Vaca in Florida’s 30A

We aren’t what I’d call “beach” people, but our family does like to vacation in unique spots with good food and scenery.  This summer we wanted to take our 9 year old daughter “CB” to experience a real swimming beach for the first time so we tried out Destin, Florida.  The water was beautiful and food was pretty good but overall it wasn’t quite our scene.  Mega hotels with thousands of people, miles of cheap souvenir shops, nightclubs and bars.  Beach chairs in five layered rows and a funky college dorm smell in the hotel hallways.  Overall a great place to go for spring break in your 20s to just chill and drink on the beach but we felt old.

So this Thanksgiving when we were looking for a place to visit with my in-laws we decided to try out Florida’s 30A area that my friend has raved about for years. I researched on-line and kept coming up confused between Seacrest, Rosemary Beach, Alys Beach vacation areas.  They seemed to all be meshed together full of darling independent beach cottages to rent.  But which area would be best? Which is most affordable? Sure they’d all have private beached but which would be closest to restaurants, shopping and other nice entertainment?

Our first surprise was that the cottages on VRBO weren’t much more expensive than the aged, rough hotel rooms and condos in Destin and they looked much newer and beautifully decorated.  Each one looked like a picture from a summertime beach magazine.  Unfortunately because we waited until the last minute to book all of the smaller cottages were taken so we chose a condo in Seacrest near the town center.  It ended up being great with 3 spacious rooms, 3 bathrooms, a living room, kitchen and walk-out patio just steps from the pool. 

The three “towns” have been known to be called the “It’s a Small World” of beaches for good reason.  Really you have to visit the area to understand the difference between each.  They’re all connected with an easy bike ride from one to the next but each has a very different vibe (and price point).

SEACREST: Pastel rainbow pallet:  We chose to stay here based on friends’ recommendations.  Seacrest is like a small, walkable town with a few winding streets full of beachy Bermuda-style cottages and condos all leading towards the town center.  There, a handful  of local non-chain restaurants, a couple of gift shops and a spa all circle a grassy open area where each night families gather for outdoor dinner, live music and a warm firepit that lights up the whole park area. 

Seacrest Tips: 1) Book a spot to stay as close to the town center as possible.  Search for Peddlers 30a Inlet Beach, FL to spot it on a map.  You’ll want to walk or bike to this area at least once every day mainly for meals.

2) You might as well just take an Uber from the airport to your vacation spot because once you get there you won’t need to drive.  As soon as you get settled in, walk down to the town center and rent bikes at Peddlers 30a.  There are so many shops, beaches and restaurants within a mile or so you’ll be able to ride or walk to anything you need. 

3) Head back to the town center for dinner.  Eat at La Cocina, latin American food.  Get the brisket barbacoa tacos.  You’ll thank me and I’ll bet you’ll be back for a second visit here before your trip ends. 

4) After dinner, visit all of the fun pop-up shops but you must get a peach smoothy there and a pink cupcake from @thesugarshack_sweetsandtreats for the kids, relax under the pavilion and just enjoy watching the kids dancing in the park to the music backlit by the glow of the firepit.  They look like fireflies all around. 

ROSEMARY beach: Black and white pallet: Only a few blocks from Seacrest, Rosemary is a pricepoint level up with a larger shopping district full of high-end boutiques, many reservation-only restaurants and streeteries all leading toward the grassy knoll and then the private beach area.  CB, my mother-in-law and I enjoyed a girls day here on day 2. 

Rosemary Tips: 1) When you rent bikes from Peddlers 30A you might as well rent them for the week. Also pay a few extra dollars for a handlebar basket to hold your phone, wallet and keys.  If you’re like me and haven’t ridden a bike since you were in grade school go for the white one that doesn’t have a center bar.  Those are much easier to hop off when you stop (or to prevent a fall) since you only have to step to the side rather than swing your leg up and over. 

2) Follow the sidewalk to the left of the Seacrest town center to get to Rosemary beach area.  It’s a couple of blocks to the shopping district.  Traffic there gets pretty congested so you might as well park and lock your bike while you shop and eat (take note of where you parked it – That was an unnecessarily worrisome 40 minutes  I wasted looking for mine at the end of the trip).

