Designing an Idyllic Lifestyle Along Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A
Since the very beginning of time, mankind has demonstrated a special knack for ruining a perfectly decent Paradise. It seems to be somehow ingrained into our genetic code. As picture-perfect as any place may be, we tend to believe that we can somehow improve upon it.
That’s always been the problem with writing about an “undiscovered” piece of pristine paradise—as soon as a few folks learn about it, you can bet that it won’t be too long before there are condo towers, water slides, goofy golfs and loud cannons blasting off to spoil that otherwise serene sunset.
Time and time again, Paradise is lost. Lost to greed, poor execution or just a general lack of vision.
But it would be tough to argue that Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A hasn’t already been discovered. Even though the community only has about 12,000 full-time residents, some 3.5 million people visit the area every year, mostly during the hot summer months. 30A.com—the digital sage that chronicles life in this small beach town—has over 300,000 Facebook fans. To put that number into some perspective, 30A.com’s following is bigger than the populations of many major U.S. cities, including St. Louis (population: 317,419), Pittsburgh (305,412), Cincinnati (297,517), Newark (278,427), Orlando (249,562) and Birmingham (212,038), to name a few.
And Yahoo! recently named 30A one of the 10 BEST BEACH DESTINATIONS in the world. Not in Florida. Not in the Southeast. Not in the United States.
In. The. World.
“The beach communities on Scenic Highway 30A somehow manage to drip Southern family charm, pioneer cutting-edge design, and stay out of the limelight,” wrote The New York Times. “They also share what may be the best beach in the continental U.S.”
But although 30A itself may no longer be a secret, there’s certainly a secret formula behind its success. 30A hasn’t somehow magically “retained” its charm. Its charm has been crafted; cultivated. It didn’t happen by accident. In fact, it’s all by design.
The ‘Grayt’ Outdoors
In too many vacation destinations, Mother Nature is forced to take a backseat to neon-touted man-made attractions. You won’t find water slides, go-kart tracks, roller-coasters or putt-putt golf courses on 30A, but that’s certainly not to suggest that there aren’t plenty of things to do.
The communities here enthusiastically embrace the simple splendor of the great outdoors. Rather than paving paradise, local visionaries sought early on to protect it. In fact, over 40 percent of the land on this peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay is protected natural habitat. That means there’s over 25,000 acres of undeveloped land here to explore by foot, bike or waterway.
“30A’s beaches are the finest, whitest sand beaches in the country—probably the world,” said Stephen P. Leatherman (a.k.a. Dr. Beach) on his famous annual top 10 list of the world’s best beaches.
Grayton Beach ranked #1 on his list way back in 1994, and it’s enjoyed that pristine state ever since. In addition to Grayton Beach State Park, there’s also Deer Lake State Park, Eden Gardens State Park, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, nearby Camp Helen State Park and Point Washington State Forest, a 15,400-acre woodland preserve.
Perhaps the best way to explore local waterways is via Stand-up Paddle Board—or YOLO Boarding as it’s known here, after the Santa Rosa Beach-based company who helped put paddle boarding on the mainstream map. With the Gulf of Mexico, Choctawhatchee Bay, Intracoastal Canal, rivers and 15 rare coastal dune lakes, 30A is truly a paddler’s paradise.
A great way to learn more about 30A’s coastal dune lakes is by joining WalCo Eco Tours for a kayak or YOLO Board cruise across Western Lake. Group and individual tours are available, and you’ll also learn a lot about local plant and wildlife as you explore.
Professional and amateur anglers have also been coming to these sugar-white shores for over a century, as they truly offer some of the best sport fishing in the world. Although the bustling harbors in Destin and Panama City Beach are better known for deep-sea fishing excursions (mainly because their harbors have direct access to the Gulf), that certainly doesn’t mean that you need to drive to either place to satiate a fishing fix.
The Design Mecca
“The scenery was pretty on 30A, but when I was growing up, it was absolutely out in the middle of nowhere,” said Chef Phillip McDonald of Table Five Personal Chef + Catering. “Kids drove way out to 30A to camp and drink beer, because there were no cops. There was really no other reason to go out there, as far as Destin locals were concerned.”
Born and raised in Destin some 20 miles to the west, McDonald has watched 30A evolve at arm’s length distance.
“We all thought that the people who lived there were kind of strange,” said McDonald. “We were Condo City. They were Woods People.”
Marie Solomon was one of those Woods People.
“It was a wonderful childhood,” reflected Solomon, who’s been coming to these beaches since 1961; when she was just three weeks old. Now a full-time resident of Seagrove, Solomon has personally witnessed 30A’s transition from idyllic isolation to discovered destination.
“It was Mayberry,” said Solomon. “Our houses were all open and we all knew each other. We didn’t watch TV. We all fished and crabbed. The boys went shark fishing. Of course, we were bored sometimes.”
