Travel

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

The opposite of spring break in the Sunshine State.

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

As a coastal dune lake slowly spills into the Gulf of Mexico, shades of blue, teal, and tan swirl together like watercolours. This geological phenomenon is something you’ll only find in a few (mostly far-flung) places in the world, like Madagascar and New Zealand. You wouldn’t expect this in a sleepy stretch of Florida’s Panhandle-but that’s the kind of transportative effect South Walton has.

Comprised of 16 laid-back beach communities, South Walton is not far from some of Florida’s most popular beach towns-it’s only 10 miles from Destin, 30 from Panama City Beach-but it feels lightyears away. South Walton is everything people love about the Sunshine State-powder-soft shores, turquoise-coloured waters (they don’t call it the Emerald Coast for nothing), and fresh-off-boat seafood straight from the Gulf-minus the spring breakers and shores crowded with high-rises.

Photo courtesy of Moon Creek Studios
Photo courtesy of Moon Creek Studios
Photo courtesy of Moon Creek Studios

Along the compact, 24-mile Scenic Highway 30A, which winds along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll be treated to one gorgeous sight after the next. Even if you’re the kind of person who can’t shut off, you’ll literally be forced to slow down a bit. The towns alternate between funky and laid-back-take Grayton Beach, home of iconic dive The Red Bar-to postcard-perfect like Seaside, which you might recognize from The Truman Show. In other words, flip-flops are totally fine, but if you want to get glammed up for dinner, that wouldn’t be out of place, either.

Whether you’re road tripping from one of the neighbouring Southern states or dropping in and posting up on a single stretch of sand, here is how-and where-to plan a trip to this overlooked slice of Floridian heaven hiding in the Panhandle.

Photo by Gary Bodgan, courtesy of Hotel Effie
Photo by Gary Bodgan, courtesy of Hotel Effie
Photo by Gary Bodgan, courtesy of Hotel Effie

Where to stay: Miramar Beach

One of the most bustling neighbourhoods in South Walton, Miramar Beach makes for a great base. Here, you’ll find Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 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, a 250-room hotel that’s shiny and new, but, most importantly, home to a rooftop pool and bar called Ara with panoramic views of the bay. The cocktail program was designed by nationally lauded bartender Kellie Thorn, so expect to find showstoppers like the toasted coconut piña colada. The onsite restaurant, Ovide, is just as impressive-it’s the brainchild of multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Hugh Acheson, who infuses French touches into the coastal cuisine. The hotel isn’t on the beach, but it’s only a five-minute (complimentary) tram ride away.

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 sand.

If doughnuts are a quintessential part of your vacation experience (they are for this writer), beeline to Dough Sea Dough in the morning. While you can choose toppings like bacon or cereal, a classic doughnut (with a hole) remains a standout. For a wider array of carbs, head to Parisian-inspired Black Bear Bread Co. for pastries and sandwiches (plus cold brew or a cappuccino a la Stumptown Coffee Roasters). Then, a stop at the sunflower-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, well, more indulgence. Distillery 98 specializes in small-batch vodka from family-farmed crops poured in an off-the-beaten-path warehouse. Their signature spirit, Dune Laker, is made with Florida-grown corn and filtered through Gulf oysters, which adds a little something-something to the flavour. For beer lovers, Idyll Hounds Brewing Company (located just next door) features more than a dozen beers on tap 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 of dreamy landscapes of South Walton’s beaches and wetlands. Next door is Andy Saczynski’s gallery, lined with funky folk art crafted with house paint, wood, and recycled musical instruments.

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

Grayton Beach

Grayton Beach is a coastal artist haven that offers eclectic charm in spades, but its real draw is one of America’s most impressive coastal sights: 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, and they’re the only U.S. coastal dune lakes aside from Oregon. Incredibly, these lakes are filled with fresh water despite only being a few feet away from the Gulf.

Rent a kayak and paddle around Western Lake-if you go in the late spring, you might see the water lilies in bloom. If you’re a scuba diver, explore the Underwater Museum of Art, a permanent underwater sculpture garden located less than a mile off of the shore of the park’s beach.

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

Don’t leave without stopping by the infamous Red Bar, a place 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, commissioning a local artist to paint the front door and sourcing duplicates of memorabilia to hang from the ceiling and walls. Afterward, stroll around the neighbourhood to admire the colourful houses and outdoor art wall, a gallery with more than a dozen pieces that continues to evolve as more art is added.

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 is like a Florida version of the Greek Cyclades with its crisp white architecture. It’s the most high-end 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. Fitting the neighbourhood’s exclusive vibe, if you want to stay, you’ll have to book a luxury rental.

The neighbourhood’s newest “tavern,” The Citizen, is just as upscale as you’d expect. It has a beautifully designed dining room that sets a coastal tone with its deep blue hue and gold accents. The standouts dishes have been prepared in the wood-burning oven (think Korean-inspired smoked short rib) or caught locally, like the seared gulf grouper. Start the evening with a cheekily titled Big Dune Energy, cucumber-infused Dune Laker Vodka (crafted by Distillery 98), basil oil, lime, and strawberry balsamic.

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

Rosemary Beach

In the “neo-traditional” beach community (named one of “America’s Most Romantic Small Towns”), everything is within walking distance of the colourful downtown area, where you’ll find art galleries like Curate30A, which focuses on collectible fine art. While strolling along Main Street, grab a bite at the popular Cowgirl Kitchen, which serves casual Tex-Mex, or opt for the elevated seafood (literally, it’s a rooftop) plates at Pescado. This is an 18+ spot for dinner, but all ages are welcome for brunch and lunch. Either way, it’s an ideal place to grab a cocktail and soak up the Gulf views.

Sleep in the heart of 30A at black-and-white-striped The Pearl. The 55-room hotel is intimate and creates a sense of place with local art throughout its halls, and features balconies overlooking an easy-to-get-to private beach.

Seaside, FL
Seaside, FL
Seaside, FL

Seaside

In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character 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 a paradise of pastel-coloured houses and dreamlike beaches.

It’s worth a stop to see landmarks like the famous white post office, but one of the coolest features in Seaside is Airstream Row. A group of restaurants-like Crêpes du Soleil and Frost Bites-set up shop in Airstreams along 30A, lending a little funk to the fluffed-up scenery. If you prefer to sit down with a grand view of the water, snag 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, an independent bookstore that’s been open for 30 years, is an absolute must. If you need a beach read, or just want to support a great local business, this is worth a stop on your trip.

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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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