Beard at the Boathouse
at Fin & Pearl
Last month, Fin & Pearl hosted a sold-out dinner, "Ode to the Sea," at the James Beard House in NYC. The evening featured an al fresco cocktail reception with
Until recently, I was probably one of a very small minority of Nashvillians who had not been to 30A, the 28-mile stretch of Florida coastline that meanders down a short length of the Panhandle. With as many as 70,000 Middle Tennesseans traveling down to the area each year, it’s safe to call 30A “Nashville’s beach,” especially considering that it’s about 7 hours by car, or a quick direct flight into Destin-Fort Walton Beach or Northwest Florida Beaches International airports.
Direct, easy access to this sliver of paradise means you can take quickly advantage of its famously white, sugar-sand beaches, state preserves, recreational areas, shopping, entertainment, and, of course, its range of resort options. (Along the 16-community corridor, you’ll find it all, from super-casual surfside enclaves to posh private dwellings.)
For me, a die-hard lover of all forms of food and wine, this time of year is a key period to visit, thanks to the area’s growing number of food and wine festivals—there seems to be a food-focused event every weekend between now and Memorial Day. What’s more: The crowds are smaller this time of year, and yet businesses are open and bustling—meaning, you can take full advantage of the best that 30A has to offer.
Whether this is your first visit, or you’ve been to 30A so often that you know every nook and cranny, there’s always something new to explore. Since there are just a few hotels along the strip (we recommend the stunning WaterColor Inn or the The Pearl Hotel near Alys Beach), most Nashvillians opt to rent a condo or house.
You can book a two- or three-bedroom condo at Sanctuary at Redfish, a multi-unit retreat set along Big Redfish Lake. Each of the 64 units has access to a resort-like, multi-level pool and its poolside cabanas, as well as the lake for kayaking. To get to the beach, hop on a five-minute ride via pontoon boat, tendered by the resort’s resident celebrity, Captain Bob.
The weather along the Gulf Coast can run from mildly warm to downright steamy, which makes it a great time to take advantage of the area’s many off-beach activities. At Sanctuary at Redfish, you can pull out the available kayaks and explore Big Redfish, one of 15 coastal dune lakes, from a unique, water-level perspective. There are also walking trails that take you out toward the white-sand beach. Or head out on two wheels to explore the 18.6-mile Timpoochee Trail—there’s an entrance to the trail nearby, at Blue Mountain Beach, and it meanders all the way down towards Rosemary.
For those seeking some adrenaline, Power Up Watersports in Destin offers WaveRunner rentals, as well as Flyboards, which are like mini jetpacks that allow you hover over the water. Or you can opt to hit the links, with a morning at the pristine, 18-hole course at Santa Rosa Golf and Beach Club, which is affiliated with Audubon International.
On the off chance that you’ll hit a rainy weekend, the shopping in and around 30A knows no bounds. From the funky home stores, galleries, and studios of Uptown Grayton, to the upscale boutiques of Rosemary Beach, there’s a little bit for everyone—including great local art, like the glass mosaic pieces by artist Mary Hong, which you can find in her Grayton studio, the Shard Shop.
This being the season for food and wine festivals, you should time your visit to hit at least one. My pick is the South Walton Beaches Wine & Food Festival (April 27 to 30), which has the distinction of dovetailing with the Destin Charity Wine Auction. Now ranked among the top 10 wine auctions in the country by Wine Spectator, it’s a rowdy and exciting live auction that, last year, raised $2.65 million for 14 Gulf Coast-area nonprofits that serve children in need.
The blow-out event starts with a walkabout tasting and silent auction, where items range from original art created on site to paddle boards and, of course, serious lots of collectible wines. The tasting flows into the auction itself. Like many live auctions, this one is a magnet for big money and personalities, making for great people watching—but the magic happens onstage, when top vintners from around the world get up to introduce lots like the Magnum Force, a selection 50 magnums of wine all signed by the vintners. There are also luxury vacations, epic meals, and more collectible bottles up for bid during the festive and music-fueled event.
Of course, even for the non-bidders, there’s plenty to eat and drink inside the Festival itself, which takes place at Grand Boulevard, an outdoor shopping destination, and showcases a Champagne Lane, songwriters and performers (many from Nashville), and a Craft Beer and Spirits Jam.
Mealtime at the beach should be a simple affair—and 30A delivers, with a range of options, from farmers’ markets filled with goods that you can take back to your condo and cook, to rooftop tables, where a margarita and ceviche hit the spot.
On any given weekend, there are a half dozen markets spread along 30A, from Destin to Rosemary Beach, where the 30A Farmers’ Market is brimming with fresh produce, dairy items, artsy goods, and cold-pressed juices.
For those looking to avoid kitchen work, there’s The Hub at Seacrest Beach. This relaxed, outdoor community space is ringed by seven casual joints, like Taco Truck and Red’s Chicken Shack. Hit the festival-like grounds for an early dinner or during happy hour to grab a double stack from Crave Roadside Burgers—there’s usually live music and other entertainment throughout the season.
In Grayton Beach, Chiringo opened last year, bringing a surf-club atmosphere and rooftop patio to the laidback town center. Nosh on seaside-friendly fare, like escabeche, blackened grouper sandwiches, and mojitos, while taking in the ocean breeze. Nearby, Grayton Seafood Company serves up locally sourced seafood and killer po’boys—fill yours with the barbecued oysters.
Finer dining rooms also exist, including Vue on 30A, set inside the Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club. With one of the best waterfront views, especially at sunset, the dining room sets the tone for a romantic meal or casual dinner with friends. Take your time with a poke appetizer and a bottle of something sparkling, before diving in to a dinner of Thai shrimp over rice or pistachio-crusted grouper. At Trebeache, another new arrival on the scene, settle in to the dark and cozy dining room, and munch on lettuce wraps piled with crispy duck or redfish smothered in crab meat.
If you haven’t had your fill of adult beverages at the tastings and festivals, you won’t want to miss NEAT, a liquor and wine shop in Alys Beach. One half of the space is a smartly curated retail store, filled with both well-priced and high-end bottles of wine and spirits, as well as whatever tools, mixers, and glassware might be missing at your condo. The other half is a petite tasting bar with a regularly changing menu of cocktails and wines by the glass. Outside, you might find a food truck offering snacks—and the generous staff is happy to pack a cooler of alcoholic bevvies for you to take on the go.
At The Craft Bar in Santa Rosa, the beer selection alone is worth fighting the crowds. Yes, there are burgers and even bourbon ice cream, but the treat here is the list of 30 rotating taps, many of which flow with rare Belgian ales, as well as several Florida brews.
Speaking of suds, you can’t leave 30A without one last taste of local flavor—and for that, Grayton Beer Company delivers. Stop in to the taproom for a pint of IPA or Pale Ale—or pick up a six-pack of cans as a souvenir. It’ll be a good at-home reminder of yet another memorable trip to the beach.