Grayton Beach: The Orginal Beach Town
If other spots on Scenic Highway 30A are pastel and linen, Grayton Beach is rough-sawn and burlap. Artists and fishermen, retirees and surfers, populate a clutch of mostly modest clapboard and brick houses crowding a tangle of sand-and-shell lanes. Insulated by the Grayton Beach State Park to the east and west, Point Washington State Forest to the north, and the Gulf to the south, this village (about 30 minutes east of Destin) relies on self-sufficiency and old-fashioned logic.
For example, newcomers are aghast that permit-carrying locals drive on the sparkling white beach. For Graytonites, the reasons are obvious: Not only is it their inalienable right to assemble for sunset tailgate cocktails, but anglers need a spot to launch their boats. "We're not just laid-back," says one local. "We're lying down."
Grayton Beach State Park
This geographic seclusion and relaxed sensibility are apparent during a hike through Grayton Beach State Park, a stone's throw from the town center. You half expect a ragged Robinson Crusoe to pop out of the dunes and latticework of live oaks, Southern magnolias, slash pines, and sea oats. Depending upon the direction you stroke your rented YOLO paddleboard on the park's brackish Western Lake, you might think you are either deep inside a forest or cruising toward turquoise Caribbean waters. "Dune lakes like this one are very rare worldwide," says Tom Losee, co-founder of YOLO Board. "And because its waters channel to the Gulf, it's possible to see both sharks and alligators. Grayton is a mecca for paddleboarding—you can take a leisurely lake ride and then snake your way to the waves."
Grayton Beach Food and Drink
Another symbiotic day starts on a boat with heavy tackle. "Launching from the beach means you can get into cobia, king mackerel, and red snapper in 15 minutes," says Capt. Larry Pentel of Dead Fish Charters. "Other places, it takes two hours." After you get your trophies home, Phillip McDonald, a personal chef with Table Five Private Chef + Catering, will come to your house to reinterpret the day's fish stories as a five-course meal with full table service.
Regardless of your itinerary—or lack thereof—you'll end up at the beachside Red Bar, Grayton's unofficial clubhouse. Just follow the sounds of live jazz or bluegrass, which act as a clarion call for Graytonites to bathe in the Moulin Rouge glow framing an eclectic decor awash in movie posters, disco balls, Mardi Gras beads, chandeliers, and sombreros. Grab a table or a barstool for lunch, dinner (gumbo and crab cakes keep folks coming back), or Sunday brunch.
"Grayton won't change and it isn't for everyone—people either want to be here or don't," says Cheri Peebles, who runs Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse. Set among English gardens, the B&B's plank-floor guest rooms are decorated with a hodgepodge of beach antiques. "For those who do, it's like coming home."