Off-Season Solo in the Redneck Riviera

Hallelujah, praise Jesus! Gospel music and Radio Selma preaching entertained as I descended that Mountain of Configuration towards the Gulf of Mexico, fabled panhandle beaches of Alabama and Florida (a.k.a. The Redneck Riviera). Quoting the guru, Dr. Beach, this sand savant referred to my destination as: “…the greatest strand of white sand on earth.”

I was heading towards 30A to be specific, an 18-mile stretch of powder snow beaches and glittering emerald water hemmed in between Destin and Panama City. Keeping to the speed limit (those Bama cops are notorious), my goose-egg Fiat couldn’t get there fast enough as I navigated four hours south from my brother’s home – the house where I was raised – outside Birmingham, Alabama.

Zipping past stands peddling green peanuts and Hank William memorabilia, tufts of cotton from a nearby field flitted in the breeze, littering the road that fine afternoon, the third of November. I’ve taken this route dozens of times in my youth; to Destin as a child, and Panama City as a teen, but these towns of yesteryear bear no resemblance to the present. Since my last visit, the past three decades have witnessed hurricanes and oil spills pillaging the once sleepy fishing communities, and as fast as lax zoning laws could say “Go!”, tourists piled into sky-high condominium jungles, built in the blink of an eye, leaving only memories in the rubble. Bless those tight restrictions on high rises and vigilant nature conservation efforts along  30A – this stretch of beach and community remains pristine.

On my three-day hiatus, the plan was to regroup, clear my head and stockpile energy to confront the nightmare of work, and the holiday onslaught awaiting my return to Ann Arbor. Banishing negative thinking and nagging future concerns, at that moment I was having a blast, to the point, alone. Arrivederci husband, adios kids; I was Thelma and Louise wasn’t around to confound my adventure. Here’s my scrapbook:

Neck’s a blazin’ on the Florabama Riviera!


Traveling with partners, always a pleasure - but to rekindle my mojo, I prefer going solo.


"30A…30A…30A" my destination mantra - heart of the "Redneck Riviera" in the Florida Panhandle – satisfying aforementioned criteria for a maniacally-needed 3-day escape. Make no mistake; this picture summarizes the reasoning behind my choice of destination.


Solo Travel Rules of Thumb: Zeroing in on a nurturing B&B (Trip Advisor reviews essential to the hunt). Selecting a restorative location (think safe, hassle-free, off-season, and - for this sun-starved warrior - warm).


Leasing a cost-efficient Fiat was handy, but renting a bicycle was non-negotiable - bikes rule the roads (and paths) in the Santa Rosa, Grayton, Seaside & Watercolor arena.


Bikes also burn off calories incurred from feasting on the local fare. I'm saving my bucks & swanky boîtes for a different sort of trip; when I venture solo, I'll have the laid-back, please.


My B&B hosts steered me off the tourist trail, directing me to local favorites they insisted I'd love.


First stop off the tourist radar: "Hurricane Oyster Bar" - a 15 minute pedal down the path.


When traveling solo, there's no negotiating restaurants with co-travelers who might not share your taste buds and predilections.


Fried Oyster, Camembert and Bacon Salad: Be still my heart!


This tab would be thrice the price back home. Off-season travel translates to longer happy hours, reduced accommodation rates, and a casual vibe. Be forewarned: Some of the best seafood joints, this one included, do NOT take credit cards.


Grayton Beach Park - the heart of the panhandle - was only a 5-minute push from the oyster bar. Swilling salty sea air was the pitch-perfect degustation complementing the briny oysters, bacon and beer swelling my belly.


This state park on Santa Rosa Beach took 1st Place in Dr. Beach's 1994 Best Beach in America award. Winning the honor make it ineligible for future first place nominations, but it still gets my vote as #1.


No trip to the Gulf is complete without a mess of coastal shrimp. Seaside, gratifyingly, isn't the same animal in autumn with most tourists flown from the coop.


