How to Have the Best Late-Fall Weekend on the Emerald Coast

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Photo: Courtesy of VisitSouthWalton.com

Officially, this part of the Florida Panhandle is called South Walton County, which spans some 16 communities along 24 miles of pristine, white-sand beaches. But locals generally refer to the heart of it as “30A,” after Scenic Highway 30A. Late fall is the best time to visit, when summer crowds have disappeared and you’re likely to have the beaches, whose beauty rivals that of those in the Caribbean, to yourself. Another bonus for an autumn trip? Peak hurricane season has passed (fortunately, this part of the state was spared during the recent devastation). As for getting there: Panama City Airport is the closest, about 30 minutes away; Destin/Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola are about an hour and two hours, respectively.

Where to Stay

You can rent a condo in the elegant beach community Alys Beach. Photo: Courtesy of Alys Beach

Bed down in style at the Pearl Hotel, the snazziest hotel in this neck of the woods. From the Dale Chihuly–inspired glass sculptures in the lobby to the adults-only pool to spacious rooms with beachy-chic art (from $399) complete with mini-cheesecakes at turndown, the property is the perfect blend of luxe and laid-back. Inspired by El Floridita, the favorite Havana haunt of Ernest Hemingway, the gorgeous, on-site Havana Beach Bar & Grill is a prime spot for a nightcap — and its hand-carved mahogany bar and captivating photography of the island country would have made Papa proud. But don’t have too many mojitos: The beach beckons, with vibrant black-and-white umbrellas and lounge chairs available for guest use.

Admire the gorgeous architecture of Alys Beach, an upscale, Bermuda-inspired beach community that’s easily spotted by its avenue of soaring palms and stunning whitewashed façades. A handful of one-bedroom condos (from $275 in the offseason) are available, or go big with a fancy house rental — wherever you stay, you can take advantage of proximity to the community’s pool, shops, and restaurants (and eventually, a sprawling wellness center, which is expected to open in early 2019). Recommended highlights include Fonville Press, a breezy spot for a quick bite for breakfast or lunch (try the excellent Gulf-shrimp sandwich, $16), and Neat, a beautiful tasting-room-bottle-shop hybrid. Check out the Wine & Song events on Tuesday evenings, with small bites and selected wines ($15). Be sure to factor in time for strolling the community and admiring (envying?) the spectacular homes and their courtyards, fountains, and pools.

Get a taste of Old Florida flavor at Seaside, which was among the first communities to embrace New Urbanism — and is the site where The Truman Show was filmed. Its pastel cottages, bustling town square, and nature trails are just as idyllic in real life, and movie landmarks like 36 Natchez Street and Modica Market are still there. Cottage rentals abound (some more dated than others), but a solid choice, especially for groups and families, is the newly renovated Pitter Patter (from around $400 in the offseason). Recently renovated with a modern, beach-themed aesthetic — the nautically inspired light fixtures are especially cool — the cheerful three-bedroom cottage features a spacious kitchen and dining room and ample living space, plus a screened-in porch perfect for whiling away the afternoon with a cocktail in hand. The town square is a five-minute walk away; for a casual dinner, grab a bite from one of several food vendors in Airstream trailers, or settle in for a glass of wine on the patio of the lovely 45 Central Wine Bar.

Where to Eat

At La Crema, order the OMG Chocolate Espresso cookie. Photo: Courtesy of La Crema

Tuck into Italian favorites at Amici 30A, a brand-new spot with airy décor — if the weather is nice, opt for a table on the patio. Run by a former casino owner and his incredibly friendly family, the eatery shines with pastas showcased in dishes like the made-for-sharing spaghetti frutti di mare ($40), a savory pile of bucatini and local shellfish. Neapolitan-style pizzas are another highlight — try the kicky bianca, topped with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, rosemary, and Calabrese chiles ($18; during happy hour, from 3 to 6 p.m., all pizzas are $10). You probably won’t be hungry for dessert, but order the housemade tiramisu ($11) and the Nutella zeppoles ($10) anyway.

Sample Spanish- and Caribbean-leaning dishes at Chiringo, a laid-back open-air restaurant with great views of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s become a locals’ favorite since opening in spring 2016. Start off with several small plates to share, including the beet hummus ($8), lump crab and avocado toast ($13), and the grouper frituras (MP) — bite-size chunks of the flavorful fried fish. Or go for a hearty bowl of Spanish-style rice topped with seasonal veggies, fish, or shrimp (from $13).

Tapas and chocolate are the specialties at La Crema, a cozy little restaurant in Rosemary Beach. Grab a patio table for an alfresco meal, starting off with serrano-wrapped figs stuffed with honey goat cheese ($6) and spicy patatas bravas ($8). Then move on to larger plates like saffron scallops ($18) and Málaga shrimp, sautéed with olives, tomato, and goat cheese ($15). Sweet tooths could make an entire meal out of the chocolate menu, which includes eight Spanish-inspired sipping chocolates. Keep an eye out for the upcoming renovation, which will expand the kitchen and dining space.