3) You can easily spend a half day shopping and eating here so wear comfortable shoes.  Either bring a few credit cards or plan to do a lot of window shopping.  Prices are expensive + you don’t have a ton of room in the bike basket anyway.  Check out the restaurants and decide where to make reservations for dinner.  Bonus points if you count the number of “Influencers” posing in posh outfits in front of the Rosemary Post Office for photos.  It’s like a paparazzi-fest!

4) Don’t just stay in the shopping area.  Venture back behind the shops and get lost wandering through the narrow residential streets.  The vibe here is totally different than Seacrest.  Being much more of a treed area, cottages feel “tucked away” in the shaded back streets.  Contrary to the colorful Bermuda beachy style of Seacrest cottages, the architecture in Rosemary has a black-and-white picturesque Dutch Indies (yeah I had to look that up too) inspiration with a repeated curved bracketed rooflines. 

5) Check out Realtor.com for open houses (usually on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays).  One of the most surprising memorable adventures was a $5.5million home open house we stumbled upon in Rosemary beach. I grabbed a flier invitation for it in a boutique shop.  The Pinterest-perfect beach house faced one of the great lawns and had been features in architectural magazines for the unique design.  It was fun to linger through each room logging design ideas and pretending to be part of the rich-and-famous who “summer in their beach homes” from time-to-time.  Talking to the Realtor we learned that many homes in Rosemary have private guest wings and entrances for multiple families to vacation together.  Homes also usually come fully furnished (by a professional designer of course).

ALY’S beach: Cream with pops of pastel pallet:  A few blocks to the right of Seacrest looks almost like a mirage with the tall white pillars marking the entrance to the next “town” with its own completely different lifestyle vibe.  Alys beach is the top tier of the three beaches and feels more like an exclusive tour of Hollywood homes than a casual family town.  Although I’m pretty sure a week rental of any of the Alys beach mansions cost more than my monthly mortgage, riding our bikes through the streets just to see the beautiful architecture was probably my favorite part of the whole trip.  It felt other-worldly.

Alys Beach Tips: 1) Bring your phone.  You’ll want to take so many pictures.  Unlike what I did, be sure to put on a bit of makeup, brush your hair so it doesn’t look so “wind-blown beachy” and wear at least an outfit and not just a swimsuit because you’ll want to pose in several photos here.

2) Explore homes under construction.  Being the newest of the three beaches, much of Alys beach is still under construction.  Riding down the streets looking at the homes it’s fun to hop of your bike and climb through a few of the construction sites.  Being a homebuilder himself, Craig loved learning about the cinder-block and stucco exterior that is obviously required there and the off-the-wall features like multi-level garages with elevator lifts and courtyard patios with ornate fountains and private dining tables in each home. 

3) Monochromatic is the theme for Alys beach as each home is made of stucco painted the same cream color but each had a pop of personality with a colored door or window shutter.  Doors were commonly custom designed with individual geometric shape cut-outs too.  Nothing like I’ve ever seen before and oh-so-cool.  I liked guessing which trends would make it in Parade of Homes in Oklahoma in the next few years. 

4) Although we didn’t eat or shop in Alys beach it would certainly be fun to make reservations at one of the restaurants for a special evening during your trip if you plan ahead. 

Side note: It was interesting to note that this whole 30A area was hoppin!  We were there for Thanksgiving of 2020 – in the middle of the COVID pandemic and the shop owners exclaimed that although fall is often a slower time of the year, this was the busiest they’ve ever been!  Being cooped up in quarantine for so long it was obvious that people were itching to get out of town.  Vacation spots like Seacrest, Rosemary and Alys beach offer outdoor entertainment with pleasant temps and walkable or bikeable excursions to fill up your whole week.  Staying in individual cottages mean less direct contact with people outside of your own family and outdoor patios and decks for the grandparents to read and relax if they decide to stay behind.  Sitting on the beach or exploring the backroads of the villages can be enjoyed while also adhering to social distancing efforts. We were surprised by this socialized result of the pandemic but thinking about our own dropped plans of a San Francisco, New York or Boston vacation in search for something more “outdoors” it all made since to us – and apparently to many other vacationing families as well. 

Leaving Seacrest beach we were definitely ready to book a return trip for next year.  This time we’ll have a better feel for the area and plan to book early and make reservations ahead of time.

Have you visited the 30A area of Seacrest, Rosemary and Alys beach?  What spots do we need to add to our clipboard-of-fun next year?

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