Sometimes a romantic getaway is just the thing to add a little spice to your life. And when you can combine it with some time at the beach, so much the better.
My fiance, Sue, and I wanted to try something a little different than a standard beach resort for our romantic getaway. We decided to go someplace we hadn't been before. South Walton in northwest Florida was calling out to us, and we'd heard great things about the small town of Grayton Beach, so that settled it.
Located on Scenic Highway 30-A, about halfway between Panama City Beach and Destin, Grayton Beach (population of about 200) offers quiet, narrow, tree-lined streets. It is within a short bike ride of the popular vacation destinations of Santa Rosa Beach, Seaside and Seagrove Beach. And it has one of the most beautiful beaches in the state.
Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse
Although Grayton Beach offers quite a few beach houses for rent, we chose a bed-and-breakfast named the Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse. Owned by Kurt and Barbara Tape and operated by innkeeper Stephanie Vantassell, the Hibiscus has 12 tidy units housed in three buildings – Bert's Barn, Hibiscus Flats and Hibiscus House – situated among beautiful informal gardens. A fourth building, Woodpecker Cottage, has been converted into a guest room.
Each room has a distinctive theme and vintage furnishings. We enjoyed our stay in the Funky Bird room, decorated with bird themed art works. I loved the Old Florida-style buildings. The wood floors, large porches and native plant gardens made me feel a bit like I'd been transported to a simpler time (without giving up cable TV and Wi-Fi).
Breakfast, Hibiscus Style
Breakfast came with the room, so each morning we strolled through the garden to the on-premises cafe, located in the Hibiscus House, for a relaxing breakfast. Sue's favorite breakfast dish was the multigrain pancakes with fruit; mine was the cinnamon roll French toast. Stephanie, the innkeeper, was frequently helping the cook, Pat, serve up tasty vegetarian fare to guests and walk-in visitors. She treated everyone like family. The cafe is well known and quite a few bicyclists stop by for a leisurely breakfast.
After breakfast we enjoyed exploring the upstairs library and sitting on the second floor porch listening to birds and the sounds of friendly conversation from the garden below. It's easy to fall into the slower pace of a small town, but we did want to do some exploring.
First on our list of “must-see” things was the beach. Even though it was just a short walk up the street, we chose to drive, since we had plenty of gear with us. When we arrived, two things immediately impressed us: The sand is deep and pure white, like coarse sugar, and the water is the clearest, calmest emerald green we could have imagined. At a comfortable 78 degrees, the clear Gulf waters were delightful, even though the calendar had turned the page to October.
I made full use of my mask and snorkel in the crystal-clear waters, and Sue enjoyed wading and watching the little fish gathering at her feet as she stirred up the white sand. Only a few other people shared the beach with us.
We couldn't resist exploring other beaches in the area. A short drive up Scenic Highway 30-A took us to Blue Mountain, Santa Rosa and Dune Allen beaches. All have the same brilliant white sand and emerald-green water. The public beach accesses have restrooms, changing facilities and boardwalks to the beach.
A Little Something to Eat
The restaurant most highly recommended to us was Stinky's Fish Camp. Located in Santa Rosa Beach, this unassuming restaurant along Scenic 30-A provided us with a quiet, tasty lunch: an Amberjack Po' Boy sandwich for me, and a “Great Big Salad” for Sue. We both enjoyed the dark brown Gumbo soup, and we indulged ourselves by ordering homemade pecan pie and ice cream for dessert.
We liked Stinky's so much that we returned for dinner. The restaurant has an extensive wine list, and their fish is right off the boat. Like many restaurants in Northwest Florida, Stinkys' cuisine has a distinctly Gulf Coast Louisiana flair.
Grayton Beach has several excellent restaurants within walking or biking distance of the Hibiscus. Seafood, steaks, Thai, breakfast menus and sandwiches are right around the corner.
Exploring on Bikes
One of the highlights of our getaway was riding our bikes along Scenic 30-A on the paved bike trail. We wheeled past picturesque coastal dune lakes and tall pines as we traveled from Grayton Beach to Seaside, then past neighborhoods of New Urbanism style architecture that require a double-take the first time you see them. We took many a detour down side streets to marvel at the beautiful homes built on shady streets that go up, then down again, with the contour of ancient dunes.
Had we done some planning, we'd have started our bike ride early enough to tour Grayton Beach State Park, famous for its dune lake, pure white sand beaches and tall dunes overlooking the emerald Gulf.
With two full days to explore and relax, we felt that we'd barely scratched the surface of Grayton Beach and the surrounding communities, so we look forward to returning soon.
Things to See:
Eden Gardens State Park: Plan to visit this park between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to enjoy a tour of the historic Wesley House, which has two stories, columns, and a wrap-around porch containing a large collection of Louis XVI furniture.
Grayton Beach State Park: This park is famous for its dune lake and pure white sand beach. A nature trail winds through scrub oaks and magnolias shaped by the bonsai effect of salt winds.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park: One of the newest parks, it has three dune lakes and three miles of secluded white sand beaches.
Places to Eat (note: Grayton Beach locations frequently adopt a Santa Rosa Beach address)
Stinky's Fish Camp Restaurant: 5960 W County Highway 30-A, Santa Rosa Beach. Great food for lunch or dinner. Go for the fish!
Smiling Fish Café: 37 Town Center Loop, Santa Rosa Beach. (Located right across the street from Santa Rosa Public Beach access at C.R 30-A and 393 at Gulf Place Town Center.) Offers great sandwiches and wraps, along with fresh seafood, black angus burgers and signature salads. Eat indoors or out.
Hurricane Oyster Bar: 37 Logan Lane, Ste 4, Grayton Beach.(Just a short drive up the street from the Hibiscus.) For lunch and dinner, choose from oysters cooked many ways, fish and chicken entrees. I had a great Jambalaya, and Sue's fried oyster salad was so huge I had to help her finish it!
Picolo's and The Red Bar: 70 Hotz Avenue, Santa Rosa Beach. (Located right on the beach.) Famous for almost nightly live jazz. Serves lunch and dinner. Diners form a line at dinner, and the noise level can get very loud.
Another Broken Egg Cafe: 51 Uptown Circle, Santa Rosa Beach. (Within walking distance of the Hibiscus, in case you need a traditional bacon and eggs breakfast.) Serves breakfast, brunch, and lunch.
Where We Stayed:
Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse: 85 Defuniak Street, Grayton Beach. All 12 rooms have private baths, cable TV, DVD players and Wi-Fi internet. Breakfast is served in the cafe from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The menu includes coffee, smoothies, fruit, waffles, pancakes, biscuits and gravy and more. Traditional eggs and bacon breakfast is not on the menu. I recommend the cinnamon bun French toast!
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