After our month and a half in central Florida, we needed some beach time. Our plans for heading west had been pushed back a couple weeks for reasons I’ll explain at a later time, so we needed to keep close to Orlando. For Shaun’s Christmas gift, I had found a wild dolphin encounter boat tour in Panama City and to cash that in, as well as explore a new area, we made reservations at Grayton Beach State Park. One of the many amazing state parks along the 30A.
You really can’t go wrong with any of the Florida state parks along the gulf coast and from our limited experience, you can’t go wrong with any Florida state park period. Grayton Beach is situated between Panama City and Destin, one of the many small beach towns that line the coast. Boasting white sugar sand and beautiful, natural dunes, the beaches along the Northern coast of Florida are really spectacular and are referred to as the Redneck Riviera for being the primary vacation spot for the southern states.
The neighboring towns of Watercolor, Seaside, and Miramar Beach are all cute little beachside towns with excellent dining options and the charm of any well-funded tourist destination. The 30A connects each area to the next and a bike path runs the entire length, which we took advantage of several times for longer runs.
The campground is set-back from the road and in the lakeside loop, the sites are secluded in the tangle of mangroves and other shrubbery. We stayed in one of these sites for a few days and then moved out to the newer section for the luxury of full-hookups. However, it was during our stay in the lakeside loop that we were almost struck by lightning and I’m fully not exaggerating. But we’ll save that story for another lessons learned on the road post. While we primarily took advantage of our great little campground, we also ventured out a few times and explored the area.
It is one of the smaller towns along the 30A, but offers a few key attractions. The Red Bar being first and foremost for the fact that not only is the food delicious, despite the divy-ness of the place, but that the live music on Sundays is a really great time. The crowd is a mix of locals and tourists and the band is hopping. We tried the smoked tuna dip with a homemade hot sauce and were super impressed. The drinks are strong, the space is funky, and the staff is friendly - you couldn’t ask for more from a local bar. We also had lunch and beers at the Craft Bar right there on the 30A. While the reviews were iffy, we were attracted for the convenience to our camp and were pleasantly surprised. The beer selection is huge and we had some of the best food we’ve had from a brewery since being on the trip.
Two towns over and only a few miles from us heading east, we made several trips during our stay to check-out what Seaside had to offer. On the day of our arrival, I was excited to create a recipe with some of the local seafood. A quick google search later and I was making my way through Seaside to Buddy’s Seafood Market. From the scallops procured here, I made my Scallop Carpaccio, which turned out to be one of my favorite recipes so far. If you’re in the area on a Saturday, I would also recommend hitting the Seaside Farmers Market. Even though the day was cold and windy, the vendors were out and there was a great selection of produce, meats, honey, baked goodies, and other local items to choose from. The market is along the east perimeter of the main square in Seaside and on the other side, you’ll find a train of airstream trailers that have been converted to food carts. From bbq to fresh-pressed juices to hot dogs, you can find just about any option in one of these carts. Across the street from the food carts is a fabulous pizza place called Bud and Alley’s Pizza Bar. These wood-fired artisan pizza’s were a little taste of home with their arugula, fresh-made marinara, and charred, chewy crusts.
A Day-Trip to Destin
Needing some supplies from the big city of Destin, we decided to make a day of it and started by grabbing brunch at Vue. The restaurant is situation right along the 30A in Santa Rosa Beach and is rated as having the best beach views and sunset views in the area. All white tablecloths and nice china, Vue has a much different atmosphere than the other dining options. The food was excellent and the view was superb, and while it is quite pricey, it is definitely worth the splurge for an enjoyable Sunday morning. After our shopping in Destin, we wanted to find another beachside spot and chose the Surf Hut for its laid-back vibe and location right on the beach. After a typical fried seafood meal, we took off our shoes and walked the few steps down to the sand.
Dolphin Encounter in Panama City
After our totally enjoyable time in Grayton Beach, we moved camps to Panama City and crossed our fingers for warmer weather so we could book our dolphin encounter. Blue Dolphin Tours is one of many boat tours in the St. Andrews Bay and many of them offer dolphin encounters. But Blue Dolphin was rated one of the best and their friendly staff made them an easy choice for a tour. Our captain, Mike, was a rugged Florida fisherman with the sort of tan, leathery face that indicated a lifetime on the water. He knew all of the best spots for finding the pods of dolphins who made their home in the bay and near Shell Island. We saw a total of five dolphins, two loners and a pod of three. The pod was the most exciting experience, for they had a pattern of surfacing regularly and stayed in one area, which made for easy photography. Just those couple of hours on the water reminded us how much we loved being out in the ocean and pledged to make boat tours a more regular occurrence.
Our campsite was in the St. Andrews State Park and as our theory proves, was another great campground in a Florida State Park. Right in the heart of Panama City Beach, the park still felt like it was a world away from the busy-ness of town. Both campgrounds in the park also offer direct access to the bay from certain campsites and we stealthily put our paddleboards in one morning from the beach of an adjacent site. The bay was like glass and we leisurely paddled the length of the jetty. We even found a sunken boat, which ended up fully freaking me out. You might have gathered from my previous story about Juniper Springs that I spook easily. But come on, a ghost boat? Pretty scary.
The two weeks we spent along the 30A and Florida’s northern coast was not nearly long enough and we definitely plan to return for more great seafood, perhaps some ocean fishing, and another round at the Red Bar.