Florida’s Highway 30A was a recent discovery. Planning a trip to this area started with a simple search of Florida State Parks and snowballed into a full-blown weekend beach vacation. Located in the panhandle of Florida, the charm of this 24-mile highway will leave you feeling transported into another world. The landscape along this breathtaking drive starts with rolling hills of sand dunes waving between the road and water edge. The Rosemary Beach portion of Highway 30A has large draping oak trees, giving those cruising through the area in convertibles reprieve from the warm Florida sun. The homes lining either side of the road look as if they have been uprooted from a European beach and placed just a few feet from one another, blending as if the neighborhood is one large compound.
Day at the Beach
If you traveled all this way and didn’t spend at least one day at the beach, you did yourself a disservice. There are miles of shore along Highway 30A, but not all areas are accessible. Depending on where you stay, beach access may be a perk of your rental or something you have to go searching for. The entrance to Rosemary Beach is guarded by a four-foot access controlled gate adorned with two security cameras. Visitors staying at The Pearl Hotel are given RFID cards to enter the beach area where black and white beach chairs and matching umbrellas blanket the sand. A beach boy attendant also stands guard at the main entrance to dole out towels and attend to visitors’ requests.
Rosemary Beach is a tiny sliver of coastline along Highway 30A. Public access is available in many other locations. Inlet Beach is a mile east of Rosemary Beach and has public access for everyone to enjoy. However, you will have to drag your beach essentials from the parking lot (no cabana boy here). Not everyone visiting this area of Florida checked their beach chair at their airline’s ticket counter. Do not panic; there are some areas where prearranged setup of chairs and umbrellas are available to rent. You can also schedule a sunset bonfire set up to roast s’mores and watch the last rays of sunlight slip below the horizon with friends and family.
Camp Helen State Parks
While we’re on the subject of beaches, Camp Helen State Park was one of the top three reasons I want to visit the area. It’s more than a parking lot with beach access. Camp Helen is a story of one women’s perseverance. Following the death of her husband, Margaret Hicks completed the development of the residential lodge that prominently stands in the center of the State Park today. To make income during the depression, Margaret rented rooms out of the lodge to those visiting the gulf coast area. The Rainbow Cottages were added to the property a few years later. These cozy and colorful cottages provide a more private vacation experience with a tranquil view of Powell Lake.
Today visitors can enjoy the same recreational activities as tourists from decades past. There are three hiking trails to explore around the State Park; the distances range from half a mile to almost two miles long. Each trail offers a variety of scenery, from the tree tunnels leading to the serenity of Powell lake to the crashing of waves from the gulf waters. This tiny peninsula is two halves from different worlds.
Like the beach chair rentals for a day at the beach, Kayak and paddleboard rentals are available at Camp Helen by the hour or at a half-day rate. Visitors can launch their kayaks for a day of paddling, fishing, and absorbing the beauty of the open water and Florida’s wildlife. Deer, various native birds, and the occasional dolphin can be spotted while hovering above Powell Lake’s brackish water.
I spent the majority of my time at Camp Helen on the expansive beach. The large rolling waves and vast stretches of sand reminded me of beaches on the east coast of Florida. After we weaved through the maze of roped off wildlife protected areas and rolling dunes, we had our pick of spots to set up.
I specifically chose Camp Helen for our beach day because Camp Helen was known for the dilapidated pier. The pier is constructed of tall beams lined up in rows leading into the water. It looked as if the ocean was reclaiming the structure that once was a prominent landmark of the State Park. This structure was like the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the province of Pisa. My vision of the photo I wanted to take during my visit washed away when I began to google the pier’s location on the beach, only to read a news article titled “Remains of Camp Helen State Park Pier Removed.” Not only was it gone, but the more painful part was it was removed just two weeks prior to my visit.
‘Round, ‘Round, Get Around, I Get Around
The absolute best way to travel along Highway 30A is by bicycle. The sidewalk runs parallel to the two-lane highway and allows visitors to cruise from beach to beach easily. We rented our bikes from Peddlers 30A. It’s hard to miss the hundreds of pastel-colored beach cruisers lined up along the Highway. They offer the largest selection of bicycles for the whole family, including bikes with baby seats, wagon attachments, and kazoo kids tandem attachments. If you plan to enjoy one too many beach bars, I suggest renting the adult tricycle with a storage basket. No need to worry about balance or wondering if cars will see you; these tricycles will part through the crowds of people while you enjoy the comfort of the generously spacious saddle.
Highway 30A Culinary Experiences
There is no shortage of options when picking a restaurant for dinner. Cuisine from every corner of the world can be found along Highway 30A. Narrowing down where to eat can be difficult, but you will not be disappointed wherever you choose.
La Crema – This tapas restaurant was always packed when we walked by. Proudly operating on beach time, they do not take reservations, and guests are seated on first-come-first-served bases. Stop in for decadent desserts, specialty cocktails, and light bites while catching up with friends. This is the only place on Main Street with a sidewalk bar. A small window offers drinks to go while waiting for a table or to enjoy while strolling through the downtown area.
Shaka – I’m always in the mood for sushi. The salty air and cool evening temperatures made the visit to Shaka ideal. For starters, we ordered miso soup and grilled octopus. The miso soup was surprisingly the star of the appetizer course. This wasn’t the typical clear broth with a few rings of green onions floating around. The miso soup was thick with small chunks of soybean paste and a generous amount of onion. Unfortunately, not the same can be said for the octopus; it was overcooked and rubbery. I didn’t order sushi, but I picked the next best thing, a poke bowl with tuna. It was what my taste buds were after—a perfect mix of fresh tuna paired with the saltness of the sauce. The textures of the vegetables and rice kept the meal from becoming one note, and before I knew it, I had consumed the entire bowl.