The Shrimp Shack re-kindled my appetite, moments from the Gulf sweet succulence scratching my itch.


And look what I ordered for dessert - a killer view, no doubt part of the tab.


I knew my bed would be cushy & soft - so essential to restorative solo travel; unbiased Trip Advisor reviews promised as much.


The next morning, high-octane caffeine fueled my pre-breakfast jog at the beach across the street.


Fresh strawberry pancakes await. I enjoy the company a B&B offers, just enough chit-chat for this over-worked, over-stimulated, burnt-out beast.


A mid-morning bike ride to explore neighboring Seaside - a minute into town and you'll rename this piece of real estate the "anything but" Redneck Riviera.


Say what you will about Seaside's contrived clubby kitsch, its cotton candy apparel; their strict two-story zoning laws set the precedent saving this stretch of the Florida panhandle from the concrete walls of neighboring high-rise condos.


"The Truman Show" was set in the town of Seaside, for good reason.


Next to the post office, several air-streams are stationed serving up B-Que, grilled cheese and other street food fare. Although tempting, after that breakfast there wasn't a modicum of space for another morsel of food.


A two-minute pedal down the road found me in Watercolor. Steering off the road, onto a path, I became tangled in trails leading to nowhere, which was the exact somewhere I wanted to be.


The November air lay soft, not as humid as in summer months, and was scented with lilac – cinnabar butterflies and cobalt horseflies swooped across meandering streams and around my bike. (Yes Dorothy, we're not in Kansas.)


The patina of these quaint towns was oh so splendid, but I need to recoup some of that redneck flavor I recall as a child. No trip to this area would be complete without a meal in at Nick's - the only fish house that hasn't changed a lick since the sixties.


Lunch at Nick's provided balance, an amusing antidote to the pristine perfection I'd experienced in Seaside and Watercolor.


Located in Freeport, a short drive across the Choctawhatchee Bay, at Nick's you're in bayou country, the place to be next time the urge strikes to set out bush hogging or alligator hunting.


Crisp and tender morsels of fried alligator tail fresh from the bayou. This is not some greasy, tough novelty on the menu to amuse the tourists, mind you. The alligator at Nick's was far more flavorful, tender and juicy than any gator I've eaten in, for example, New Orleans.


Soft-shelled crabs, cheese grits, butter beans and hush puppies; if my childhood had a taste, these flavors would be it.


After lunch my heart was racing. One sweet tea too many? Could I have possibly OD'ed on fried food? A brisk walk through the garden of Eden (one of 36 state parks in the Panhandle), restored my equilibrium.


Back to town, I parked the car and hopped on the bike, checking my watch. Happy Hour! I found a cafe serving a carafe of decent wine for the price of a glass. With a bit of good cheese, charcuterie and an arugula salad with shaved Parmesan (not everything is fried down here)– it was a sweet ending to a perfect day.


My last day was spent doing nothing – which was everything. Drunk on sunshine, I contented myself re-reading the same page in a book for hours.


My solo retreat accomplished my mission, affording me space to appreciate what I'd left behind. I returned to my husband a kinder, gentler soul, and work? Not so much appreciated, but my attitude's realigned. Somewhat.


The Particulars: I stayed 3 nights at "Lisbeth's by the Sea" on Santa Rosa Beach in the Florida Panhandle (I booked online @ $342.55 total tab). After discussing my eating objectives, the hosts made the appropriate recommendations. I ordered my bike from Big Fish, who dropped the bike off and picked it up (850-231-1343; $33.86 total tab). I rented a Fiat from Budget; the cheapest car on the menu, and loved it, and stayed the first few days of November, when it was beginning to "go ugly" in Michigan. Tourism is at a minimum Sept-January, and northern Florida can get nippy mid-November through February (highs hovering in the sixties). Still pleasant compared to northern climes. Spring breakers invade the area in March and April – more fearsome than a pack of uncrated gators, and families with children vacation through the summer.

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