A well-planned community that sparked the New Urbanism movement — and is so cohesive and fun that it makes for an ideal family vacation spot.
- It's not just planned, it's planned well.
- Tons of eating, drinking and shopping options just off the beach.
- The small-town feel really shines through.
- For better or worse, everything has a slightly ersatz feel to it.
- Don't look for much to do after 9 p.m., especially off season.
Of all the planned communities in South Walton County, Seaside is perhaps the most famous.
Developed in the early 1980s and featured in the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show, Seaside is living proof that a vacation development doesn’t have to be filled with featureless tract housing. The neighborhood is considered the center of the New Urbanism movement, and has inspired countless copycat communities across the country.
And really, it manages to live up to that introductory hype.
The area started as an 80-acre land purchase in 1946 by a man named J.S. Smolian, who envisioned a summer vacation utopia on the Gulf of Mexico. His grandson, developer Robert Davis, is the one who brought that vision to fruition by planning a grand retreat that echoed the seaside cottage communities that once dotted the coastal landscape.
He and an architect team toured real towns and aped the results, recreating the small-town vibe along 30A by promoting myriad housing styles that evoked a village feel. There are no yawning front yards, house have screened in spaces to promote outdoor visits, landscaping is all native flora and the couple of hundred homes that encircle a town square are all within walking distance.
There’s a small theater, a neighborhood school billed as the very first charter school, a chapel, shopping district, a tiny post office and doctor’s office. Shoulder to shoulder with Seagrove Beach to the east and WaterColor to the west, Seaside still manages to feel like a town unto itself.
Even if you hate the very idea of planned communities, there’s something quaint and cohesive about Seaside that makes it work exceptionally well. If a family vacation is what you’re after, it’s worth a first look over some of the other SoWal neighborhoods.
Around here you’ll see signs for County Highway 30A, which is the scenic roadway cutting through SoWal known throughout the area as simply “30A.” The alternate route is the leisurely road south of U.S. Highway 98, from Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in the west to Inlet Beach at the eastern edge of Walton County.
Built in the 1970s to both serve and encourage the boom in vacation communities in SoWal, 30A has become the status-seeking calling card of the series of villages and neighborhoods along the largely privatized beaches in this neck of the Panhandle.
The designation is plastered on just about every available surface in the region via stickers, signs, t-shirts and billboards. It’s become shorthand for a manicured and carefully curated Florida beach experience for well-heeled vacationers. These visitors mostly come from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and seem to outnumber people from any other state at least 5 to 1.
Because they are geographically close by, it’s easier for most of these visitors to drive, but there are a couple of airports that serve the area.
Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) is west of 30A, technically sharing runways with Egland Air Force Base in Okaloosa County. The airport has flights from several regional airlines like American Eagle, United Express and Allegiant, with expanded seasonal offerings. Typical ground transportation options are available, including rental cars, taxis, shuttles, buses and limousines. Uber and Lyft are available.
Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) is a brand-new airport just north of Panama City. Opened in 2010, it serves regional airlines similar to VPS, but ECP most notably offers Southwest flights. Similar ground transportation options are available, including Uber and Lyft ride-sharing options.
In any case, getting to Highway 98 is the key to reaching SoWal. State Road 79 comes south from ECP, while VPS travelers can either head south through Fort Walton Beach to get to 98, or take State Road 20 to State Road 293, the Mid-Bay Bridge across Choctawhatchee Bay. Drivers coming in from Interstate 10 to the north will most likely take U.S. Highway 331 south from DeFuniak Springs and cross the bay at Freeport. From Highway 98, virtually any southern turn will lead you to 30A.
Seaside is closest to County Highway 395, which terminates at 30A in Seagrove Beach, just to the east.
One of the keys to Seaside’s appeal is the ability to get around town easily. The whole area was designed to be easily accessible by foot or on a bicycle, not gawked at from the inside of an SUV. Therefore, finding a parking spot can be exceptionally difficult, although it can be done.
The shopping district along the half-circle road at Central Square has parking on both sides of the street, and side streets also have a few spots here and there. You also can hope for a coveted spot along 30A, which is often bumper to bumper through Seaside.
A bit farther back is a huge parking lot off 30A and Western Lake Drive, between Seaside and WaterColor. Taking a stroll through the neighborhoods isn’t the worst thing.
The bottom line is, this community was purposely made to get people out of their cars. Like so many of the master-planned developments in SoWal, the best way to get around is to walk from your rental, or become one of the ubiquitous bicyclists cruising up and down the Timpoochee Trail.
The private beach is just over the dunes and, while having smaller frontage than some other neighborhoods, really retains a community feel missing in some other parts of the Emerald Coast.
As always, people staying in Seaside have access, most often through the oceanfront cottages and the business district/food court across from Central Square.
The Seaside beachfront is populated almost entirely by vacationing families; You’ll be dodging kids no matter what time of year you go. On the plus side, your kids will almost always have someone to hang out with.
There are pavilions along each of the walkovers in the development. With the dunes being as high as they are, you can’t even tell that busy 30A is just behind the crest.
Despite a lot of dog-friendly businesses, dogs are generally not allowed on the beach in Seaside. There is a caveat: Walton County offers residents and property owners the chance to buy an annual permit for their pooches, to the tune of $40 a year. Even then, there are seasonal hours for when you can bring your dog onto the sand. Contact the county clerk for more information.
