The idea of doing a series of posts on Florida’s gulf beaches and beach towns has been in the back of my mind for some time. Each year, especially around this time, I get numerous requests from people asking me to recommend restaurants, resorts, beach houses, etc. for spring break and summer vacations, mostly along Hwy 30- A in Walton County, FL. We’ve been vacationing at the beach since 1997, at various locations from Ft. Morgan, AL to Seacrest Beach, FL. Our tastes & needs have changed and we have become much more knowledgeable about the area. I’m happy to share what I know. I base my opinions on years of traveling to and studying the areas mentioned. For the first installment, let’s get to know the most popular beach communities from MS to FL.
BILOXI—I am often asked if Biloxi is good for a spring break trip or a short summer trip for those who are on a limited budget or have very little time to travel. I like Biloxi, and it’s always a wonderful part of the trip when we reach the Gulfport/Biloxi area, because I swear the air changes and you start to feel those wonderful gulf breezes. I adore the people of this area — genuine, good-hearted, resilient — & I loved spending a week helping rebuild after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. However, as beach vacations go, it’s not the best. Being so close to the mouth of the mighty Mississippi, the water tends toward brown more than blue and the beaches are far from white sand. Biloxi is where our daughter first put her toes in the sand and we had to be careful to avoid litter & sharp objects in the process. Its beaches just aren’t too conducive to sand castles & bare feet. However, I do like Biloxi and you won’t get a better meal than you will find at Mary Mahoney’s Restaurant. The building the restaurant resides in was built as a private home in 1737 and became Mary’s restaurant in 1962. It has survived many a storm and hurricane and has a HUGE live oak tree on the property. It’s worth a stop, even if you’re just passing through. For a short stay or quick get-a-way spring break trip, I can recommend the Hard Rock Hotel and the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. Both have wonderful pool areas and ocean views. They’re a bit on the upscale side but you will appreciate the amenities they have to offer compared to other resorts. If you’re wanting to spend days lying on the beach, skimming waves and swimming in clear blue waters, you might want to move on down the coast.
DAPHNE/FAIRHOPE—First, let me clarify that these are not beach towns. They sit on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. I’m going to include them because if you split your trip down to the Florida coast into two days, this is an excellent place to stop. There are many wonderful accommodations. I highly recommend the Homewood Suites in Daphne. It’s very clean and has a nice outdoor pool for the kids to work off the pent-up energy from your car ride. Daphne is located right on I-10 and there are many chain and local restaurants where you can grab an evening meal. We usually try to eat at Guido’s/My Cousin Vinny’s for Italian or El Rancho for Mexican. We miss the Nautilus, a wonderful seafood restaurant that had beautiful bay views and we wish someone would resurrect it! Fairhope is further off the interstate but the quaint little town will reward you with a wonderful independent bookstore, galleries, a toy shop and numerous boutiques for shopping. A trip down to the Fairhope Pier is a must. If you have a nice budget to work with, spring for a night (or two!) at Marriott’s Grand Hotel, next to Fairhope in Point Clear, AL. It’s located right on the bay and is a wonderful family resort with so many activities for the kids including swimming, tennis and even jet-skiing on the bay.
GULF SHORES/ORANGE BEACH/FT. MORGAN—We began our beach vacations by going to Seaside, FL in 1997. We just had Ryder, who was a wonderful traveler and we took our time, meandering across the gulf on backroads and eating in local cafes and restaurants. Along came the boys in 1999 and after taking a break from any vacations at all for a couple years, we were looking for somewhere that wasn’t quite so far. For two years, we rented homes in Ft. Morgan & had a wonderful time. Ft. Morgan sits out on the end of a peninsula and is quiet, non-commercial and just a peaceful place to spend a week with your family. We always stayed in a neighborhood called The Dunes and rented through Meyer Real Estate, who I can wholeheartedly recommend. We loved these vacations. Being in the middle of the restaurants and stores was never a big deal for us so Ft. Morgan was perfect. If you like to be near things, go out to dinner nightly and have a bit more of a party atmosphere on the beach, you might be happier in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The Beach Club and Martinique are excellent places to stay when in this region of the gulf coast. As for things to do in this area, you will find water sports, dolphin cruises, a water park, a large outlet mall in nearby Foley, and restaurants galore. There are also charters that will take you for sunset sails or deep sea fishing. The water here is bluer than MS but still far from the blue of the Emerald Coast of FL. If you don’t like to be in a land of high-rise condo units & hotel chains, this might not be for you.
