7 Under-the-Radar Florida Beach Towns
While crowds of sun-seekers and spring breakers descend on popular Florida beach towns from Pensacola to Panama City Beach, there are plenty of secluded shores worth the visit. So slip into that teeny bikini and head to the Panhandle’s under-the-radar spots (you won’t regret it!).
Chelsea is Brooklyn-based travel writer, editor, and photographer. When not home eating her way through NYC, she's gallivanting across the globe, sailing the coast of Croatia or hiking the peaks of Peru. Her superpowers include booking flight deals and sleeping in small plane seats.
Fort Walton Beach
Lovingly known as the Redneck Riviera by locals, Fort Walton Beach is a laid-back stop along Florida’s gorgeous Emerald Coast. Yes, there’s a kitschy pier and countless Wings swim shops, but just beyond that are a handful of top-notch joints packed with die-hard regulars. First stop: Hightide, a divey fishermen’s favorite just over the bridge on Okaloosa Island. Snag a stool by the raw bar and order the fresh oysters, shucked right in front of you. For dinner, there’s Giovanni’s One89, a hidden gem that serves homestyle Italian dishes. In the summer, boats pull up to the dock, for the crayfish boils and live music at the beach bar out back. Just make sure to leave time for drinks at The Gulf. This brand-new hotspot is the area’s bayfront backyard, where you’ll find the cool kids playing outdoor ping pong, watching movies from hammocks in the sand, mingling around fire pits, and sipping craft beers (try the 30A Beach Blonde Ale, from neighboring Grayton).
Okay, okay. Before you judge us, we know that Destin has had its heydey. But don’t be that out-of-towner who never ventures from the boardwalk and its overpriced souvenir shops. Instead, stay at the elegant Henderson Park Inn or its just-opened sister resort, both miles from the tchotchke tourist traps. The original inn is all old-school grandeur from its romantic, grey-shingled façade to its white-tablecloth, fine-dining Beach Walk restaurant inside. Meanwhile, the next-door digs debuted 170 coastal-chic guestrooms done up in a palette of sandy beige and sea-foam green, a fitness center with yoga classes, bike and watersport rentals, a kids’ club, a 10,000-square-foot spa and salon, two pools (including one for adults only), four restaurants and bars, plus a retro ice cream and candy shop.
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Twenty minutes east of Destin, this area is one of the most family-friendly destinations. Head to Baytowne Wharf, a storybook-like, pedestrians-only village of colorful shops, restaurants and bars. Check into the spacious condos at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which is spread across eight buildings—we love the plantation-style LaSata hotel and the New Orleans-inspired Le Jardin townhomes. There’s all-day activities to keep the kiddos busy, from free concerts and games (the zip-line is a favorite), while parents browse the charming boutiques and eat Cajun seafood on the dockside patio at HammerHead’s. For an upscale evening, reserve a table at Marlin Grill to tuck into shrimp and grits, blue crab cakes, and a hickory-grilled filet mignon, wrapped in applewood bacon with a red wine demi-glace.
If you’re looking to find a true, old Florida nabe (and no, we’re not referring to its residents), you’ll find it in Grayton, an artsy enclave that’s maintained its funky roots. Just take its unofficial slogan, “Nice dogs, strange people,” which couldn’t be more accurate when you step into The Red Bar, an eclectic, low-lit dive filled with hippies (not hipsters) jamming out to live bluegrass folk bands. After listening to some tunes, check out all the crafts from local artisans; Shard Art sells seaglass collages and Beau Interiors has beachy furnishings straight out of Coastal Living. When hunger strikes, try Chanticleer Eatery’s Creole crab claws and spicy jambalaya.
It’s no wonder location scouts picked Seaside as the set of The Truman Show. Its picture-perfect streets look like they’re almost staged, until a squad of kids rumble past on bike cruisers and in golf carts. A row of airstream food trucks, serving everything from gourmet grilled cheese to Cali-style organic cuisine, line the manicured main lawn and the tiny stamp-sized post office. Then, there’s a crop of cute clothing stands manned by Lilly Pulitzer-styled ladies. But the best seat in the house for sundowners is the top deck at Bud and Alley’s, which overlooks the pristine white sand.
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Keep a close eye out on Florida’s scenic route 30A, or you may just drive by this newcomer. Alys Beach is set to become an uber-upscale development, with a luxe Moroccan-meets-Mediterranean design. But while they’re still putting the final touches on the whitewashed buildings, you can visit the town’s two high-end eateries: Caliza and George’s. At Caliza, dine poolside, sipping Blueberry Sage Fizz (gin, blueberry, and ginger) cocktails and noshing on crispy quail with cheddar grits. George’s serves lobster quesadilla and jerk crusted gulf snapper.
At Rosemary Beach, the small town is a nod to Dutch architecture and is centered around The Pearl hotel. Here, there’s the retro-cool Havana Beach Bar & Grill and a hot terrace about the pool courtyard. For something sweet, go to La Crema Tapas & Chocolate, or shop the design stores including Shabby Slips and Tracery Interiors.
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