These were simpler times—the days before much thought was given to safety, rules and regulations.
“We would go on long dune buggy rides along the beach,” said Solomon. “We water-skied on Western Lake, and we’d jump off the bridge into Eastern Lake. My little brother always jumped off first, just to make sure it was deep enough for the rest of us.”
The single tiny gas station in Seagrove sold milk, beer and candy, but not any food of substance. “My father commuted every weekend to Dothan to buy groceries.”
But at some point, it all began to change—even if that change unfolded in Matrix-like super-slow-mo.
“I have vague memories of the road being paved,” said Solomon. “We didn’t call it 30A back then. We just called it ‘the road’… because it was the only road.”
That spark of transformation was first lit in 1981, when Robert and Daryl Davis founded Seaside. Robert had inherited an 80-acre tract of land out in the middle of nowhere. But what could he possibly do with it? If he built homes, who would want to live there? After all, the nearest grocery store was still an hour away. The nearest restaurant was an hour away too.
“Robert had a unique problem,” said Mark Schnell of Schnell Urban Design. “The really obvious thing to do was to just put up condo towers. The traditional math says that you should pack in the maximum number of eyeballs looking directly at the Gulf, in the closest possible distance to the beach.”
Fortunately for the future of 30A, that’s not what the Davis’ decided to do. Instead, Seaside’s meticulously calculated “small town” design was crafted to feature quaint neighborly cottages, unique beach pavilions, cobblestone streets, white picket fences, and picture-perfect parks and storefronts.
Schnell—who first learned about Seaside while earning his degree in Environmental Design at the University of Colorado—said that Davis focused on adding value to the “back” of the neighborhood, away from the beach; parks, amenities, view corridors, playgrounds, shops, a chapel and other hidden treasures for guests to discover and enjoy.
“To the casual observer, these are simply beautiful beach towns, but among those who design and build communities they are also some of the most widely admired, studied, and imitated places,” said Schnell. “Seaside, in particular, reinvented and popularized the concept of the walkable mixed-use community for a new era. It’s the place that inspired me to become an urban designer and devote much of my life to creating better places.”
In fact, Seaside’s design has been so successful that 30A.com’s Mike Ragsdale said he believes that the beach has become almost secondary to many visitors.
“People think they’re coming here for the beach,” said Ragsdale. “But if that was the primary driving factor, they could certainly find far better Gulf access and views from condo high-rises in other places.”
Instead, Ragsdale believes that people come to immerse themselves in 30A’s nostalgic sense of community, where quality family time reigns supreme. Perhaps that’s why Seaside was recently voted “Best Beach on Earth for Families” by Travel + Leisure magazine readers.
“Urban sprawl and long commutes have disconnected many people from enjoying a true sense of community,” said Ragsdale. “There are beautiful beaches all over the world, but I think many people come to 30A as much for picnics in the park, bike rides on cobblestone streets and outdoor concerts under the stars. I would wager that there are a surprising number of visitors who come here year after year who barely ever step foot on the sand.”
Schnell said that after visitors settle into their cottages, they hop onto their beach bikes, peddle up to Bud & Alley’s (a popular local perch), and then they watch the sunset over the Gulf. “At some point they begin to think, ‘Wow, this is really nice…. Why don’t I have this in my regular life?’”
Now the bustling epicenter of Scenic Highway 30A, Seaside has been hailed as “the U.S.A.’s pastel paradise” by USA Today and by Time magazine as “the most astounding design achievement of its era.” It’s credited with founding a global town-planning movement known as New Urbanism that’s spread to hundreds of other communities worldwide.
“What’s really amazing about 30A is that you have several extraordinary examples of New Urbanism all within a few miles of each other,” said Schnell. “30A is a mecca for design.”
Another one of 30A’s planned communities is Rosemary Beach, an architectural treasure trove boasting influences from the West Indies, New Orleans, Charleston and St. Augustine, among others. The striking Rosemary Beach homes (many with adjoining carriage houses that can sometimes be difficult to discern from the primary residence) are interconnected by a discreet network of pedestrian paths and boardwalks. These walkways become even more enchanting at night, basked in the soft flicker of gas-lit lanterns. And while still in its early stages of development, nearby Alys Beach is 30A’s newest New Urbanist concept, and it’s certainly worth an exploratory stroll.
Just a half-mile meander from Seaside, WaterColor Inn & Resort is a wonderland of activities, including expansive nature preserves, bike trails, lakes, shops, tennis and fitness facilities, a spa and restaurants. A short stroll or bike ride to the west, and you’ll cross 30A’s dramatic Western Lake into Grayton Beach State Park.
“All the communities are unusually photogenic, but the defining moments happen after you get out of your car and experience the place on foot or bike,” said Schnell. “You see the layers and complexity of design when you slow down a bit. But more than anything, you’re left with the feeling that it’s just a better way to live.”
