One of my goals for 2020 is more domestic travel. I get so caught up in the romanticism of international trips that I forget about all the places I've yet to visit here in the United States. And because I've really only explored California, Nevada, Hawaii and New York, my domestic bucket list is long enough to fill a year-long itinerary - Horseshoe Bend in Arizona; Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah; Death Valley, Trona Pinnacles and Alabama Hills in California; Austin; New Orleans; Key West; Miami ... the list goes on. So when Visit Florida asked me to do a road trip along their state's Emerald Coast, I jumped at the opportunity. I'd visited Panama City Beach for the first time last year, and I was thrilled to return and explore even more of the surrounding region. I spent a solid week traveling from Destin to South Walton to Panama City Beach, and I've put together a guide to everything from the trip - my favorite beaches, cafes, shops, restaurants, hotels, sights and more.
Soaking in the prettiest sunset over Panama City Beach.
I think I've discovered Florida's best kept secret. Before this trip, I'd never heard of South Walton. A gem of a region, this coastal stretch is home to 16 beach communities scattered along the beloved 30A. To visit and really appreciate all 16, I'd need a solid week in town (at least!). This trip, I had enough time for four places, and absolutely fell in love with each one - Alys Beach, Grayton Beach, Rosemary Beach and Seaside. They reminded me so much of European villages (with an American twist, of course), all bursting with charm and character. Excited to share my favorite spots with you!
SEE - THE NEIGHBORHOODS
Bicycle is the best way to experience South Walton. Rentals are available everywhere, and it's so much fun riding up and down the 30A exploring the village beaches, cafes, boutiques and galleries on wheels.
Of course, Alys Beach is my favorite part of South Walton. It's like no place I've seen here in the U.S., clearly inspired by the little island towns of Greece. If you're staying in one of the neighboring communities (like I did this trip), riding a bicycle through Alys Beach is still an absolute must. It has all the feels of a modern day Mykonos; little lanes lined with beach homes, cafes, boutiques and restaurants, all designed in absolutely stunning whites.
It's one of the original South Walton villages, and perhaps the cultural pulse of the 30A. Home to outdoor murals, art galleries, funky restaurants, hipster cafes and lively bars, Grayton Beach is beloved by both locals and visitors. The village also boats a vibrant outdoor scene with its rare coastal dune lakes, and some of the region's prettiest white sand beaches.
If you can't nab a rental in Alys Beach, then neighboring Rosemary Beach is a perfectly lovely alternative, and it's literally located down the street. Also a beach community, Main Street sits at the heart of Rosemary Beach, and it looks like something out of Old World Europe. The restaurants, shops, bars and hotel that line the main drag are adorned with bright shutters, arched windows, colorful balconies and charming facades. Alys Beach will make you think Mykonos, and Rosemary Beach will make you think old town Germany.
Seaside sits pretty central in South Walton. The picturesque downtown is home to cute cafes, little shops, beach clubs, the cutest post office and funky Airstream food trucks. It's a great place to stay for anyone looking to be a bit more central on the 30A; the street is lined with picturesque pastel-colored cottages and beach homes, all a short walk or bike ride to the beach. Seaside is also home to Coleman Pavilion, one of the prettiest beach access points in South Walton.
Airstream Row (Seaside)
A funky collection of Airstreams that sit in central Seaside serving up crepes, Hawaiian shaved ice, grilled cheese and barbecue.
Black Bear Bread Co. (Grayton Beach)
Located in the Shops of Grayton Beach (a collection of stand-alone wooden house-like structures), this is a coffee shop, bakery and cafe that offers a tasty menu of craft coffees, pastries, tartines, leavened bread, fresh salads and sandwiches. The black and white interior of Black Bear Bread Co. is ultra chic - great place to settle in with your laptop if you have to spend a morning working.
Bud & Alley's (Seaside)
Great spot in Seaside with salads, small plates and a fresh selection of seafood including seared diver scallops, roasted salmon, crab cakes, seafood gumbo and scallop ceviche. Restaurant also has a rooftop bar - perfect setting for drinks on a warm day.
Cowgirl Kitchen (Rosemary Beach)
Bright red tables line the street in front of Cowgirl Kitchen along Main Street, reminiscent of outdoor dining in Europe. The menu is filled with all-around tasty eats including a variety of salads, sandwiches and their signature tacos (grouper, shrimp, veggie, chicken, pork and brisket).
