Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Weekends are better at the beach. That’s especially true if the beach is Florida’s Emerald Coast, where the water is jewel-hued and the sand is as white and fine as powder. From Atlanta, all it takes is a five-hour drive to sun-kissed bliss. And since you drove all this way, you can nix a lazy, sit-on-the-beach and never-leave-the-chair kind of trip. Think of it as a sampler of the Gulf’s subcultures—the posh, manicured set of South Walton; the honky-tonk, family-friendly vibes of Panama City Beach; and everything in between. This, my friends, is how to pack your weekends at Florida’s prettiest beaches like you’ve never done before.
You’re headed to Destin first. To maximize your day, get on the road by 8 a.m. You have five hours of driving ahead of you, after all. Take the five-hour drive from Atlanta, Georgia to Destin, Florida on I-85 S. Note that Destin is Central Time Zone so you will gain an hour heading here and lose an hour leaving. When leaving from Panama City Beach, you can take I-85 N, or via US-231 N and US-431 N.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
You’ll reach your first Emerald Coast beach town, Destin, or the “world’s luckiest fishing village” by lunch. Spend it at Marina Café, with its sunny harbor views, and tuck into a Gulf specialty: pan-seared grouper, or at Another Broken Egg Café, a casual brunch and lunch spot with great biscuit beignets and omelets.
After checking into the hotel that will be your base for this trip, such as Henderson Beach Resort & Spa or Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village, your first order of business is to relax on the fine Florida sand you came for at Henderson Beach State Park. Admire the 30-foot tall sand dunes. Walk or bike off lunch. Soak up the rays, dip in the warm Gulf waters, and do absolutely nothing. You deserve it.
Getting active is also an option—arrange a stand-up paddleboard yoga class at the location of your choice with Emerald Coast Paddleboard, or book a one-hour rental and lessons from GUSU Paddleboards. You can also do as the locals do and arrange a boat excursion to Crab Island, a sandbar where you can drop anchor and mingle with a beer in hand.
When you work up an appetite again, head to family-run, local favorite Harbor Docks for sunset views and seafood with a Southern slant. It’s this region’s specialty (think: gulf shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, seafood gumbo). The Back Porch has similar fare.
And since this is Northwest Florida, the party doesn’t stop after dinner. Take a 15-minute walk down the beach to AJ’s Seafood & Oyster Bar to drink beer and sway to live Southern rock and country music. You’ll be singing “Sweet Home Alabama” to sleep, in the best way. You can keep the night going by bar hopping to the handful of hot spots in this area, including 1835 Porch Bar, just a two-minute walk away. Sipping one of their craft cocktails on the breezy patio is the perfect way to end a night.
On Saturday, explore a whole different side of the Panhandle: South Walton (or 30-A, as it’s known locally). Its 16 beach towns strung along scenic Highway 30-A have unique personalities, community-centric, walkable layouts, and are known to be the most upscale beach towns in the area.
Wake up early and pick up North Florida’s classic on the go breakfast—donuts and coffee—from Donut Hole Bakery Café on your way from Destin to Seaside (Maple Street Biscuit Co. on the way out of town in Miramar is also a good choice for those who aren’t afraid of oversized biscuits stacked with gravy and fixings). The drive is only about 40 minutes, but you’ll see how drastically the area changes. Tall beach condos and commercialized shopping complexes turn into perfectly manicured lawns, pastel beach homes, and perfectly planned communities with families biking to and fro. No wonder it was the setting for The Truman Show.
Explore Seaside’s quaint shops, pick up an ice cream, and then meander by foot or bike to neighboring South Walton community, WaterColor, to see something you can only see a handful of places in the world: coastal dune lakes. Head to The Boat House, where you can rent paddleboards or kayaks to explore Western Lake. You’ll float among lily pads, tall pine trees, and those tall sand dunes.
Escape from the sun and grab lunch at Fish Out of Water, where you can eat Gulf oysters, pimento cheese dip, and stare out to the crashing waves from your seats on the patio. Or grab a bite to-go at The Shrimp Shack.
After you’re done with lunch, head to Grayton Beach State Park, where you can spend an hour hiking through beautiful sea oat-covered sand dunes that line salt marshes. Afterward, lie on the beach, or go for a dive at the 60-foot-deep Underwater Museum of Art, a collection of submerged sculptures off the coast of the park. If you’re not a diver, you can snorkel at Turtle Reef, a man-made reef that’s crafted into the shape of a sea turtle and attracts plenty of sea life.
You should be done by 4 p.m or so—enough time to head back to the hotel for a shower and a change (if you left the hotel in Destin for good, now is the time to check into your South Walton hotel—WaterColor Inn is a good, central choice with ocean views). Choose your “in case of a nice dinner” outfit and drive 10 minutes to Alys Beach—the poshest neighborhood in these parts. Its striking, stark-white geometric buildings are worth a wander for a photo shoot at golden hour.
When you’re done snapping photos, head to sophisticated cocktail bar Neat for pre-dinner drinks and charcuterie on the patio or in the tasting room. Dinner is right across the street at the place to see and be seen in town, George’s at Alys Beach, where you can treat yourself to steak or red snapper al fresco. Another good choice in Alys is the chic poolside scene at Caliza.
Linger at George’s or Caliza’s bar for a few drinks, or snap out of the socialite life and head back into Seaside for some casual live music and local 30-A beer on the laid-back rooftop of Bud and Alley’s. Or cap things off with funky vibes and beer at Red Bar, a local legend nestled in the pines of Grayton Beach.
Wake up early on Sunday and drive to Grayton Beach to pick up an iced coffee and a pastry at Black Bear Bread Co. before driving an hour over to Panama City Beach, your final stop before heading home. If you prefer to sit down for breakfast, go to Great Southern Café and order hearty grits before hitting the road.
When you get to Panama City Beach, choose your own adventure: do you want to relax on one last beach? Head to St. Andrews State Park for the calmest, most pristine beaches in PCB; the $8 entry fee keeps it so. Or do you want to take in more North Florida nature? Bike on one of the 12 trails in Conservation Park.
There’s a different crowd in PCB, surely, but this isn’t crazy spring break-central of which you’ve heard legends; in fact, it’s got more family-friendly activities than ever, including multiple water parks. Of course, you can find the party scene too at beach bars along the water, if that’s what you’re looking for. Whatever you choose, you’ll notice a laid-back, Southern kind of town with the same beautiful stretch of emerald water and white sand beach as the rest of the coast.
Grab one last lunch at Capt. Anderson’s, a waterside classic where you can order stuffed grouper while watching the boats dock and unload their catch of the day. Schooners is another popular joint for a Southern coastal lunch, and it’s right on the beach. Stay and listen to live music until the sun sets, if you like—it’s the perfect way to say goodbye to the Emerald Coast.
WHERE TO STAY
Base yourself in Destin at Emerald Grande at HarborWalk Village—aside from its pool and spa, the harbor-front hotel is right next to a shopping, restaurant, and entertainment center for built-in fun, or choose the Henderson Beach Resort & Spa for a more luxurious stay. You can also choose to move to a South Walton hotel on Saturday night, such as the quaint, European-style Rosemary Beach Inn. Nearby in WaterColor, the WaterColor Inn has sweeping views of the beach (even from your shower).
WHEN TO GO
You can visit year-round, but May and October have mild temperatures and fewer crowds. Unlike South Florida, summer is high season here, with temperatures reaching the 90s. Winter is quiet but chilly, with the temperature hovering around 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that hurricane season runs from June to November; September is usually the most active month. Otherwise, it’s a sunny paradise. And as always in Florida, if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.