With deliberate urban design layered gently across breathtaking natural vistas, it wasn’t long before people started moving in—photographers, painters, chefs, designers, builders, authors, landscapers, merchants, architects, teachers.
Virtually no one is “transferred” here: They all move here by choice. “I just wanted to live at the beach,” is how the story almost universally begins.
With more and more creative and entrepreneurial talents flocking to these sugar sand shores, it wasn’t long before 30A began to develop its own identity—its own sense of cultural and artistic purpose.
“We always knew it was a growing artist community,” said Chef Phil McDonald. “It was a tight-knit creative community that wanted to create a better way of life.”
The first “Grayton Beach Fine Arts Festival” was held in 1989, and because of the event’s ever-increasing popularity, a Cultural Arts Alliance (CAA) was founded to help organize and promote local artistic celebrations. Today on 30A, there are so many plays, open-air markets, wine tastings, concerts and other events that you practically need an app to keep up with them all. (Fortunately, there’s a free one for both iPhone and Android users.)
One of the CAA’s most successful new events is the 30A Songwriters Festival, now entering its 4th year. Held every January over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, the 30A Songwriters Festival showcases over 200 musical performances by more than 100 national and local singer-songwriters. Venues range from intimate listening rooms to grassy outdoor amphitheaters, each with its own special vibe and ambiance.
“It’s kind of like Nashville with a tan,” said performer Shawn Mullins, known for his #1 GRAMMY-nominated hit Lullaby, among others.
Past artists have included Indigo Girls, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jeffrey Steele, Suzanne Vega and hundreds of others, including popular local talents like Geoff McBride, Forrest Williams, Donnie Sundal, Kelsey Anna, Kyle LaMonica, Ben Friedman, Chris Alvarado, Zack Rosicka, Dannica Lowery, Mike Whitty and others.
Every June, 30A flickers to electronic life during Digital Graffiti, the world’s first projection art festival. Held in the blindingly gorgeous town of Alys Beach, digital and video artists from around the globe wait until dark to project extraordinary, surreal, algorithmic, kaleidoscopic, and moving works of art onto stark white walls and rooftops. The result is a bewildering larger-than-life explosion of colors and compelling visuals, projected 2 and 3 stories tall onto the white homes and businesses of an entire beach community.
“Our town literally becomes the world’s largest blank canvas,” said Kelli Siler of Alys Beach.
Each year, Digital Graffiti attracts digital artists, filmmakers, musicians, interactive designers, photographers, VJs, producers, celebrities, agency executives and fans of art, technology and architecture. Thousands of dollars in cash prizes are awarded to artists, with digital submissions being received from as far away as Israel, Austria, Canada, Germany, London, India, France, Italy and China.
There are countless other events on 30A throughout the year, many produced by the Seaside Repertory Theatre, often simply referred to as “The REP.”
Founded in 2001, the REP is Northwest Florida’s premier professional theatre company, with seasonal shows produced and performed by professional actors from around the U.S. From special shows for young children, to dramas, musicals and comedies with adult themes, the troupe’s artistic range is both entertaining and exhilarating. You can often catch a free performance in one of 30A’s many outdoor amphitheaters, including Rosemary Beach, WaterColor, Alys Beach, Baytowne Wharf and Seaside, which is also home to the REP’s headquarters: a 75-seat indoor stage.
The 30A Tribe
Travel + Leisure magazine once called 30A “one of the most intriguing stretches of roadway in America” and a “remarkable laboratory of lifestyle.”
With pristine natural beauty as the setting, extraordinary architecture and urban design as the stage, and an eclectic bevy of creative talents as the central players, 30A is currently enjoying a coastal renaissance—an explosion of musical, artistic, entrepreneurial and culinary creativity.
“When I run into my childhood friends from Seagrove, we all laugh, because none of us would have ever thought about moving here full-time if such progress hadn’t been made,” said Marie Solomon.
Residents and visitors share communal pride in their planned paradise by displaying Gulf-blue 30A Stickers on their cars and places of business. “You’ve probably seen them—round, blue ’30A’ stickers—adorning cars on highways all over the South,” wrote Southern Living. “More than a quarter of a million are now strewn throughout the planet and spotted in places as far afield as Afghanistan, Uruguay and Iceland.”
“It’s a tribal thing,” said Mike Ragsdale of 30A’s secret sticker handshake. “Even if we’re separated by thousands of miles, we’re all part of this little beach community. It’s really become less about a specific place and more about that wonderful feeling you get when you’re here. 30A is like sand in your shoes—once it’s in there, you’ll never get it all out.”
For more information about Florida’s Scenic Highway 30A, visit 30A.com. To plan a beach vacation, visit 30Arentals.com.