PERDIDO KEY—I’ll make a confession right now: I get very tired of people telling me I don’t need to go all the way to 30-A when there is Perdido Key. Perdido Key is nice. It’s located between Orange Beach, AL and Pensacola, FL. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice, but it’s not 30-A. It’s beaches are roughly 60% federal and state park land, which allows for a lot of unspoiled beauty. It’s less crowded than it’s neighbors and the water is perhaps a tiny bit more blue here than it is to the west. But here’s the thing. For me, it’s still a land of mainly condos and high rise condominium resorts and I’m just not into people stacked on top of people on my beach vacation. If condos are your thing at the beach and you don’t want to go all the way to the Destin region of FL, this may be your pick. It is a nice getaway and by going just a bit further east than the trio of beach towns discussed above, you will step it up a bit in terms of privacy and fewer tourist traps. I miss all the fine dining and unique shopping on 30-A.
PENSACOLA—I have not spent much time here. When we made our first trip with Ryder, in 1997, we stayed in a very old, retro hotel that was right on the beach. It was destroyed in one of the hurricanes that tore through Pensacola since we made that journey. The beaches are beautiful and something about the ocean currents makes the water so much nicer than the previous places mentioned. (Are you sensing a trend? Travel east and the water gets bluer?) Jimmy Buffett opened one of his Margaritaville Hotel and Resort complexes here and I kinda want to try it out just to see what it’s like but I have not done that yet. I do know, from my visits, that you can find anything to rent in this area from a beach shack to a luxury home or condominium. It’s a huge mish-mash of high rises, homes and commercial stuff and has just never really appealed to me. If you do book in this area, be sure you know whether you are renting in Pensacola or Pensacola Beach because there is a difference. Pensacola Beach is where the nice, blue water is.
NAVARRE BEACH—I’ve driven through Navarre Beach two times & it was so pretty we stopped to walk on the beach. We have never stayed here. It’s a gorgeous area with very little commercial development. It’s further east than Pensacola Beach. If you want to go somewhere with very little restaurant/tourism development around, go here. It’s so quiet. It’s perfect for families who are truly going to hang out at the beach day after day and like to cook meals in their condo. It’s NOT for the family who needs to be entertained and fed by others, with the exception of a Stinky’s Fish Camp. There you will find some good food! The water is gorgeous, the people are friendly. If you MUST seek out something commercial, there’s a bridge that will connect you to the mainland. This beach is about as close to unspoiled as you will get. Or it was the last time I was there. It’s amazing the change that can happen in one season along the gulf.
FT. WALTON BEACH—I’m being honest here so Ft. Walton Beach is just not my thing. I don’t really agree with the info in the link I posted. I find it very congested and low on higher-end accommodations. There is a Gulfarium Marine Park here that our kids enjoyed when they were wee ones. Other than that, I don’t have much to say about it.
DESTIN– Destin has high rises for miles, but more of an upscale feel than Panama City. This is a great place to stay if you don’t mind insanely tall high-rise condos and you want to be entertained almost 24/7. There are tons of restaurants, both local and commercial, a huge water park, watersports galore, giant outlet mall, huge non-outlet outdoor mall, nightclubs, seafood shacks, boat charters, dolphin cruises, etc. We used to make the trip back to Destin a couple of times a week when we would stay on 30-A. Now we rarely go. I think the kids have gotten older and require less to stay entertained. I like to think they just enjoy simply hanging out more but probably not! The traffic. Ugh, the traffic. We even bypass it on I-10 on our way now and avoid it altogether. Sandestin is a resort within the town of Destin & is a little more private/exclusive. I have eaten there and shopped there but never stayed overnight in Sandestin.