What to Do

The white sand at Grayton Beach State Park is derived from quartz. Photo: Courtesy of VisitSouthWalton.com

Dig into the rich arts scene of the Emerald Coast, starting with the colorful Shops of Grayton Beach, designed to look like beach shacks. Area native and mixed-media artist Andy Saczynski’s studio-gallery is chock-full of his eye-catching creations, many of which reflect local inspiration like sea creatures and coastal landscapes. From there, head to the Shard Shop, where you can make your own glass art (hourlong classes, including materials: $85/adult). Get inspiration from the stunning work by owner and glass artist Mary Hong, whose studio is next door. By night, check out the Seaside Repertory Theatre, which has a year-round calendar of live music, improv shows, and children’s productions.

Explore the serene outdoor playground of the Emerald Coast, beginning with a surf or stand-up-paddleboard lesson with Austin Magee’s Surf School in Seaside; owner and area native Austin Magee might be the one teaching you the basics (from $76 per person/hour). Refuel at Seaside’s Great Southern Café, whose signature Grits à Ya Ya ($15) uses Gouda cheese and is topped with spiced shrimp and portabello mushrooms. Next up: a self-guided bike tour along some of the area’s 200 miles of bike trails and paths. Get pedaling with a cruiser rental at Seaside Transit Authority (from $30/day), and take your time rolling through the beach communities (nearby Watercolor was designed by architect David Rockwell). Make your way to the 19-mile Timpoochee Trail, which runs alongside 30A, and head west to Grayton Beach State Park, which showcases stunning, white-sand beaches (derived from quartz, the sand squeaks when you walk through it) and the jewel-toned water that gives the Emerald Coast its name. After the beach, head to the new Black Bear Bread Company, which has locals buzzing over its bread, baked on site. Try the avocado tartine on multigrain, topped with pickles and za’atar ($10), and, for something sweet, the enormous cinnamon roll ($4) is a winner. Wrap up your adventurous day with — what else? — a beer at the tasting room of Grayton Beer ($14 for five four-ounce tastes). If it’s available, order a glass ($9) of head brewer Tyler White’s Dubbel Barrel: a Belgian Dubbel aged in bourbon barrels. It’s a revelation.

Soak up the Old Florida vibe with a trip to some of the area’s long-standing local favorites, starting with breakfast at the South Walton location of the Donut Hole, which has been operating in the area since 1978. Bill Clinton popped in while stumping for Hillary, but celebrity endorsements aside, the place stands alone with its breakfasts, Key-lime pie, and, of course, doughnuts. From there, it’s on to the Zoo Gallery in Grayton Beach, a funky gift shop that’s been showcasing the work of local artists since 1979. For easy-to-pack souvenirs, you can’t beat the handmade jewelry. Just across the street is the Red Bar, a restaurant located in a former general store and virtually wallpapered with pop-culture memorabilia; choose from hearty seafood dishes off the chalkboard menu. And there’s no better place for a sunset cocktail than at Bud & Alley’s, which opened in 1986. Arrive early to snag a table with Gulf views (there are no reservations on the patio), order an adult beverage, and raise a glass to the Emerald Coast.

Expert’s Tips

The Hub acts as a community center of sorts, hosting events and live music and offering a handful of restaurants. Photo: Courtesy of The Hub

From Kevin Korman, chef-owner of Roselie, an upscale restaurant that specializes in New American dishes featuring locally sourced seafood and on Fridays offers a spectacular ten-course tasting menu ($89; wine pairings $45 extra).

I love the Twin Oaks Farm Stand in the Shops at Grayton Beach. The owner, Renee, has a 94-acre organic farm in nearby Bonifay. She became known for her eggs — 100 percent organic, soy-free. There’s also breakfast and coffee, using her own products and those of other farmers she works with.

Seagars, in Destin, is a classic steakhouse, but it’s really well executed. They’re known for their meats and have specialty custom cuts. One of the things that really stands out is the twice-baked potato — the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It could feed four people.

My wife and I really love Edward’s in Rosemary Beach. There’s a really awesome, quaint little courtyard, and, in the colder months, sometimes things like movie nights. The menu changes often, but there’s a classic version of a tuna tartare, with capers, pickles, Dijon, and crostini — it’s really good. They only serve beer and wine, but they’ve gotten pretty creative with some cool wine cocktails.

Duckies Shop of Fun in Seaside is a children’s toy store, but they have a lot of fun things for everyone in there. There’s a giant duck outside the kids love to ride on. And my wife loves Willow, a boho-chic boutique that has two locations, one in Rosemary Beach, and one in Seaside, which is called Willow + Woods.

The Hub is really cool. There’s a giant amphitheater for shows and live music and four or five different places to eat and drink. We love to go there with the kids, and you can get there with the 30A trolley. It’s a bus that looks like a New Orleans trolley, and it runs the entire length of Highway 30A. We did it one day recently with our girls, just took the trolley to the Hub, had some ice cream and some drinks, and came back. It was great.

For ice cream, the Creamery of Blue Mountain Beach is fantastic. There’s beach access right next to it, and after the beach, we stop in. Angela usually gets straight-up chocolate; I usually get coconut almond or mocha chip.

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How to Have the Best Late-Fall Weekend on the Emerald Coast