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A Beach Cruiser and Florida's Scenic Byway 30A

The best way to see 30A is on a beach cruiser

Rosemary Beach at dusk

One of the many pools at Watercolor Resort
by Melissa Cicci

[From Spring 2011] Along this stretch of highway known as Scenic Highway 30A on Florida's panhandle, most of the license plates read Sunshine (Florida), Pelican (Louisiana), Peach (Georgia), and Yellowhammer (Alabama), and regulars refer to the area as the “Redneck Riviera.” I’d heard the expression before making my first trip to the area last summer, but it sounded so pejorative that I wouldn’t have imagined using it myself, much less hearing the locals pronounce it with a grin, tongue firmly in cheek.

In fact, Southerners with ample disposable income have invested in new and upscale beach-side homes, resorts and planned developments. Surprisingly, these blend harmoniously with earlier, and more modest, beach bungalows, mid-century motels and seafood shacks. What sets the area apart, at least architecturally speaking, is that unlike much of Florida there isn’t a high-rise in sight. The U.S. Congress in 2008 recognized Highway 30A as a scenic byway, under the National Scenic Byways Program of the Federal Highway Administration. Beyond the byway and the housing is a gorgeous swath of white sand beach, coastal dune lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. The result of all this blending is an appealing, but quirky destination that brings regulars back season after season.

Long before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill changed the Gulf seascape in the spring of 2010, our family had made plans with friends to rent a house for a week in July at Watercolor Resort, a new development of homes, cottages and hotel near the midpoint of the byway. After April 20, we began monitoring the oil spill - some of us subscribing to daily NASA satellite images - as it crept closer to the shoreline we’d soon visit. The resort had assured us that if the beaches became hazardous or were closed by the state, our deposit would be refunded and we’d have an opportunity to rebook at a later date. We felt torn. We didn’t want to miss a vacation, but on the other hand, we felt guilty for thinking selfishly when families and businesses were in peril throughout the Gulf region. Fortunately for us, and the local tourism industry, the oil spill did not have a significant impact on the beaches of South Walton county.

During our week-long stay at Watercolor, we would body surf in the warm Gulf, idle in beach chairs with books in hand, encounter unfailingly friendly locals and seasonal regulars, dodge lightning strikes from a tropical disturbance, sample the best Bloody Marys we'd ever had at Stinky's Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach, play tennis, golf, kayak the coastal lakes, and explore much of the byway on two wheels.

The best way to see 30A is on a beach cruiser. Many of the resort developments provide guests with bikes for the duration of their stay. There are also bike shops - with bikes for hire - in most of the villages along the byway.

On a steamy afternoon following a few days of clouds and rain, four of us (two teenagers and two mothers) started out on our beach cruisers, heading east on 30A. [A bit of back story: before leaving for Florida, I had broken one of my toes and arrived at Watercolor hobbling. All plans for tennis and jogging on the beach were sidelined. But with open flip flops, my swollen toe and I could handle an easy ride on the flat byway.] Minus connector roads, 30A runs approximately 18.5 miles from Dune Allen to Inlet Beach. As the ride began at Watercolor, our round trip would be about 15 miles. Along the way, we passed through the planned village of Seaside (the shooting location of the 1998 Jim Carrey film, "The Truman Show"), new developments at Seagrove and Watersound, the white-washed Mediterranean fantasy of Alys Beach, and the hybrid European-Floridian village of Rosemary Beach.

Seaside was my favorite. Although it's a planned village, it feels more real than manufactured. Perhaps it's the Southern hospitality, the bustling town green, and local, family-owned stores that distinguish it from other resort towns that have a sameness to them. Sundog Books, right on the central town square, is a wonderful place to escape the summer heat or rain. The two-story building houses Sundog on the lower flower and Central Square Records above. The floors are creaky wooden planks and the shelves and tables are stacked with bestsellers and books by local authors. The proprietors are friendly and helpful to locals and visitors alike. Musical performances and book signings are regularly on the schedule of events on Sundog's wide front porch. Around the corner at Heavenly Shortcakes and Ice Cream, named for the owner's wife, sample ice cream, gelato, or the signature strawberry shortcake. Even in the pouring rain, Heavenly is worth a visit.

At the nearby Modica Market, a movie poster from "The Truman Show" hangs on one wall, Jim Carrey's silly face smiles down at all the patrons. Modica was featured in the 1998 film, but owners Sarah and Charles Modica greet every customer with courtesy, movie star or not. The prices are on the high end, as one would expect in a resort town, but stocking up on just enough wine, cheese and bread to fill a bike basket certainly beats driving to the nearest big box supermarket.

If You Go:
Nearby airports include Panama City/Northwest Florida Beaches International (ECP), served by Delta and Southwest, and Northwest Florida Regional Airport (VPS), served by American, Continental, United and USAirways.

We rented a house through Watercolor Vacation Rentals. Don't miss the Bloody Mary at Stinky's Fish Camp in Santa Rosa Beach. It's a meal in itself. Also stop by Sundog Books and Modica Market in Seaside.
For more information on towns, accommodations and what to do along the byway, visit Discover 30A.

Photographs by Sam Cicci
Preview photo courtesy of Beaches of South Walton

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