The area between Panama City Beach and Destin is known by several nicknames - the Emerald Coast, the Forgotten Coast, the Beaches of South Walton (county) - but the one used most by locals, 30-A, has a rather prosaic source... it's a reference to Scenic Highway 30-A. The 30-A area, and its communities, has become one of America's hippest and fastest growing zip codes, and is home to some of the most innovative businesses and people in the country.
"I located that restaurant here (his first in the area) because it was the cheapest, most beautiful place to start a business on the Florida coastline," Johnny Earles, Chef and Owner of Criolla's restaurant said. "Our area is still the most beautiful, but after 20 years of upscale development and our new-found popularity, it is certainly no longer the cheapest."
Most famous of the communities along 30-A, of course, is Seaside, the pioneering community developed by Robert and Daryl Davis to be reminiscent of the classic American beach town, with contemporary updates.
Coming upon Seaside is almost like stumbling upon something from a dream... which is probably why the makers of the Jim Carrey movie "The Truman Show" selected Seaside as the setting for the fictionally perfect town of the movie.
It's a stunning vision of white and pastel homes and businesses laid out in an eminently livable pattern that encourages pedestrian traffic. Add in the sugar white sands and shimmering emerald waters of the Gulf, and you have a setting designed to ease the mind and spirit.
30-A saw minimal development through the early 80's but, soon after the town of Seaside was completed, a significant increase in development occurred. Now, nearly the entire stretch of 30-A, which loops from Highway 98 outside of Sandestin along the coast until it meets up again with the Highway 98 just outside of Panama City Beach, is filled with a variety of small towns and communities. This explosion in development is what led the area to become a popular choice for investment properties and second homes.
Another reason, of course, is the natural beauty of the location. The beaches and parks around 30-A are home to some of the most pristine coastal areas in the entire country, attracting tourists and locals alike, to share in the beauty and diversity of the area.
And, speaking of diversity... the locals and businesses of 30-A are truly a diverse group. Visit any of the many communities along 30-A and you will experience an eclectic mix of people and businesses - artists, musicians, accountants, engineers, chefs and more.... along with galleries, craft shops (we're talking true artisan crafting here - stuff you'd find in elegant homes around the world), clothing stores, jewelry shops and some of the most incredible restaurants in the country. And, one thing almost all of them have in common - they're unique. One-of-a-kind. You won't find them anywhere else in the world. Only on 30-A.
As the popularity of the 30-A area has grown, so has demand for a slice of this beachfront life. New developments are announced or begun on almost a monthly basis. Fortunately, with the increased pace of development, area government and business leaders have worked together to preserve much of the natural, scenic wonder of the area. This effort is helped along by the existence of several state parks in the region.
These protected state parks, including Point Washington State Forest, located just off 30-A, are the home of a variety of unique wildlife and plant communities which include sand hills, coastal sand pine scrub, longleaf pine, flatwoods, wet prairies, cypress pond and ti-ti swamps. Much of the wildlife found in these parks is unique to this region - which provides nature enthusiasts a chance to experience nature in a way very few people have the opportunity to experience.
Point Washington State Forest is open to anyone and has over 10-miles of trails for bicyclists, hikers and nature lovers to enjoy. Each year, thousands do enjoy the trail, and many of the communities along 30-A have added bike trails of their own that compliment the Park's. It's now possible to travel almost the entire length of 30-A on bike trails alone!
Four other state parks along 30-A offer visitors and locals more of the preserved beauty found at Point Washington. These include Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Grayton Beach State Park, Deer Lake State Park, Eden Gardens State Park, all of which have bike and hiking trails for enthusiasts. Also worth mentioning is nearby Camp Helen State Park, found a little closer to Panama City Beach.
Many things make 30-A attractive as both a pace to visit and a place to live. The beach. The culture. The beauty. The opportunities. Ceratinly more than could be listed in one article. And, despite the increase in development and the occasional franchised business that moves in, the communities along 30-A have retained their individuality and uniqueness... and, at the same time, managed to work together for the greater good for the 30-A area.
Perhaps Johnny Earles of Criolla's said it best when asked what part of living and working in the 30-A area he enjoyed the most: "Knowing your neighbors.".
And maybe that's the secret of 30-A. In its essence, it's still home to small towns... small towns where everyone knows their neighbors.