If Florida isn’t the most versatile state in our union, it’s pretty close. When it wants to show off its curves, it flaunts Miami. Should it need to offer a history lesson, it takes you to St. Augustine. Want to spend some quality time with the kiddos? Of course, it points you in Orlando’s direction.
But the Sunshine State has yet another side. This one isn’t a huge fan of crowds. And honestly, it would much rather go for a slow walk than ride in a fast car. Many call it the Gulf Coast or Emerald Coast. Or simply the Panhandle. Or 30-A. Our Forbes Travel Guide editors merely refer to it as a 100-mile swath of Northwest Florida with a chilled-out meter that’s almost as pleasant as the fall temperatures. After reading this itinerary to a perfect 48 hours in the area, we’re guessing the largely overlooked stretch will win you over, too.
As you ride through the region, specifically down Florida Scenic Highway 30-A, you’ll see signs for places like Rosemary Beach and Miramar Beach. All of those spots are a blast, but for this autumn weekend, set your GPS for Santa Rosa Beach. A laid-back, oh-don’t-mind-us sort of town in every good way possible, SRB makes great sense for a quick weekend jaunt because of its ideal location — Atlanta is only a five-hour drive while Pensacola International Airport offers non-stop flights from Chicago, Washington D.C. and other places — and two Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star properties, The Pearl Hotel and WaterColor Inn & Resort.
The latter sits at attention right off 30-A, almost as if it’s guarding something precious. In a sense, the idyllic town is a reminder of a simpler time. Before admiring the charming hamlet in detail, however, check in at WaterColor Inn. Still gleaming from recent renovations that brought fresh paint and panache to the property, the luxury hotel smiles at you with gray-blue hues in the library, whitewashed floors in the bathrooms and colorful acrylics from Justin Gaffrey on stairway walls.
Keeping with the versatility theme, the inn can go from beach cool to holiday chic at the turn of a calendar. But if there’s any doubt about the address’ dexterity, check the place out over Thanksgiving weekend, when it hosts a themed 5K, serves a Thanksgiving Day brunch and pulls out all of the holiday stops for a lavish dinner.
But no matter when you visit the 60-room resort, you’re assured of a unit with ample space (the smallest rooms are 500 square feet) that has easy access to the beach and restaurants. Most rooms have spectacular views of the Gulf, too. The first-floor units that are obstructed by dunes manage a trade-off by having outdoor showers and small green spaces.
Lunch is a good time for collecting at The Gathering Spot. High-top tables and a mounted flat-screen television assure you of a relaxed environment, but expertly prepared Baja tacos and a thorough sushi menu reveal just how serious the place is about its food.
After your meal, work off the extra pounds by hopping on one of the complimentary bikes and making the five-minute ride over to 30A and Watercolor Boulevard. At this intersection, you’ll find everything you could possibly need for a weekend in Florida, from Lilly Pulitzer blouses at The Barefoot Princess at Watercolor to angler pants at Old Florida Outfitters.
Grab a straw hat because you just might need it to shield the sun during your afternoon kayaking excursion on Western Lake. The water and its surrounding foliage present a totally different feel from the white sands only five minutes away — talk about diversity! The neighboring Boathouse provides gratis kayaks or canoes for an hour to hotel guests, granting you an opportunity to meet locals of the webbed (broad-headed skinks) and winged (eagles) variety.
When it comes to a dinner to conclude the long first day, we suggest keeping things close by stopping by WaterColor Inn’s signature restaurant Fish Out of Water. A clean space that brings nature indoors with blown-glass cattails around the tables, the Four-Star establishment is the perfect place to reflect on today’s events or strategize tomorrow’s. As you do that, servers will bring out dishes that reflect the kitchen’s proximity to the sea (sesame-seed-crusted ahi tuna) and the chef’s creativity at the stove (Key lime panna cotta).
When the sun rises around 6:45 a.m., you’ll see the Florida that you know and love — a heavenly pinkish shade will rise above the waters, shorebirds will zip by and couples will walk hand in hand along the beach. It’ll all be incredibly moving scenery that you can surely think about over breakfast.
Ordering room service is always a good move, but we’d suggest throwing on a light jacket and some pants and pedaling it on over to the Great Southern Café. If you’re lucky, you’ll beat the majority of locals and shore-strolling couples to the restaurant. Once you sit, look at a menu filled with your usual favorites that somehow still feels original. The golden waffles, eggs Benedict and hash browns stand out, but we’re confident whatever choice you make will be a tasty one.
When you finally excuse yourself from the table, walk around Central Square a bit. Visit in November or December and the darling area will be decorated in yuletide cheer. Any time of year, however, you can pop into a quaint bookstore or a mom-and-pop grocer. Modica Market is an almost-too-adorable shop that’s part Eataly, part 7-Eleven and part Aunt Ella’s pantry. Score some pasta salad or Southern Craft Creamery ice cream for a room snack.
Your afternoon back at the hotel can go a couple of directions: count passing boats while dozing off on your private terrace or at the shore, or stop by WaterColor InnSpa for a rejuvenating seasonal scrub or the WaterColor Well-Being Massage (a customized treatment using Swedish and therapeutic techniques).
After you’ve relaxed and freshened up in your room, head back to Central Square for dinner. You’ll notice that the area that teemed with families and frolickers earlier in the day has gotten slightly more reserved. (Of course, “reserved” around these parts means shirts with collars.)
Show off your nicer threads at one of Bud & Alley’s waterfront restaurants. Bud & Alley’s, a popular coastal eatery in business since 1987, is the only one of the three (a pizzeria and taco stand are the others) that might need a reservation. The cuisine at all of them draws a crowd, but we’re a bit partial to the grilled shrimp tacos. What did you expect us to say? Even with all of the area’s versatility, this is still Florida.