Havana Beach Bar & Grill (Rosemary Beach)
Located inside The Pearl, the Havana Beach Bar & Grill serves an eclectic mix of cuisine, drawing inspiration from both the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean. Highlights for me were the fresh seafood dishes, particularly the grouper and scallops.
Pescado (Rosemary Beach)
The best spot in Rosemary Beach for a pre-dinner drink at Golden Hour. The views from the Pescado rooftop bar are pretty spectacular, worth a quick glass of wine, or even a full evening of fine seafood dining.
Raw & Juice (Alys Beach)
Possibly the most Instagrammable eatery in South Walton. Raw & Juicy embraces the all-white design of its Alys Beach neighborhood with a white exterior accented by cactus and ultra chic greenery. Menu is as delicious as the place is cute featuring a variety of smoothies, vegan flatbreads, bowls, burritos and skillets.
Absolutely charming boutique hotel located along Main Street, in Rosemary Beach. The property channels Old World Europe with architecture that reminded me so much of the old towns in Prague, Germany and Estonia. Color scheme adds to the hotel's international flare with the black + white exterior, striped awnings, balconies, luxury loungers and beach umbrellas. Hotel rooms are modern, clean and spacious, most with views of surrounding Rosemary Beach. The Pearl also has a pool, jacuzzi, beach access and a delicious on-site restaurant.
The serene setting of Coleman Pavilion, in Seaside.
One of the most Instagrammable cafes in this part of Florida - Raw & Juicy!
Lunch feast in Alys Beach - vegan margherita pizza, tomato soup, grilled cheese sandwich and strawberry mango smoothie.
My beach paradise while staying at The Pearl, on Rosemary Beach.
Beach vibes in January.
I fell under the spell of South Walton - all the neighborhoods were so charming.
Exploring lovable little Seaside.
Definitely the most charming post office I've ever visited!
Absolutely love the black, white and yellow design of The Pearl, located in the heart of Rosemary Beach.
The hotel had the cutest rooftop bar.
The return rate of visitors to South Walton is ridiculously high, and I can see why. I absolutely love it here!
Breakfast treats at Black Bear Bread Co., in Grayton Beach.
PANAMA CITY BEACH
It was such a treat to return to Panama City Beach! My last visit was a scuba diving adventure, and I was in and under the water for most of the trip. This time around, I stayed pretty dry exploring the topside of PCB, moving between beaches, seafood markets, cafes, state parks and the city's iconic SkyWheel. With two visits under my belt, I've had a good dose of this beachside paradise, and I'm sharing all my favorite spots below.
For scuba divers looking to experience wreck dives in the Gulf of Mexico, Diver's Den runs 2-tank dive charters almost daily when the weather is good. The outfit is excellent - large dive shop, clean spacious boats and excellent gear rentals.
Pier Park SkyWheel
For 360 views of Panama City Beach, hop on the SkyWheel at Pier Park. It's is a 53-meter observation wheel (think ferris wheel, but less scary!) that houses 30 small enclosed gondolas that can hold up to six people.
St. Andrews Sate Park
This park is one of the most visited in the entire state, home to hiking trails, beaches, wildlife, pines and dunes. Known for its sugar white sand beaches and calm turquoise waters, this part of the Gulf looks like a Caribbean postcard.
Rick Seltzer Park
A small public beach located in the middle of the city. The beach is deep, and the water is calm. Great spot to watch the sunset.
Full-service spa that overlooks St. Andrews Bay. Menu offerings include a variety of services - massages, eye treatments, facials, body wraps, manicures and more.
Catch a shuttle out to Shell Island, located just off the beach of St. Andrews State Park. The deserted island is stunning, surrounded by powder white sand and the calm Gulf water. Feels a bit like a Caribbean island, only it's located just a few minutes from PCB.
Finns Island Style Grub
Funky cafe that serves up a variety of acai bowls, smoothies and their delicious signature fish tacos. Their motto is "Keep it Fresh" and every item is cooked to oder. Perfect grub stop after a day at the beach.
One of Panama City Beach's award-winning restaurants, Firefly is an excellent choice if you're in the mood for steak, seafood or sushi. Tables surround a beautiful indoor tree adorned in fairy lights - the ambiance is lovely.
