick up a fishing tip) is sunset at Roy’s Restaurant, the spot where the Steinhatchee River meets the Gulf. Enthusiasts gather here most evenings to photograph fiery sunsets and compare images over a cold beer and camaraderie. All are welcome.
An expanse of true Florida wilderness, Tide Swamp is part of the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area north of Steinhatchee. Pine forests and scrub blend with creeks and ponds. Hikers and off-road bikers can explore 300 miles of roads and trails. Recreational options include kayaking, horseback riding, hunting, fishing and camping.