As we cruise down the palm-lined stretch of two-lane highway in our rental car, staring at the expanse of whitewashed villas from the window, one thing becomes abundantly clear: This isn’t the Redneck Riviera. In other words, there will be no Rumple Minze shots at any bay-side bar, and we will not be joining family members in crashing a stranger’s beach wedding in our swimsuits (ahem).
No, this is a side of Florida we’ve never seen before. As the stone sign along Highway 30A—written in the smallest, somehow chicest serif font I’ve ever seen—informs us, this is Alys Beach, an idyllic setting for our first coastal getaway as a married couple, without the parents, cousins, and grandparents in tow.
We spend our first morning riding two blue cruisers, the preferred mode of transportation along 30A, veering off along cobblestone streets through villas and courtyards, dodging families in bright ensembles and designer sunglasses as we head up to the development’s 20-acre nature preserve.
A lap through its cypress-lined trail, and we find ourselves in the dreamy Central Park, full of plush green grass and driftwood benches under a canopy of native trees, the most serene of the many green spaces architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk sprinkled throughout this pristinely planned community, developed back in 2004—the same firm, by the way, that designed neighboring Seaside in the ’80s and Rosemary Beach a decade later. Each has its own distinctive coastal vibe and is located along the same stretch of Gulf-front highway.
Ready for lunch, we bike back toward the central hub of shops and restaurants, past more villas on the rise (the community, stunning as it already is, is only about 22 percent built out), and score a table at George’s at Alys Beach, a shingled-cottage-turned-restaurant serving up fresh grouper tacos and local beer.
With no luck, we try to ignore the conversation at the table next to us, as a couple chats with a man in a golf polo about buying a new beach house. He explains that the homes, all designed to withstand hurricanes, are similar in style but customized to owner specifications—pools, courtyards, fountains, and outdoor kitchens are available upon request. As he wraps up, he stresses time and again that once the plans are set into motion, the construction process will be “worry-free.” We smile to ourselves on the way out. What would anyone have to worry about here?
We spend the afternoon on the white beaches under the sun, reading and talking and reading some more, things we haven’t spent this much time doing since our honeymoon. We grab chai lattes from the cozy coffee shop and enjoy them on the porch, listening to Leon Bridges. Before dinner, as the sky melts behind us, we take a frame-worthy photo, feeling like complete converts to the Alys Beach lifestyle.
But that lifestyle, we quickly learn, also means venturing outside of the community—not just because of its newness, but because it’s the norm along 30A. Meals are eaten out, and it’s part of the see-and-be-seen fun to take excursions to visit the neighbors. We hit Bud and Alley’s in Seaside for dinner-with-a-view on the sundrenched patio, La Crema in Rosemary Beach for molten chocolate cake, and, every morning, Black Bear Bread Co. in funky Grayton Beach, because the buttermilk biscuit sandwich is just that good.
On our last night, we stay put in town after taking a long walk on the beach, pointing out our favorite houses and admiring the crystal-blue waters. We dress in our finest beach attire and venture out to NEAT—a tasting room and small-plates eatery that’s all distressed shiplap walls and dim candlelight—for one last splurge.
A few cocktails and a tasty flatbread later, we step outside to hear a live rendition of “24K Magic” carried over the breeze. Curious, we peek around the corner to investigate and spy a white tent strung with twinkling lights sheltering a group of well-dressed dancers. We’ve stumbled upon another beachfront wedding. Maybe it’s the redneck in me; maybe it’s the desire to soak in every last bit of this luxurious lifestyle. Regardless, I really want to crash.
- With options to “behave or misbehave,” local favorite George’s at Alys Beach offers fresh seafood salads and entrées alongside hearty steaks and Southern roast chicken.
- A cozy but sophisticated tasting room and craft cocktail bar with indoor seating for just 24, NEAT rotates its menu seasonally and is known for its Après Beach happy hours.
- Contemporary American hot spot Caliza Restaurant opens up to Alys’s private pool during happy hour and dinner, when it serves up steak tartare and jumbo lump crab ravioli made with regional ingredients.
- Dozens of homes and condos in the growing town are available for rent from the Alys Beach offices throughout the year, starting at around $660 a night during the summer, with a 7-night minimum.
- Rent bikes at the Alys Beach Bike Shop and travel like a local around the 19-mile stretch of bike lane along 30A. Or stick closer to home base and explore the town’s 20-acre nature preserve.
- Alys Beach plays host to interesting festivals throughout the year. Favorites include Digital Graffiti in May, which turns the signature white villas into a backdrop for neon projections by artists from around the country, and the 30A Wine Festival in February.
- Hit the dozens of boutiques along 30A and bring that Alys look home with you. We loved the clothing and jewelry at Alys Shoppe and the home decor at MAST.
Four more dreamy Florida Panhandle destinations:
From the same developers as Alys Beach, this is the original community of its kind along 30A, now home to 300 cottage-like abodes and a bustling downtown area. It offers that charming beach-town feel, along with excellent restaurants, playful boutiques, and public beach access via a new boardwalk. Cottages often come with complimentary cruisers, and beach attire, of course, is accepted just about anywhere.
This is the funky, free-spirited community among the 30A bunch. Moss-draped oaks line the quiet streets, shading historic cottages along with a few modern builds that guests can rent through local services and Airbnb. Attractions include Grayton Beach State Park, with its rare dune lake and protected beachfront, and the Shops of Grayton, home to the popular Black Bear Bread Co., art galleries, and a dog mural—the town’s slogan, after all, is “Nice Dogs, Strange People.”
On an entirely different scale than the quaint communities along 30A, this full-fledged city less than an hour west of Alys Beach offers all the grocery stores, outlet malls, and dining options a traveler could desire, along with the same sugar-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters. There are high rises, hotels, and vacation homes galore, plus a popular boardwalk, waterpark, museums, and boating charters.
If Alys Beach evokes the tropics, its sister community, full of manicured gardens and street-front cafés, calls to mind a European village. Walking paths and a butterfly garden are attractions here, along with a bevy of shopping options. The town is home to one of the area’s only hotels, The Pearl, which grants guests access to the beach, a private pool, and area golf courses.