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Destinations :: Paradise on the Gulf of Mexico

The sand along the sea coast stretching from San Destin to Rosemary Beach, Florida, glistens like crystallized powdered sugar. Beyond these beaches lie the crystal clear and intoxicating Aegean-colored waves of the Gulf of Mexico.

There is no other sand like this wind-weathered quartz which originated in the Appalachian Mountains hundreds of miles away. Over the course of millions of years, these glass particles reached rivers and found their way to the mouth of the Apalachicola River, where they spread with rising sea levels.

Hidden among the dunes

This stretch of beach is paralleled by the Walton County highway known as 30A. It begins where Topsail Hill Preserve State Park ends, where great blue herons, egrets, and pelicans traverse the skies and bobcat, armadillo, alligator, deer, fox, and bear roam preserved lands. Bird watchers flock here to find anhingas, cormorants, white ibis, and other wetland birds. The park is also home to the endangered Choctawhatchee dune mouse and gopher tortoise. It is laden with myrtle oaks, live oaks, and magnolia trees and has largely been unaffected by the coastal progress of rising condominiums and tourist traps of its Destin, Florida, neighbors.

Here, spots for RVs and tents are available, as are cabins and bungalows.



A rare coastal dune lake

Look just to the west, and the little-known Coffeen Nature Preserve welcomes visitors for a lesson in its noteworthy history. That land, with its high dunes and proximity to Eglin Air Force Base, was used during World War II for missile tests. Today, three bunkers remain that were used as late as the 1940s. The land and animals of this 230-acre park are protected, and it is open to the public with reservation-only tours that include hiking trails and a stunning and rare dune lake. Lake Fuller is one of the rarest remaining coastal dune lakes in the world. There are 25 such lakes in existence (in New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and on the US Pacific Coast), with 15 of them located here in the coastal county of Walton. This hidden 40-acre lake is fed by rainwater and groundwater seepage and teems with aquatic wildlife. It retains its beauty with few human footprints.

Further down 30A lie 16 communities that sprang from these types of unparalleled beaches. Each uses a unique architecture as an expression of the sand, the water, and the wildlife found nearby, creating vibrant cultural centers.

Rosemary Beach

At 30A’s southernmost point, Rosemary Beach is reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter or old-world Europe, with balconied buildings built against cobbled streets. Visitors rent bicycles or stroll by café tables and outdoor vendors. Some streets seem nearly deserted, with locals using a series of hidden walkways leading to the town’s center.



Downtown, The Pearl Hotel shines against the crystal blue Gulf waters, embodying the feel of Havana. Across the street, La Crema offers a chocolate-only menu alongside its lunch offerings like paella with lobster tails, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, and chorizo, or its chicken en fuego with a caper cream sauce. The restaurant offers a romantic appeal with guests dining amid gas lights, cobblestone, and wrought iron with a fresh Gulf breeze drifting in from the nearby beach.

Alys Beach

A few miles up the road, tall palm trees welcome guests to Alys Beach, known for its stark white buildings and community art projects. Each new home buyer there must commit to an art project as part of a residential agreement, a gesture of willful place-making.


This community is built with a sustainable design and architecture that blends indoor and outdoor living spaces. Buildings here are reminiscent of the Mediterranean, with Moroccan, Italian, and Greek influences. Here, visitors can attend events such as the Digital Graffiti Festival, slated next for May 19-20, where artists from around the world create and project their work onto the white-washed buildings. It is a striking aesthetic that includes food and wine pairings from some of the world’s most notable chefs and sommeliers.


Seaside is perhaps the most popular coastal community along this stretch of road and pioneered its 15 sister communities to the north and south. Built during the 1980s, it flourished as a colorful pastel community with small-town charm. The town is so unique that it provided the backdrop for the movie, The Truman Show. While traffic jams are common along the main road, the people who live and visit here are pedestrians or bicyclists. All roads here lead to one common locale: the beach.

Here, Bud and Alley’s serves as Walton County’s oldest restaurant, opened in 1987 by two surfing buddies and named after a dog and cat. The French-inspired cuisine is created from the ocean’s bounty and includes southern favorites like shrimp and grits and grilled grouper.


Just a few miles north, the tourist population subsides in nearby Watersound which provides a more naturalistic and relaxing retreat for its visitors. Rich with beaches, forests, and dunes, the land here is protected from further commercial development. Its highlight: Deer Lake State Park, home to more rare coastal dune lakes with salt- and fresh-water fish and bird species. Dune Allen, another neighborhood a few miles away, also offers three more coastal dune lakes with Caspian terns, coots, snowy and cattle egrets, red wings, and yellow rumpled warblers. The public beach here is large, easily accessible, and rather isolated.

Grayton Beach

So committed to ecological preservation is Walton County, that nature preserves make up 40 percent of the area, land whose rich pine forests and wildlife are protected from further development. Like the environmentally-responsible Topsail Preserve, Grayton Beach State Park, nestled between Seaside and Dune Allen, consistently ranks among the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the country. The western lake provides fishing, paddling, and hiking trails through dense coastal forests, where scrub oaks and magnolias have been beautifully shaped by saltwater winds. This 2,000-acre park offers accommodations for Rvs, but also has cabins and tent campsites.

From Topsail to Rosemary Beach, there is no shortage of wildlife, stunning shorelines, or beautiful camping areas to behold along 30A. The drive is a relatively short distance, but visitors will want to plan several days for exploration, sightseeing, and dining opportunities.

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Marianne Todd has been a professional photojournalist and writer since 1987. Her career began in newspapers and rapidly spread into national news magazines. Her work has been featured on the pages of Time, Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, where she was nominated for Photographer of the Year International. Todd became a publisher in 2009, creating titles reflecting the music, arts, and tourism industries of the South (she still sports the accent), and her work as the official photographer for Governor Haley Barbour led her to photograph everything from Hurricane Katrina to presidential visits. Since moving to New Mexico four years ago, she has left hard news coverage to travel on her trusty BMW F 750 GS, journeying the roads of America and beyond.