Northwest Florida, along the Emerald Coast, is where you’ll find 26 miles of pristine sugar-white beaches. South Walton is home to the kind of quartz-filled sand that looks like snow and squeaks with every step. A visit here affords the outdoorsy traveler boundless experiences throughout 16 distinct beach towns, including Rosemary Beach, Sandestin, Grayton Beach, Watercolor, Seaside, and Alys Beach.
From eco-kayaking tours to private fishing excursions along the shore to luxury beach picnics, here are the top custom-built adventures to make this vacation one to remember for a dog’s age.
Paddle Your Heart Out at Choctawhatchee Bay
Bring along the whole family on a custom two-hour eco kayaking tour with Vacayzen. Your educated guide will show you how to operate the innovative pedal powered Hobie kayaks before you set out to explore the flora and fauna endemic to the forested wetlands and marshes of the bay area. You’ll likely see folks fishing from boats for redfish, flounder, and spotted trout, as well as other populations, while out on the water. Be sure to keep your eyes open for dolphins, especially closer to dawn or dusk, and have your camera at the ready.
Where to Eat and Drink: Carve out some time to enjoy the back deck at The Bay, a waterfront restaurant that specializes in Southern gulf coast fare. While admiring Choctawhatchee Bay from your table, you’ll fill your belly with classic shrimp and grits, zesty pesto snapper, or hearty grouper ravioli. Don’t skip the desert—you’re unquestionably going to want to try the key lime pie, a local favorite.
Relax at the Beach with a Luxury Picnic and Bonfire
For a truly unique sunset experience, one that your family will talk about and remember for years to come, enlist the services of 30A Blaze, a small business owned and operated by a husband-and-wife dream team. Davin and Lyndsey Hand, the affable founders, or an experienced member of their squad, will set-up, manage, and clean-up a specialty beach bonfire that includes chairs, tables, tiki torches, roasting sticks, and an attendant.
Perhaps you want to roast marshmallows, listen to live music, or have a charcuterie board delivered from Blue Magnolia, a father-daughter catering company? 30A Blaze can handle all of that too. Are you a romantic who wants to surprise your loved one with a Bali-style beach picnic, complete with large lounge pillows, a fringed umbrella, and an imaginative table setting with fresh flowers and candles? 30A Blaze will partner with PIC-NIC and make your alfresco dining imaginings come to life.
Good to Know: One of the best byproducts of enjoying a beach bonfire and picnic is that you’ll likely savor the outdoors much longer than you typically would otherwise. Your family can unplug, get off the grid, and spend quality time together. Bring along a frisbee or football, extra towels for swimming if the ocean’s waves call, or anything else that will help you romp around, under the open sky, for as long as possible.
Experience a Self-Guided Tour of Grayton Beach State Park
For $5, day visitors can explore Grayton Beach State Park, one of the best family-friendly spots situated along Florida’s panhandle. Bring the kids and wander down the nature trail, full of scrub oaks and magnolias. Linger at the beach and play in the turquoise waters.
Situated within the Coastal Lowlands region, and carved by salt spray, peripatetic sand, and wind, you’ll have the rare opportunity to experience 13 diverse bionetworks in one park: beach dune, mesic flatwoods, sandhill, scrub, scrubby flatwoods, baygall, depression marsh, dome, seepage slope, wet flatwoods, rare coastal dune lakes (notably, Western Lake, Alligator Lake, and Little Redfish Lake), estuarine tidal marsh, and marine unconsolidated substrate. And should you want to stay overnight, 59 campsites and 30 cabins are available for reservations.
Where to Eat and Drink: Nestled next to the WaterColor Inn, FOOW, or Fish Out of Water, offers lovely Gulf of Mexico views, live music, and tasty drinks. This indoor/outdoor restaurant, located 1.4 miles away from Grayton Beach State Park, serves up family-style meals and the best iced teas, juices, refreshers (order the Georgia Peach at the Beach for a real treat), and specialty cocktails.
Good to Know: Grayton Beach State Park is named after Grayton Beach, an artsy seaside community full of art galleries, boutique shopping, and a popular dive bar called The Red Bar. One of South Walton’s original beach neighborhoods, Grayton Beach has a certain old-Florida charm that is hard to come by. Be sure to try a local beer at Grayton Beer Company, a taproom and brewpub; cinnamon rolls or biscuits with vegan sausage gravy at Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse; and freshly brewed coffee and avocado tartines at Black Bear Bread Co., one of eight lively businesses located at the Shops of Grayton.
Learn How to Surf Fish with an Expert Guide
Folks travel from all around to fish along the Emerald Coast. For a custom guided surf fishing adventure, including expert instruction and all equipment, Reel 30A has your back. Great for novices, as well as children and families, the surf charter package will ensure that you have a great time, without worrying about any of the logistics. Book a sunrise adventure and watch the sky change from pink to orange to blue while you work on the catch of the day.
Where to Eat and Drink: Since your morning will start early for fishing, stock up on goodies and beverages from Blue Mountain Bakery, ideal for a carry-out order. From breakfast burritos to yogurt granola bowls to cinnamon rolls with homemade vanilla icing, you’ll get just what you need to produce a pep in your step.
Another great option is The Donut Hole Café and Bakery, a South Walton staple for delectable doughnut flavors like red velvet, blueberry, glazed, and coconut.
Put Your Feet Up While a Personal Chef Cooks Dinner
After you’ve secured a cooler full of fish, employ the services of a personal chef to clean and cook your catch. Chef Dan Vargo, the talent behind Fine Coastal Cuisine, will whip up the meal of your dreams while you relax in the comfort of your own vacation rental.
With over 25 years of experience, Chef Vargo has been a stalwart culinary virtuoso at Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa, Ritz-Carlton Naples, Boathouse & Field Club in Martha’s Vineyard, and other locales. Feel free to ask him about surfing or his time spent in Ireland, South Africa, and Peru.