Travel

Everything you need to know about Florida’s best kept beach secret — 30A

Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information and offers.


If you don’t live somewhere in the South, you may have never heard of the beaches of 30A. The area certainly experienced a surge in popularity and visibility during the pandemic. However, it still flies under the radar for many tourists.

Whether you’ve heard of it, the South’s secret beach playground is a place you’ll absolutely want to learn more about.

Related: Guide to getting started with points, miles and rewards credit cards

What is 30A?

Known as the “Emerald Coast,” it’s a collection of small, unique, beautiful Florida beach towns nestled quietly between the busier areas of Panama City and Destin along County Road 30A. The beach communities of Rosemary Beach, Seaside, Aly’s and Santa Rosa Beach sit in this area.

You won’t find many tourist traps, big hotels or massive condo units in 30A. Instead, you’ll find a much calmer approach to beach life with more families than college kids and more local shops with cult-like followings than chains.

Also, the 30A towns have all the shrimp, grits and fantastic views your stomach and soul could possibly want.

Whether you’ve been intrigued by 30A for a while or are hearing about it for the very first time, once you visit, you may join the legions of families who return for a full week year after year.

Here’s what you need to know to plan your first trip to this scenic portion of Florida’s Emerald Coast.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Where is 30A?

The 30A name comes from an actual road in South Walton County (County Road 30A) that spans roughly 20 miles along the Florida Panhandle coastline. It’s roughly in the middle of the stretch between Destin and Panama City.

The closest airport is Panama City’s Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), 35 miles from Seaside in the 30A area. It’s a small, modern airport that’s easy to get in and out of without hassle.

However, the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) is another viable option, as is Pensacola International Airport (PNS), about a two-hour drive away. Regardless of which airport you choose, you’ll likely want to rent a car to explore the area at your own leisure.

Related: Tips for visiting Destin

ANDREA BACLE PHOTOGRAPHY/THE POINTS GUY

Beach communities within 30A

From west to east along road 30A, you’ll find: Dune Allen Beach, Santa Rosa Beach, Blue Mountain Beach, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside, Seagrove Beach, WaterSound Beach, Seacrest Beach, Alys Beach, Rosemary Beach and Inlet Beach.

Some also consider Carillon Beach — technically just off U.S. 98 — an honorary member of 30A. I’ve also seen Sandestin and others included in the line-up, so the parameters of 30A may depend a bit on who you ask.

Aside from a specific line-up of town names, here’s the very important thing to know about 30A: Each community has its own very distinct personality.

Related: These are Florida’s best beaches

Shops in Grayton Beach. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

It seems to be common to prefer one community over the others. I’ve often heard people say things like, “My family only goes to Watercolor” or “Rosemary Beach is by far the best part of 30A.”

Every area has its own fan base. Sometimes only a few hundred yards separate one little community from the next. So, while there aren’t extremely distinct geographical areas in many cases, there are different vibes, layouts, architecture and price points.

Related: Best beaches in Florida

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Where to go in 30A

It’s not a big area. However, there are many layers and nuances to 30A. Here’s a stab at what a few of the communities within the area are like for those planning a first trip.

Santa Rosa Beach

This is a laid-back, mostly golf cart-friendly, architecturally diverse part of 30A. You’ll see fancy four-story homes and smaller A-frame-style beach houses all on the same street.

There are public beaches in Santa Rosa with free parking, bike paths and plenty of street-ready golf carts (aka low-speed vehicles) available for rent.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

You’ll find plenty of houses to rent in Santa Rosa on sites ranging from Vrbo to Marriott Homes & Villas. For us, it served as a very easy entry point to vacations in 30A.

Our home rental in Santa Rosa. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Some good places to eat in Santa Rosa include Goatfeathers (which also has a to-go seafood market), Cafe Tango and Local Catch Bar & Grill. Cafe Tango even offers small group catering and family-sized meals to go; this can come in handy when you don’t feel like cooking for your crew but don’t want to corral everyone for dinner out.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Related: Best Airbnb home rentals in Florida

Grayton Beach

One of the oldest communities in the area, Grayton Beach has attracted vacationers from the inland towns of northwest Florida and Alabama for more than 100 years.

I’ve heard people describe Grayton Beach as the soul of 30A, a “crunchy” town or even a “funky little beach town full of free-spirited folks.”

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

In Grayton, you’ll find hand-painted peace signs along the streets and a prominently placed VW van. You’ll also find Red Bar — an insanely popular institution. Unfortunately, the original Red Bar burned down in 2019, but a new one opened in the same spot in the summer of 2020.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

There are obviously drinks and music here, the food is solid too. The crabcakes (available on Friday and Saturday nights) are popular, and I can personally vouch for the shrimp po’boy.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

The cabins within Grayton Beach State Park are relatively basic, but starting at just $110 per night, they are also more affordable than many area lodging options.