Typical beach rules apply: No glass, no alcohol, no fires, etc. Further note that there is only one county-run lifeguard station in Seaside, at the Van Ness Butler Jr. access ramp across from the parking lot between Seaside and WaterColor.
WHERE TO STAYThe typical arrangement is to rent one of the cottages here in order to access the beach. If you don’t want to use the agency, homeshare sites like VRBO or Air BnB carry some options. Nearby communities have their own rentals.
Fresh produce as far as the wallet can see! It’s every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m on the square.
This is a music fest spread across SoWal the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday weekend each January. Several Seaside venues are included in the four-day event.
Galleries all along the coast take part in the annual May exhibition. Programs and events help people learn about and create art in all media.
There are no shortages of wine festivals around these parts, but November event is centered in Seaside. Prepare for four days of wine and food events, and be glad you don’t need to drive anywhere.
THINGS TO DO
If you don’t want to do the saltwater thing, there are three pools: Westside pool at Odessa and Forrest streets; Family Pool, near the northeast playground; and the Adult Pool on Seaside Avenue, for swimmers 16 years or older. The Westside Pool has a snack bar to get food or drinks. The Family Pool is enclosed in the winter.
There are options for coastal paddleboarding and kayaking nearby, and seasonal rentals are available from Cabana Man. Nearby Western Lake is one of a series of 15 coastal dune lakes in Walton County. The lakes are a rare geographical feature found in far-flung locations in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Oregon and in Walton County. Fed by freshwater sources like groundwater, rain, seepage and runoff, the lakes offer opportunities for licensed fishing and paddling just inside of the Gulf of Mexico. Canoes and kayaks also are available to rent through Grayton Beach State Park.
The Timpoochee Trail runs parallel to 30A most of the length of SoWal’s beach communities. Seaside Transit Authority will rent you one for a reasonable hourly, daily or weekly price. The ubiquitous cruisers available throughout the area aren’t great at off-roading, but they are fairly compliant and easy to use, even with coaster brakes.
This 75-seat theater on Quincy Circle features all sorts of shows through the year, including concerts and plays. There are also art programs and workshops, plus free shows.
PLACES TO EAT AND DRINK
There is no shortage of food options in Seaside, but it’s their Airstream food court along 30A that wins the crowds. A row of vintage Airstream trailers converted into kitchens form the backbone of Central Square’s outdoor amphitheater. There are a half-dozen offerings, from barbecue to ice cream to hot dogs and grilled cheese. If we’re being honest, visiting this landmark was the deciding factor in my own recent trip to Seaside.
This oceanside bar and grill (with a rooftop deck) is a veritable institution in Seaside. Part of the food court/mall/forum across from the Airstreams, this eatery has been around for years, and is a consistently popular hangout amid the constantly changing mix of businesses here. The owners also have a nearby pizza joint.
Open since 1998, this dessert shop has a delightful old-school feel, with options for ice cream, gelato and various confections. It’s part of a group of eateries around town, but this one, almost hidden in the back of Central Square, is sure to take you back to when your own parents took you for a cone in the dead of summer.
For an age, Fish Out Of Water was the fine-dining option around these parts.
The WaterColor Inn staple, situated in the development right next to Grayton Beach State Park, featured typical restaurant fare at the resort since it opened in 2001. But WaterColor, from St. Joe Club & Resorts, decided it was time for a change.
The menu, the kitchen and the dining room underwent a major overhaul, to the tune of $2.7 million. Even the name adopted a trendier feel, getting shortened to FOOW (pronounced “foo”).
The result is a more laid-back, eclectic vibe, shedding any perceived stuffiness and showcasing a playful spirit. Executive sous chef Preetam Pardesh and chef de cuisine Christopher Mayhue combine forces to present a menu that combines South Asian and Southern U.S. flavors in a relaxed atmosphere.
A pimento cheese dip shares space with a cobia ceviche. A sweet tea fried chicken vies for attention from a well-made tandoori-grilled grouper gyro. New Orleans-style oysters and beignets join forces with what may be the most adorable side dish, spiced bubble chips (Ping Pong ball-sized potato chips that are a hoot to break in half with your tablemates).
Throw in seasonal live music, more-than-reasonable happy hour selections and prices and a free menu for kids (from 5 to 6 p.m.) and you have an ideal stop for an escape-the-heat lunch or a sunset dinner. The restaurant is open to the public, not just WaterColor guests, and has its own wine room with a prix fixe menu that takes large parties.
A true neighborhood record shop, which is good, since being a retro audiophile is a thing now. It’s got everything a vinyl store needs to take you to the days of wayback: A new releases wall, listening stations, even their own t-shirts. Go teach your kid about liner notes and cover art.
Sure, you could shop for beachy caftans or art glass, or support a local painter at a nearby gallery. But you could also stop in here to buy a purse that looks like a watermelon wedge.
One of the most important things to remember about 30A communities is that you need to represent your neighborhood. Seaside’s cohesive marketing makes this quite simple, especially because many of the items at this development gift shop feature their adorable dachshund logo. Impressionable kids love their boxy t-shirts emblazoned with the Seaside name, and even a wiener dog coffee mug will rekindle fond memories long after you forget you paid almost $15 for it. I’m not even joking.
There are two locations for the local beer brewer: The brewpub is right in the heart of Grayton Beach on 30A, while the actual brewery and taproom is on Highway 98 north of Deer Lake State Park.
Just up Serenoa Road from Grayton Beer Company’s taproom is this smaller option. Idyll Hounds plays more on the beachfront theme. Note that the taproom tends to close up early.