Amarvida Coffee – This is where we got our coffee every morning. Not only was the coffee delicious, but the mission for Amarvida is to use organic, fair-trade coffee and using compostable products to remain plastic neutral. I stuck with my regular coffee shop order of a large hot coffee with oat milk or a large ice coffee with sugar and half & half. Starting the morning at Amarvida’s is a must before hitting the beach.
CK Feed & Supply – All the snacks and drinks can be found at CK Feed & Supply for a picnic or day out in the sand. It was hard not to want to try everything. This is where I discovered Ranch Rider. Most hard seltzers are paired with overly sweet flavors, which I’m not typically looking for in a drink. Ranch Rider is made with simple ingredients with no added sugar. From the variety pack for our day at the beach, the Jalapeno Ranch Water was my personal favorite. This is definitely going to be a staple for this summer’s beach trips.
LaCo – After a long day of biking, chip and salsa with a cool margarita sounded like the perfect way to end the evening. I wasn’t adventurous with my order and went with a chicken quesadilla. My friend was convinced to go with the catch of the day, and it did not disappoint. The server described it as a whole fish on a bed of seasoned rice and fresh vegetables. When the plate came out, the entire table was shocked to see an entire fish, head, and tail intact with rice centered in the middle. It was quite the presentation, and I was told it tasted as good as it looked.
The Summer Kitchen Café – This was the first restaurant and business in Rosemary Beach. Established in 1999, this casual counter-service restaurant served food from a little red shack. As the area developed, so did the offering of this tiny café. The history of this café is displayed on the walls in photos from years passed. We stopped in for breakfast on our last morning in town. The breakfast offerings are simple but filling; I ordered a yogurt parfait and fresh berries. The inside seating is cozy with just a few two-top tables. Outside umbrella-covered tables seat many more diners, making it the perfect vantage point to people watch.
Amici 30A – I should have ordered a whole pizza ($20) instead of a slice of lasagna ($30). There was nothing special about this slice of lasagna. If I were blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known if it was from a restaurant or Costco. Nothing against Costco lasagna, I love Costco lasagna, but I don’t thirty-dollars-a-slice love it. I also should have clued into the constant rotation of people leaving with stacks of pizza boxes to consider that pizza was of better value and (possible) flavor.
Rainy Day Back-Up Plans
It’s always good to have a backup plan for rainy days at the beach. It’s not ideal for it to rain while on vacation; however, at least when it rains at the beach, you are already equipped with clothes and shoes made for the water. Thankfully, we could pivot and find a few indoor activities while waiting for the rain to pass.
We started the day with a visit to Eden Garden State Park. There are only two things to do here; explore the gardens (which on a rainy day is a no-go) and take a tour of the Wesley Mansion. This tour is an additional $4 a person, and space is limited to ten people per group. The tour’s focus is not on the original owner and builder of the property but highlights the renovations made by the second owner Miss Maxon, a wealthy New York publisher. She bought the property for $12,500 and renamed it Eden.
After her untimely death in 1968, the property was turned over to the State, along with the collection of priceless antiques. Our tour guild was strict with her no photo policy; I dared not challenge her. However, if you can imagine an antebellum home lavishly decorated, with heavily adorned furniture pieces and brightly colored wallpaper from the 1960s Sears Catalog, that was the design aesthetic for Miss. Maxon remodel.
It seems as if the rain would let up in an hour or so after we tour the Wesley Mansion. We stumbled upon The Big Chill to wait out the rain and grab lunch for our following location. The Big Chill is a collection of food vendors, boutique shops, and an event space for everyone to enjoy. There is a large open turf area for kids to run and a large screen TV for sports fans to watch whatever big game is playing. There is a heavy rotation of live bands playing on the outdoor stage at night. Living the slow life at the beach is easy to accomplish while relaxing in an Adirondack chair and enjoying an ice cream. Even if it’s not a rainy day during your visit down Highway 30A, this should still be on your list of places to stop.
Shop the Sunday Farmers Market & Local Boutiques
The Sunday Farmers Market is a must if you like farm-fresh vegetables, local honey, organic smoothies, homemade candles, and freshly baked bread. The tents line the center of Rosemary Beach Park. The biggest hit was the pickled vegetable booths. I could not resist and grabbed a jar of spicy mixed vegetables while my friend pickled quail eggs and pickled garlic.
The vendors at the Farmer’s Market are mostly selling food-related items. If clothes or souvenir shopping is more your speed, plenty of boutiques within a block of the farmers market sell beautiful clothing and trinkets to take home. The tourist shops within this area are not stores filled with tacky tie-dyed t-shirts with the beach name plastered across the front. The shops were filled with modern trendy clothing that rivals any local mall. Every store seemed to have a candle filling the room with floral, salty scents. Each clothing rack looked as if a stylist curated a closet of the most fun party dresses they could find. I’m not one for picking up souvenirs, but it was hard not to buy them all.
If you are planning a trip along Highway 30A, what are you most looking forward to doing? Out of everything we did during the long weekend, I most enjoyed riding bicycles from beach to beach. This small stretch of highway is truly a hidden gem along Florida’s gulf coast. If you are looking for an unforgettable escape, start making your way down Highway 30A.
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