Florida Travel: A Philadelphian’s Guide to the Panhandle’s 30A Beaches

Florida, but hold the crowds. With a trip to the Panhandle’s stunning 30A beaches, you’ll experience everything you want — with none of what you don’t.

florida panhandle 30a beaches pearl hotel

The Pearl Hotel in Rosemary Beach, just one of the Panhandle’s stunning 30A beaches / Photograph courtesy of the Pearl Hotel

We get it — you have reservations about spending your hard-earned PTO days at a beach named after a highway. But if there’s ever a time to take a leap of faith, it’s now: This stretch of Panhandle shoreline has a white sand/turquoise ocean combo that’ll make you think you woke up in Jamaica, plus nearly new beachfront communities, pools, fishing, biking and quality eats. What won’t you find? The hordes of people or high prices of Miami. 

This part of Florida has a reputation for being overrun with half-naked spring breakers because Panama City is nearby, but the South Walton Highway (a.k.a. 30A) that runs along the shoreline has been remade by savvy developers who nailed up some well-planned beachfront communities in the mid-1990s. You’ll think you’ve discovered some clandestine tropical paradise, but the area has been a popular family destination for folks from Texas, Georgia and Louisiana for a while. In the past decade, Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport began accepting more high-season direct flights from East Coast cities like Philly. (Or, as one local told me, “Yup — the New Yorkers are coming.”)

There are many towns to pick from, but tops on the list is Rosemary Beach. This tasteful mini town is less than 30 years old, so it benefits from smart planning: There are blocks of spacious, well-appointed rental homes (your Ocean City duplex this is not), neighborhood pools, a town center with shops and restaurants, a pristine greenspace programmed with live music and movie nights, and chair rentals at the beach. Once you’re in Rosemary, you can bike and walk everywhere. If you aren’t traveling with a group, stay at the upscale Pearl, a recently renovated hotel (rooms start at $509 in-season) that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico. Rosemary has reliable eating options, like Lola Coastal Italian for Neapolitan pizza, the Summer Kitchen for pancakes, and CK Feed & Supply, which is stocked with cocktail-hour essentials.

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Photograph courtesy of Seaside

Just down 30A is Alys Beach, another newfangled neighborhood, this one with a Mediterranean feel. (It sounds cheesy but isn’t.) Bike there in the morning for sweets from Charlie’s Donuts or smoothie bowls from Raw & Juicy. Take a loop through the manicured streets of Alys to the bike trail. (We dare you to not instantly start Googling which houses are for sale.)

Continue down the road toward Destin to discover older beach towns. Grayton Beach, which is over 100 years old, has quaint, quirky cottages and a hippie vibe (think: Florida’s Woodstock) and is a launching point for deep-sea fishing charters. And picturesque Seaside, which is where The Truman Show was filmed, has a little park with food trucks operating out of Airstreams. You’ll find everything else you expect in the area: dolphin-sighting trips, airboat rides, mangrove bike trails, golf and tennis. It really makes for a laid-back tripuntil the rest of the East Coast discovers it, that is.

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Published as “Florida, But Hold the Crowds” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.