Travel

This Slice of the Florida Panhandle Is Extra Chill and Extra Gorgeous

Funky or bougie, you'll find your ideal Florida here.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

Blue, teal, and tan swirls like watercolours as a coastal dune lake slowly spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Watching this scene, feeling blissfully chill in the salty breeze, for a second I forget that less than an hour down the beach is a completely different world: one of cheesy nightclubs, crowded boardwalks, and gaudy box hotels.

South Walton has that kind of transportation effect. This is one of the most stunning IYKYN situations in the Sunshine State. And, well, now you know too.

South Walton is a sleepy region of the Panhandle made up of 16 laid-back beach communities. It’s a stone’s throw from some of Florida’s most popular beach destinations-about 10 miles from Destin, 30 from Panama City Beach-but it feels lightyears away. It’s everything you love about Florida-soft white beaches, turquoise waters (they don’t call it the Emerald Coast for nothing), seafood and sea creatures-minus the bleary-eyed crowds and crass commercialization.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

South Walton is also home to the coastal highway known as 30A, a compact 24-mile stretch where gorgeous sights follow one after another. Here, you’re literally forced to slow down a bit. The towns alternate between funky and casual (like Grayton Beach, home of iconic dive Red Bar) to exclusive and chic (like Seaside, which you might recognize from a little film called The Truman Show.) In other words, flip-flops are fine, but the option to don a sparkly dress for dinner is there too. You do you.

Here are the essential stops along this criminally overlooked slice of Floridian heaven hiding in the Panhandle.

Courtesy of Visit South Walton
Courtesy of Visit South Walton
Courtesy of Visit South Walton

Where to stay: Miramar Beach

Miramar Beach is the most bustling South Walton neighbourhood, and thus an ideal base camp for a 30A vacation. It’s where you’ll find Sandestin, a 2,400-acre complex filled with vacation rentals, hotels, restaurants, and four golf courses-so pack your clubs.

But it’s hard to resist the allure of Hotel Effie, which opened in February. The 250-room hotel is shiny and new, but most critically, it’s home to a rooftop pool and bar called Ara with panoramic views of the bay. The drinks menu was crafted by nationally lauded bartender Kellie Thorn, so expect to find potent cocktails presented beautifully (their piña colada with toasted coconut is a showstopper). Plus the onsite restaurant, Ovide, is backed by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. The hotel isn’t on the beach, but it’s only a five-minute complimentary tram ride away.

If you’d rather stay in the heart of 30A, consider booking a room at The Pearl at Rosemary Beach.The 55-room hotel is intimate and creates a sense of place with local art throughout its halls and an easy-to-get-to private beach. Bonus points for the spa.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

Santa Rosa Beach

Natural beauty, art, and indulgence are the three defining features of South Walton’s largest community. Santa Rosa Beach is home to the artist colony at Gulf Place, the sprawling Point Washington State Forest, and beaches with powdery sands.

If donuts are a quintessential part of your vacation experience (they are for this writer), beeline to Donut Hut first thing in the morning: The shop has a 77-year-old recipe and offers a huge variety of flavors, though the simple old fashioned remains a standout. For a wider array of carbs, head to Black Bear Bread Co. for pastries and sandwiches. Then, a stop at the sunshine yellow Blue Mountain Beach Creamery is mandatory for a scoop of key lime pie or whatever is on the rotating menu.

All of that indulgence calls for…more indulgence. Distillery 98 specializes in small-batch vodka poured in an off-the-beaten-path warehouse. Their signature spirit, Dune Laker, is made with Florida-grown corn and filtered through Gulf oysters, adding a little something-something to the flavour. For beer lovers, Idyll Hounds Brewing Company (just next-door!) has 12 beers that rotate often, but keep an eye out for the easy-drinking Ghost Crab Pilsna.

For a taste of the arts, visit Modus Photography, where Chandler Williams sells his photographs capturing the dreamy landscapes of the South Walton beaches and wetlands. Next door is Andy Saczynski’s gallery, worth a stop to drool over whimsical, funky art made with found materials.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

Grayton Beach

Grayton Beach is a funky hamlet that offers eclectic charm in spades, but its real draw is one of America’s most unique coastal phenomena: Grayton Beach State Park, home to three coastal dune lakes formed thousands of years ago when shifting sand created shallow basins. These lakes can only be found in a few countries around the world. South Walton has 15-the only US coastal dune lakes aside from Oregon.

Incredibly, these lakes are filled with fresh water despite only being a few feet away from the Gulf. Consider renting a kayak and paddling around Western Lake to get the most of this unique feature: if you go in the late spring you might see the water lilies in bloom.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

If you’re a scuba diver, hit the Underwater Museum of Art located less than a mile off of the shore of the park’s beach. It’s a permanent underwater sculpture garden with exhibits like the Grayt Pineapple, which provide eye candy for divers and homes for marine life.

Don’t leave without stopping by the iconic Red Bar. The place is beloved for its kitschy decor (watch out for that disco ball) and fresh-from-the-Gulf seafood. The restaurant burned down in 2019, but the community chipped in to resurrect it a year later, right down to the art on the walls and posters on the ceiling. Afterwards, stroll around the neighbourhood to admire the colourful houses and the outdoor art wall.

Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton
Photo courtesy of Visit South Walton

Alys Beach

One of several planned developments along 30A, Alys Beach recalls Santorini with its crisp white architecture. It’s the most high-end and exclusive of the neighbourhoods: many amenities are off limits to visitors and there’s a strict photo policy. That said, walking down the pathways lined with lush landscaping is a delight. You can also book a luxury rental if you want to stay there.

The neighbourhood’s new restaurant, The Citizen, has a vibe to match its upscale locale. The beautifully designed dining room sets a coastal tone with its deep blue hue and gold accents against white walls. The standouts dishes here have been prepared in the wood-burning oven-think Korea-inspired smoked short rib-or caught locally, like the seared gulf grouper. Start with a Boardwalk Bound made with Empress gin, passionfruit, and velvet falernum.

Unsplash/Michael DeMarco
Unsplash/Michael DeMarco
Unsplash/Michael DeMarco

Rosemary Beach

Take a stroll through the colourful downtown area and visit art galleries like Curate30A and Sea Contemporary Art Space. While you’re there, grab a bite at the popular Cowgirl Kitchen, which serves casual Tex Mex, or opt for the elevated seafood (literally, it’s a rooftop) dishes at Pescado. This is an 18+ spot for dinner, but all ages are welcome for brunch and lunch. Either way, it’s an ideal spot to grab a table and a cocktail and soak in the Gulf views.

Seaside, FL
Seaside, FL
Seaside, FL

Seaside

In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey played a guy who unknowingly stars in a reality show, set in an impossibly idyllic beach town. That’s Seaside, and it required very little effort to make Truman’s hometown seem like an Earthbound paradise of pastel-coloured houses and dreamlike beaches. It’s worth a stop if you want to squeal with delight while strolling through town and stopping at landmarks like the famous white post office.

One of the coolest features of Seaside is Airstream Row. A group of restaurants-like Crepes du Soleil and Frost Bites-set up shop in Airstreams along 30A, lending a little funk to the picturesque scenery. If you prefer to sit-down with a grand view of the water, grab a table at Bud & Alley’s which serves classic Gulf fare like grilled head-on shrimp and seafood gumbo.

There’s more than cute eateries and buildings in Seaside. Sundog Books is an absolute must: an independent bookstore that’s been open for 30 years. If you need a beach read, or just want to support a cool local business, this is a worthy stop.

Good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight indeed.

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York TimesThe Washington PostWine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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