PANAMA CITY/PANAMA CITY BEACH—Aaaah, the original redneck Riviera. Visit and you’ll see why! I really wish I could be more positive about Panama City Beach/Panama City. There are some places we go when we are staying in Seacrest that are in PCB – Thomas’ Donuts, Goofy Golf, Funland and sometimes, the new Pier Park, which was a huge attempt to salvage PCB’s redneck reputation and is a nice shopping/entertainment complex. The problem with Pier Park is that it’s surrounded by a mix of new condo units, dilapidated condo complexes and old, old hotels. It’s quickly losing it’s appeal for me, plus I’m not too into shopping at mall stores on my beach vacation. Tattoo parlors ABOUND in Panama City, along with the occasional sex shop. More than one fugitive has been found hiding in the dilapidated infrastructure of Panama City Beach. And yet, parts of it are charming. In all honesty, I wish I could have visited in it’s heyday. That would have been much cooler than visiting now. We sometimes drive over to play miniature golf at Goofy Golf, the longest-running business on “the strip”. (The fact that it has a “strip” will tell you it’s touristy!) Goofy Golf is a quirky, retro place to spend a couple hours after having dinner at Captain Anderson’s Restaurant, which, also rather retro in style, is a fine dining establishment that sits right on a harbor. Glorious water views and good food. It’s worth wading through the madness. Funland is an old-fashioned dairy bar & arcade that has been in continuous operation since 1953. Our daughter Ryder will no longer go there with us but the boys, Chuck, my dad and I love to go get some good dairy bar food and play a few games. Thomas’ Donuts, on the western end of the PCB strip serves up wonderful breakfast food and donuts and has also been around for many, many years. Get there early unless you want to stand in a long line. Save for a few condo complexes off the beaten path, I don’t even want to discuss accommodations here. HOWEVER, if a town being ultra clean & neat is not important to you, crowded beaches are ok and you want to be in the midst of constant activity, this might be your place. You can always take a jaunt over to Shell Island, a pristine island with perfect sand, crystal-clear water and not one business, home or hotel. Not one. Unfortunately there is also no bathroom either, so you’ll want to time your trip just right. I highly recommend renting a pontoon and getting yourself there as opposed to going on the shuttle. HIGHLY. Unless you love to study tattoo art.
SEASIDE/GRAYTON/WATERCOLOR/ROSEMARY BEACH/ALYS BEACH/WATERSOUND/SEACREST BEACH (ALSO KNOWN AS HWY. 30-A) —- You had to know I would save what I consider to be the best for last. I will be the first to admit that if you are looking for a budget vacation, this might not be your best bet. I’m sure there are ways to save like going in on accommodations and cooking all of your meals in but to really get a feel of this area, I don’t recommend that. Highway 30-A is a county road in Walton County, FL that forms a 28.5 mile loop off of Florida Highway 98 dipping down several miles east of Destin and coming back up to Hwy. 98 just west of Panama City Beach, FL. Seagrove Beach and Grayton Beach were the original beach communities on this stretch of highway and it was mostly an isolated stretch of beach until Robert Davis developed his vision of a perfect beach town, known famously now as Seaside, FL. When we first began visiting 30-A, Seaside was just coming into it’s own & was nothing like it is now. I remember after we visited we got constant information on the NEW communities of Watercolor and Rosemary Beach that were barely even under construction. (Oh, how I wish we could have bought a home there in the early stages of development! Hindsight’s 20/20!) Long story short, since 1997, this area has exploded and I’ve heard naysayers condemn all the development. I disagree, because it still provides a beach experience far above what I’ve had elsewhere. There is only one tall high-rise on the beach and one semi-tall condo unit. I think I speak for all 30-A fans when I say I wish they could be torn down and replaced with homes but what’s done is done. Regulations stopped future high-rise development and so though you will find some condo complexes that have been around since the early days, it’s mainly a 28.5 mile stretch of beach homes ranging from 2-bedroom to 8-bedroom. Although there is a Tom Thumb convenience store and a Publix supermarket along this road, the rest of the businesses are private establishments, mostly owned by people local to the area or those who have visited and been inspired to stay. You’ll find an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, small businesses ranging from spas to a doctor’s office or two, bike rental facilities, etc. You can seek out watersports such a parasailing, windsurfing and paddle boarding but they aren’t in-your-face as in most beach communities. Everything is low-key here. Bike riding is the favorite pastime. Many of the towns have village squares where they host movie nights, farmer’s markets and mini-festivals. As I said earlier, we used to go into Destin a couple times but now we rarely leave the community we are staying in. We have personally stayed in Seaside, Watercolor, Seagrove and Seacrest Beach. I’ll go more in-depth about these communities in a future post. It’s insanely clean, very little need for police presence and the beaches are absolutely fantastic. There’s a feeling about 30-A that you just can’t describe to someone who hasn’t been. You’d have to be an awfully uptight person not to enjoy a vacation here.
I hope you found this helpful & I really hope you’ll plan a trip to the gulf coast. It’s my happy place and I constantly encourage others to experience it. In future entries, I hope to address restaurants, finding a perfect beach home, day trips, ways to save $ on your beach vacation, etc. If you have any questions or topics you would like me to post on, feel free to leave a comment below.