The Grand Marlin
My favorite meal of the trip. If you're in the mood for seafood, The Grand Marlin is worth a visit. Our server said the grouper piccata and crab cakes were the best items on the menu, and his recommendations were spot on. One of the tastiest groupers I've had.
Local Steamer Seafood Market
Hole in the wall takeout joint with a limited menu that makes ordering very simple. Choose a platter - shrimp, snow crab or royal red shrimp, and they'll steam and spice it up, along with corn and potatoes.
A funky coffee shop fully equipped with swings, surf boards and table tops made from the pages of books, The Pour is a cute little spot to grab a drink or quick bite. The menu includes hand crafted coffee, homemade treats, a variety of toasts, salads and pizzas.
Popular local donut and snack shack that faces the beach. Donuts are the favorite here - flavors include red velvet, blueberry cake, devil's food, sour cream, sprinkles, cinnamon bun, 11 different filled donuts (lemon, apple, white cream, peaches, key lime, etc.) and more.
Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf & Spa Resort
A newly renovated retreat located right on St. Andrews Bay. Rooms are spacious, modern and clean, several with views that face the water. Resort amenities are the highlight with a shuttle out to Shell Island, water sport rentals, bayside dining, 18 holes of golf and full service spa. The resort is great for families - lots to do for the kids, as well as the parents.
Arrived in Panama City Beach just in time for this spectacular sunset at Rick Seltzer Park.
Hopped onto the Pier Park Sky Wheel for 360 views of Panama City Beach. Wheee!
I always see desserts like this on Instagram, so I thought it was time to finally give one a try. YUM!
St. Andrews State Park, one of Florida's most popular state parks (and prettiest beaches!).
Breakfast at The Pour.
Loved the table tops.
This photo is from my visit last May - it's still one of my favorite spots in Panama City Beach!
Donut feast at the city's iconic Thomas Donut and Snack Shop.
The cutest acai bowls at Finn's Island Style Grub.
The water at St. Andrews State Park was so turquoise, and so calm!
Seafood feast at Local Steamer Seafood Market.
I guess I have the whole beach to myself?
The cutest bicycles at the Sheraton Panama City Beach Resort.
Exploring the waterfront property - so serene and quiet, the perfect little escape.
Absolutely my favorite meal of the trip was dinner at The Grand Marlin - grouper piccata and crab cakes.
Two years ago I'd never heard of Destin. Now, it seems to pop up in conversation every couple of months. A popular destination for weeklong holidays, I know more people heading to Destin these days than Miami. This was actually the first stop of my trip, and I was blown away by the coastal beauty of this part of the Florida Panhandle. Destin is 24-miles of coastline covered in soft white sand. It's an easy place to navigate, almost everywhere we visited was located somewhere along the 98.
A popular shopping and dining destination located in the heart of Destin. Also home to a collection of colorful murals, perfect for Instagram photos.
There's something for everyone at the lively HarborWalk Village, a waterfront attraction lined with shops, restaurants, fun activities and marina rentals.
The park is also home to several unique white sand dunes, some of them rising 30-feet, as well as perfectly rippled white sandy beaches. Henderson is my favorite beach in Destin.
James Lee Beach
Another lovely public beach that sits on the 98, just before the Walton County line.
Dewey Destin Seafood
This harbor side restaurant is nothing fancy, but serves up a mouth-watering selection of fresh seafood dishes including market fish, sea scallops, soft shell crab, gumbo, oysters and mahi. I ordered the crab, but their signature dish seemed to be the steamed seafood baskets served with hush puppies and fries.
A bayside restaurant that's also a colorful beach club hang out space equipped with bright umbrellas, loungers, kayaks and games.
If you aren't tired of fish and crab yet, Pompano Joe's is a fun, colorful seafood house set right on the beach, off the 98.
One of several vacation rentals in Destin, but this one is ideally located right on Harbor Walk Village.
I didn't think sand this white existed outside of the South Pacific. It was so beautiful!
Yet another seafood feast, this one overlooking the water at Dewey Destin.
Waiting to eat dinner at Golden Hour, right on the beach.
The white sand dunes of Henderson State Park.
Doesn't get more colorful than Lulu's!
Thank you to Visit Florida for hosting my trip and sponsoring this post. As always, all honest opinions are my own! xx