The comments always seem to go along these lines: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” “There may be prettier beaches somewhere in the world but I can’t imagine that there are.” “White sands just like sugar give the Gulf waters an azure color, incredibly pure and clear.”
Visitors can’t seem to get enough of the beauty of the Emerald Coast, all along the panhandle of Northwestern Florida. And what’s not to love? This area is internationally renowned for its natural beauty and lifestyle. Correct on both counts.
But sometimes the comments go like this: “Wonder what this place was like 50 years ago.” “I wish I could have enjoyed the natural beauty of the area before the high-rise towers.” And “Just imagine what this was like before four-lane, divided highways.”
In South Walton County—home of the Luckiest Fishing Village in the World, Destin—there are a few places to the east of that picturesque harbor town that still retain the charms of Old Florida beach communities. One of those places is Grayton Beach.
As you drive into this throwback community just a few moments after exiting Highway 98, you will encounter the architecture and the attitudes that were prevalent throughout the ‘60s, the ‘50s and beyond. Grayton Beach benefits from a secluded access so not that many folks come here. There’s also an unspoken desire on the part of owners and renters to preserve a slower pace without having to live 15 stories in the sky.
Grayton Beach was always, since its founding, a remote place. That was the point. Actually, Army Major Charles T. Gray built his homestead here in 1855. The land was owned by the Federal Government but they had no real use for it. In the beautiful sands no crop could be grown and virgin timberland was more than a few miles north.
Additionally, the area was also difficult to reach thanks to that forest area and the lack of bridges over the massive Choctawhatchee Bay to the north as well as the many streams and coastal lakes that dot the area.
Two other army officers, Generals William Wilson and William Miller were just as enamored with the pristine beauty in 1890, and they named their village in honor of the founder and first resident, Major Gray. Even into the 20th Century, when Grayton Beach townfolks wanted their community to become a tourist mecca, transportation challenges hindered the development of the village.
Highway construction in the 1930s, new bridges throughout the area and the delivery of electricity by Choctowhatchee Electric Cooperative in 1942, brought the remote village into the modern age. Yet, attitudes remained decidedly provincial. During World War II, the U.S.Coast Guard established a 40-person camp and many of the buildings in Grayton Beach were used as barracks and offices. The German threat to the American Gulf Coast was real. Grayton Beach became an important outpost to protect the mainland.
This remoteness became important to Grayton Beach. The 20-mile stretch of magnificent sand dunes, pristine beaches and coastal lakes is duplicated in only one other spot on earth, certain remote areas of Africa. Immediately east of Grayton is the coastal dune lake, Western Lake, an important recreational and picturesque asset for Grayton Beach State Park and the Grayton Trail.
Grayton Beach itself is a broad expanse of reasonably hard-packed sugar sand, one of the only places in Northwest Florida where you can drive your car on the beach, with a permit, of course. The town of Grayton Beach is divided between Old Grayton, which appears in most spots not to have made many changes since the 1940s, and New Grayton, closer to Highway 30A to the north, and dotted with shops, restaurants, and night spots.
Old Grayton took quite a hit when Hurricane Opal washed the Gulf over it in 1995, but the residents swept the sand out of their homes, put up new screens on the porches, and life went on. Those already-weathered structures survived.
What also survived is the infamous Red Bar, a gathering spot for locals who tolerate the visitors, easy to identify because they continuously express envy of the lifestyle and simplicity before driving back home to some major metropolitan area. Within the Red Bar is Picolo’s, serving some of the freshest fish prepared to perfection you can imagine. Stick around for the jazz. Immerse yourself in the funky surroundings.
Up in New Grayton is Borago, setting an excellent table in Italian cuisine, and over in Blue Mountain, just down the road, is Basmati’s, a dining destination pulling folks in from every state in the union. Along with all the other surprises of Grayton, this one serves fine Asian-inspired cuisine. Not expected but quite delicious and creative.
The real treat is staying in Grayton Beach when all the day-tourists have left. A few comfortable and charming bed and breakfasts are available. Hibiscus Coffee and Guest House provides four rooms, and next door is Bert’s Barn offering another 9 rooms, each one distinctly different from all the others. Throughout the area are numerous vacation rental homes that boast quiet surroundings and one-of-a-kind lodging experiences.
The area offers hiking, bicycle riding, golf, tennis, freshwater and deepwater fishing, and a host of water sports. Or just “veg” on the beach and let your mind drift.
Grayton Beach is a designated sea turtle hatchery location; from May through October, turtles scale the beach at night and lay their precious eggs. Walking the beach early in the morning reveals turtle tracks leading to a nest. All of this is protected by Federal and State laws that are quite stringent in their enforcement and strong monetary and prison penalties are imposed for interfering with these beautiful creatures’ habits.
As the world seems to spin faster, Grayton Beach responds by moving slower. You can feel the ennui the moment you enter town. Makes you want to turn down the car radio and just soak up one of the few Old Florida communities still living behind the times.
In Grayton Beach, the unofficial slogan is "Nice Dogs. Strange People."
A comforting thought.
— 30 —