Related: Best state parks in Florida

Seaside

If you’ve ever seen “The Truman Show,” you’ve seen at least some of Seaside. It’s a picturesque town so well-planned and photogenic it may seem fake … which made it perfect for that film.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

It’s real, though. It’s perhaps slightly more upscale than Santa Rosa Beach, but it’s still pretty approachable and extremely walkable. However, you’ll have to pay for a cabana or beach chair to access the main beach area.

Airstream trailers serve the role of food trucks here, and there are plenty of places to sit outside and enjoy your food. Come with a fully charged smartphone, as several of these trucks require you to order and pay on your phone.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Bud & Alley’s Taco Bar was a pretty good spot. Other popular options in the area are The Meltdown on 30A (think grilled cheese heaven) and Shrimp Shack.

I visited a two-bedroom cottage on Tupelo Street — directly across from where Jim Carrey went around and around the gazebo. If it’s representative of the houses for rent in the area, you are in for a treat if you stay in Seaside.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Related: The 9 foods in Florida you have to try

Prominence

Prominence, which is very close to WaterSound, is a master-planned community featuring adorable rental homes and cottages, a golf course, a lake and multiple pools.

This area also has a number of restaurants, food trucks, dedicated outdoor spaces and a stage for live music, yoga and more.

In the Big Chill area (formerly known as The Hub), you will find Macho Taco, Super Freeze ice cream, Hooked Sea to Table, Nectar Coffee and Wine and Duos Bar, as well as other shops and spots, to grab a bite.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Prices for some vacation home rentals here can be more reasonable than in Rosemary or Alys. It can be a good happy medium for those who want some community amenities without blowing the entire year’s vacation budget just on the home rental.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Alys Beach

Alys Beach is … fascinating.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

I can all but guarantee if you aren’t familiar with the area, you’d never guess Alys was located in the Florida Panhandle.

Alys is a secret hidden in plain sight. Whether by design or coincidence, even the name’s pronunciation will give away whether you’ve been there or not. (Alys is actually pronounced Alice.)

The buildings are all white, and the Alys Beach website states that the area has “… its foundation in Moorish and Mediterranean flairs, with architectural styles founded in the beauty of Bermuda, and with courtyards inspired by homes in Antigua, Guatemala.”

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

I’d give some nods to Mykonos, Turkey, Portugal and basically everywhere else in the world that’s beautiful and exotic. While you can — and should — walk around Alys Beach and explore, it has a very “members only” atmosphere.

You can’t get on that beach if you’re not a resident or guest, and the area was wildly devoid of people just milling about.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

If you are hungry while in Alys, George’s at Alys Beach gets high marks for its lunch and dinner offerings. Even Charlie’s Delights doughnut shop in Alys gets positive reviews.

Rental cottages in Alys are insanely beautiful, but they also start at about $1,000 per night and go up from there. On the plus side, your Instagram feed (and maybe even the next issue of Architectural Digest) will thank you for the photos you capture while in Alys.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Rosemary Beach

Rosemary Beach is somewhat of a mixture of the vibes of Seaside and Alys. It’s such a good choice that it’s even listed as one of the best places to visit in the U.S. in TPG’s round-up.

It’s beautiful but not quite as starkly uniform as Alys. It has bit more visible life and diversity mixed into the “Forrest Gump”-esque, tree-lined, cobblestone streets. You won’t find the omnipresent golf carts like in Santa Rosa Beach, but you will see many bicycles (so drive slowly when coming into town).

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

There are charming restaurants and shops up and down the streets of Rosemary Beach. However, the actual beach here seems to require getting a beach rental chair that lines the sandy shores.

Related: The best Florida vacation destinations for each type of traveler

Where to stay in 30A

Most of the lodging in 30A consists of home and cottage rentals. Some rentals are available via a nationwide vacation home rental site, and local companies manage some with mini-monopolies in their area.

For example, good luck finding an Alys Beach cottage on Airbnb — you’ll have to book directly.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

In Seaside, those charming cottages on tree-lined streets around Tupelo would be hard to beat as long as you don’t need front-row ocean views.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

In Prominence, there are various ways to book homes and cottages, though many are under the management of Panhandle Getaways. Regardless of how you book, a home rental is a great option for the area.

Related: How to book a home rental using points

During our visits, we first had a private pool at our Santa Rosa Beach home rental — a great amenity to add to the nearby public beach.

The five-bedroom home could easily fit two or three families. It starts at about $600 per night in the offseason and then goes to around three times that amount per night during the peak season.

Spring and summer break rates in 30A will double or triple the offseason rates, and longer minimum stays will also often be in effect.

