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Sugar Sand Sojourn in Florida’s Panhandle

Sugar Sand Sojourn in Florida’s Panhandle
Written by Erin Byers Murray

Head to the Florida Panhandle for pristine gulf-coast fare, sugar-white beaches, and stellar sunsets at every turn

The scenic stretch of Florida’s 30A highway links sixteen well-kept beach towns where the quartz-crystal sand and emerald waters beyond invite you to dip your toes in and stay awhile. Each town nestled along the South Walton coastline has its own unique personality, which have evolved since the area was first developed thirty years ago. From the colorful cottages, picket fences, and seafood shacks of Seaside to the white-stucco buildings, date palm trees, and modern, outdoor dining scene at Alys Beach, each town offers its own reasons to stop, explore, and indulge in the region’s signature freshly caught seafood.

Seaside was originally developed as a planned community anchored around a bustling town center. Here, you’ll find pedestrian-friendly walkways and boutiques and restaurants that beckon with open doors and cafe-style seating. Get your first dose of the region’s bounty at the Shrimp Shack. Recently moved to a new location on the boardwalk, the shack can be spotted by the fire-engine red shrimp-shaped weathervane set on top. Go for fresh fare, like peel-and-eat royal red shrimp, a pile of oysters, and hearty gumbo, which you’ll want to enjoy on the seaside piazza. If a full-service meal is more your speed, make your way to the WaterColor Inn & Resort, a luxurious beachside retreat with multiple pools, a nature-inspired spa, and waterfront dining on the deck at Fish Out of Water restaurant.

Another favorite haunt here is Bud and Alley’s, an institution from long before the crowds arrived. They source all types of seafood from Alabama, Louisiana, and the Panhandle, but here, crab is a centerpiece—on toast with fennel, sprinkled over pizza, or folded into orecchiette. Along with their original restaurant, there’s now a pizza bar, taco bar, and a sky deck upstairs where boat drinks during the sunset are a standing tradition.

Of the newer area developments, Alys Beach feels world’s away from Seaside with its Bermuda-inspired palms, white-roofed buildings, and immaculate green lawns. Acquaint yourself with a stop at Alys Beach Bike Shop where you can pick up a cruiser and amble along the paved bike paths along the coast. For just the right look, stop into the posh Ann Hartley for flowing maxi dresses and colorful statement pieces. You’ll find Mediterranean-like vibes at the open-air bar and restaurant, Caliza, a modern American spot with its own pool and outdoor cabanas. Grab a Pepino gimlet (cucumber-infused gin, lime, and Herbsaint) and settle in for the al fresco happy hour. On the plate, seafood gets elevated in dishes like seared yellowfin over linguine and crispy Spanish octopus served with field peas with a lime vinaigrette. At NEAT Bottle Shop and Tasting Room, there are wines to taste, of course, as well as tasty bites, like charcuterie and tableside caviar service.

Continue dipping into South Walton’s small-town charm with a visit to funky Grayton Beach, where the Hurricane Oyster Bar is an eclectic little spot serving up smoked tuna dip, fried oyster nachos, shrimp and grits and boozy hurricanes, of course. Nearby, at Mary Hong’s Studio, the namesake artist creates stunning large- and small-scale pieces with broken glass secured to canvas that sometimes mimic underwater seascapes.

A destination all its own, Grand Boulevard is the area’s upscale outdoor shopping center. A stop worth making is Emeril’s Coastal Italian, an airy eatery from the famed New Orleans chef, Emeril Lagasse, who calls this area home throughout the year. Occasionally, you might spot the chef himself putting the finishing touches on a plate. Tuck into the Italian-inspired homemade pasta and Gulf seafood dishes, like fettuccine Nero studded with bits of crabmeat.

With so many great dishes to explore, it’s good to balance things out by exploring the more than 200 miles of biking trails surrounding 30A. For workouts that pack a punch, take a ride through the pine-filled Point Washington State Park, or hike along the dunes at Topsail State Park, which is the only place in South Walton that lets you onto the sandbanks, which are preserved landmarks. South Walton’s sliver of land is sandwiched between the gulf and Choctawhatchee Bay, home to fifteen coastal dune lakes made up of sandy hills carved out by the wind and waves. Explore the bay with YOLO Paddleboard, which will provide you with the gear and a guided tour of the bay.

For one final dose of relaxed luxury, make your way to the Henderson in Destin. Steps away from the white sand beaches, the resort is flanked by a state park, which protects more than a mile of coastline. The result? Unobstructed water and sunset views. The sweeping lobby sets a relaxed tone with cooling blue tones, dark wood accents, and local, ocean-inspired paintings, while the lush, landscaped terraces will lure you outdoors to the lazy river and two pools framed by cabanas. At the octagonal lobby bar, Horizons, you’ll find an oyster happy hour once a week, while the restaurant, Primrose, features a sushi bar and a menu of items sourced straight from the Gulf. Steps away from the resort, sister property Henderson Park Inn features beachfront dining. Splurge for a “toes in the sand” experience—a private dinner at the water’s edge—preferably timed around sunset.

Orecchiette with Jumbo Lump Crab, Jalapeño, Corn, and Fennel

From Phillip McDonald of Bud & Alley’s Pizza Bar, Seaside, Florida

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