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Cruising with an Empress

Celebrate South Walton-Style

Welcome the New Year at one of these beautiful beach communities.
By Sheree Nielsen

If a New Year’s Eve toast at the beach is intriguing, consider South Walton in northwest Florida. This string of 16 beach communities, most of which are along Scenic Highway 30A, offers sugar-white sand and turquoise water, countless art galleries, four state parks, and more than 200 restaurants to start your year off right.

“It’s not just the beach that attracts visitors, but the character of each unique beach town,” said Christy Gibson, lead information specialist at Visit South Walton.

Santa Rosa Beach

Founded in 1910, Santa Rosa Beach is one of South Walton’s oldest neighborhoods. Explore some of its parks during the day.

At Eden Gardens State Park, stroll the Garden Trail and see massive angel oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Brightly colored azaleas, camellias, and roses are scattered throughout the 163 acres. The park’s “wedding tree” is the focal point of many matrimonial unions. The native live oak is at least 600 years old.

Tour historical Wesley House (except Tuesday and Wednesday) which once was home to William Henry Wesley, a businessman who was prominent in the local lumber industry from 1890 until after World War I.

Topsail Hill Preserve, a 1,640-acre state park, offers wide trails for walking and biking. You may spot herons, brown pelicans, and sanderlings while on the annual First Day Hike at 9 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2018.

Follow a trail to the beach boardwalk. Residents and visitors gather on the boardwalks throughout Santa Rosa Beach to watch spectacular sunsets. Watch closely and you might just see the “green flash,” an optical phenomenon when the sun can be observed changing color.

A sunset dinner at Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club’s Vue on 30a comes with spectacular Gulf vistas, thanks to the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Chef Giovanni Filippone, known for his role in Hell’s Kitchen, serves up his signature dish, scallops and grouper.

“I want the food to match the view. I’m always trying new dishes,” says Filippone.

Grayton Beach

This hipster community just east of Santa Rosa Beach is home to art galleries, a vibrant nightlife, and Grayton Beach State Park. With a town motto like “Nice dogs, friendly folks,” a creative vibe is no surprise at Grayton Beach. For those who want to learn something new at the start of 2018, sign up for a class at The Shard Shop.

Students choose a canvas background, then select from glass shards, crushed glass, ceramics, china, tile, or seashells to create a masterpiece.

A trip to Grayton Beach wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the iconic Red Bar. Military memorabilia, mermaid art, and cartoon characters line the restaurant’s walls, while posters of scientists, musicians, and presidents decorate the ceiling. Chandeliers and red Christmas lights are strung throughout, and red candles adorn tabletops.

WaterColor and Seaside

Begin 2018 with a bit of pampering at WaterColor InnSpa. Unwind with your partner during a couple’s Well-Being Massage. “It’s a romantic experience, and unique to each individual,” said Hope Barnes, one of the spa’s massage therapists.

Afterwards, head to nearby Seaside, dotted with pastel beach rentals and homes. Its tiny post office and silver Airstream trailer food trucks reside at the town’s center, where you can savor a gourmet grilled cheese at The Meltdown on 30A. Satisfy your shopping desire and head to The Seaside Style for timeless clothing, gifts, shoes, and pet items.

Rosemary Beach

Wide balconies and open patios encourage visitors to sit and sip a cocktail or cappuccino at one of Rosemary Beach’s outdoor cafés, with architecture reminiscent of St. Augustine.

After dark, head to La Crema Tapas and Chocolate, an eatery inspired by cafés in Barcelona and Madrid. Hacienda doors open to a courtyard with twinkling lights, stucco walls, and tables that invite customers to talk, sip wine, and share chocolate fondue. Inside, subdued lighting warms with white benches and molded Spanish-style chairs in contrast to wooden tables and a wall of wine built-ins.

Try the delicious steak empanadas – crisp puff pastry, spiced shredded steak, cream cheese, and cumin aioli. For dessert, order the OMG Chocolate Espresso Cookie (two triple chocolate cookies with whipped espresso cream centers and warm chocolate sauce.

“La Crema is an easy way to spend an evening. A cool vibe, I often visit on my nights off,” said waitress Sarah O’Brennan.

And South Walton is an easy destination in which to welcome 2018. Whatever your choice, the beaches of South Walton are sure to satisfy.

Sheree Nielsen is a contributor from Wentzville, Mo.


Many towns and restaurants will host New Year’s Eve events and New Year’s Day walks. However, final details were not available at press time. Click on for more information or call (800) 822-6877.

To visit South Walton, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you. Visit for a TripTik® Travel Planner.

Nov/Dec 2017 Issue

While visiting South Walton, grab some beach time at Topsail Hill Preserve. The site hosts a First Day Hike on Jan. 1. Sheree Nielsen



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