Here’s the link to the specific home rental we used, Beachside Betty.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

On a recent trip to Prominence, we booked a four-bedroom home via Panhandle Getaways for $700 per night all-in during early August.

Our original home was actually sold, and they moved us to a different home in the same area. It didn’t have a private pool like the Santa Rosa Beach house did the previous year. Still, it came with a golf cart, was walkable to a neighborhood pool and was very close to the hub area with shops and restaurants.

In that neighborhood, your house has to come with a low-speed vehicle (aka golf cart) in order for you to use one. In fact, these vehicles are becoming an increasingly hot topic in the area, so be sure to check up on the latest rules and allowed areas if having one is on your wish list.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

There are more traditional hotels and resorts in the area, such as the Watercolor Inn, where standard rooms start at $500 to more than $600 in peak season.

Rates fall around $350 or more per night in the cooler offseason months. While you can’t use traditional hotel points at this resort, you can book via Chase using your Ultimate Rewards points at a value of up to 1.5 cents each if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.

Another option is The Pearl, which has similar rates to WaterColor Inn. It’s in Rosemary Beach and includes complimentary beach chairs already set up for you next to the ocean.

If you want to use your traditional hotel points, you’re pretty much out of luck in the heart of 30A because chains aren’t really welcome. However, you can stay pretty close to the area in a chain hotel.

There is a Hilton Sandestin bookable for 70,000 to 80,000 Hilton points per night. It’s not technically on 30A. However, this property is only about eight miles from Santa Rosa Beach.

Also in Sandestin, you’ll find a Residence Inn and Courtyard bookable with Marriott points at the Marriott Category 4 and 5 award levels.

While it’s not at all in 30A, there’s also a new Hyatt Place on Panama City Beach nearby with a resort-style pool and lazy river.

If you are looking to redeem a stash of Marriott points, there are several lovely Marriott home rentals sprinkled about the area.

Just know that homes seem to come and go from one program and platform to the next, so things may change from when you book to when you check-in.

Related: Best Florida hotels

Tips for visiting 30A

Most people book homes in the area for a full week, from Saturday to Saturday. If you also have to follow this same travel pattern, know that traffic coming in and out of the area is at its peak during those Saturday timeframes.

You may want to get into the area a day early and just rent a hotel room in a nearby city to avoid some of the airport, grocery store and other congestion as everyone else is arriving and departing simultaneously.

If you have some date flexibility, prices can drop substantially outside the peak summer months. During the pandemic, the area’s popularity expanded, and rates are now higher than they were a few years ago.

This makes early May, late August, September and even early October great times to visit. However, be aware that late summer and fall are during hurricane season for the area.

If you are OK visiting in the cooler winter months when high temperatures usually don’t get out of the 60s or 70s, home rentals are a fraction of the price of the summer season.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

You may benefit from having a golf cart (aka low-speed vehicle) rental if they are allowed in the 30A community you choose. Bike rentals are also very fun and popular in the area.

It’s a great idea to reserve bikes and golf carts well in advance. Also, triple-check that the golf carts are allowed where you want to stay and visit.

Additionally, while you are double and triple-checking things, know that sometimes the neighborhood advertised by the home rental isn’t always 100% accurate. Some homes near the fancier neighborhoods try to get away with saying they are actually in those neighborhoods, especially in the initial search results.

Read all the details about the booking and double-check the location by communicating with the owner and/or property management company if you are in doubt.

Public beach access varies from community to community. It’s easy and free in places like Santa Rosa Beach, but other spots require fees. In some places, you’re not even allowed to go if you’re not staying there.

While you’re in 30A, visit some of the other communities outside of the one you book. This way, you can sample some different areas and maybe find a place you’d like to stay next time.

Related: Credit cards that give you more than $1,000 in value every year

Bottom line

More travelers have heard of Destin and Panama City than the 30A area sprinkled between those two tourism juggernauts.

I’m not here to knock Destin or Panama City, as they also offer beautiful white sugar sand and captivating blue-green water. However, I like my vacations a bit slower-paced and more laid-back than what those two well-known beach towns can offer.

For us, 30A was a shocking, wonderful Floridian surprise on our first trip. We already took a second trip there and are actively considering a third.

It was the easy-to-access domestic beach getaway that we didn’t know much we needed until we found it.

ANDREA BACLE PHOTOGRAPHY/THE POINTS GUY

I’ve taken beach vacations (thanks to points and miles) in destinations like French Polynesia, the Maldives, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Still, I feel confident in saying that the beaches in 30A stack up to those big names quite nicely. The beaches of the Emerald Coast are beautiful, special and worth visiting at least once.

Of course, as the regulars already know, you’ll probably come back after you visit once.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button