I love beaches… all kinds of beaches, but one section of the Florida Gulf Coast has had a pull on me for more than 50 years. That stretch is the 200 miles of pristine white sand and coastal island stretching from Pensacola Beach in the west to Apalachicola in the east. It’s all about the deep blue sky, the sand so bright it hurts your eyes. and clear green water that makes it look like a photo shopped travel poster.
There’s been noticeable change since I lived there in a one-story cinderblock house 100’ from the water’s edge at Pensacola Beach. A few years before my stay, a hurricane flattened the island and when reconstruction began it was felt that one-story, metal roof houses were the prudent choice.
In those days, very few of the homes on Pensacola Beach were occupied year-round, so the beach was mine for 8 months of the year. From my kitchen window I watchd bottle-nosed dolphins swim by just offshore and I could walk on the beach for an hour and never see another soul.
When I returned 30 years later, 504 Ariola Drive was a three-story wooden house in a row of three-story vacation homes, and there were no dolphins in the three days we walked the same stretch of beach.
But, the pull has remained strong and last month M and I rented an “old Florida” beach house – screened porch, outdoor shower, plywood and lathe construction with a metal roof – in Grayton Beach an hour east of Pensacola. We didn’t know anything about Grayton, but two friends who live nearby recommended it and put us in touch with a couple who own a “cabin” there. It’s not directly on the beach but just a short walk from it. It was perfect… and so is the town of Grayton Beach.
Grayton is one of the oldest townships on the Florida Panhandle and its future was ensured and character preserved, in 1964, when the Florida Board of Parks and Historical Memorials acquired 356 acres of beach, dune and wetland property to establish Grayton Beach State Park. Further land acquisitions were added and today the park borders the township on three sides with the Gulf of Mexico completing the fourth. Grayton was saved from the development frenzy descending on the Panhandle coast.
Today, Grayton Beach is an oasis on Florida Highway 30A, the road that parallels the beach from Destin to Panama City. In the last 30 years, developers have built a number of planned communities, large and small, along 30A. Seaside, just west of Grayton Beach, was the first, and is known for its New Urbanist design. This small community of pastel colored houses with screened porches and white picket fences was the setting for the Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show and a suitable metaphor for the fakeness of such a town.
Other planned communities with names like Watercolor, Alys, and Rosemary Beach followed, each with its own flavor. Watercolor is rich and flashy with valet parking as the only alternative at many of the stops. M and I had a Happy Hour drink at FOOW (Fish Out of Water), an elegant hotel, where our company was a group of noisy women with tans as dark as walnut stain and aftermarket breasts so big they could hardly be contained by a bikini top. Donald Trump might like the place but we found it distracting and unattractive.
Alys is the next town on 30A going south. Also a manufactured town, its stark white architecture is modeled on either Greek Island churches or Bermuda hideaways – maybe both – but nothing about it seemed real.
Last in the lineup of the planned communities on Highway 30A is Rosemary Beach. The town’s website describes it as:
“One of South Walton’s planned New Urbanist communities, Rosemary Beach is an architectural treasure trove, boasting influences from the West Indies, New Orleans, Charleston and St. Augustine, among others.”
At least it’s a mixture of styles, and unlike Dallas Alys there are some trees to hide the pretentious brand-newness of it all.
No… tourists and wannabes may like the fakery of Watercolor, Seaside, Alys, and Rosemary Beach, but we’re in love with Grayton Beach, a real place where real people live and play. The friends that put us on to it, Tom and Linda, introduced us to several of their friends while we were there, including a husband and wife who are both ex-Navy pilots. Today, she’s a 787 Captain for United and he’s recently retired from Delta. They’ve lived in Grayton Beach for years as have the couple we rented the “cabin” from. They, Kelly and Billy, are both lawyers and have lived in Grayton most of their lives, but, make no mistake, Billy is no small-town ambulance chaser. He’s a big-time serious lawyer, having worked on big cases like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and now he’s “of counsel” to the State of Florida’s in its lawsuit against opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers.
We loved our week in Kelly and Billy’s “cabin” – morning lattes at Black Bear Bakery, afternoon wine on the screened in porch, and dinner at Borago, an upscale Italian bistro just around the corner. Hard to beat.
Grayton Beach is special and though I still love California’s Laguna Beach, there are no beaches in the world like the white sand beaches of the Florida Panhandle. We’re already talking about going back next year.