SANTA ROSA BEACH
Olivier Petit was 19, and barely out of culinary trade school in his native Belgium, when he took a summer job serving tourists here in the Panhandle beach towns stretching along 30-A.
"I thought I would just come work the season and be done," Petit told me. "But I've been here ever since."
Today Petit, 39, runs the Red Bar, one of the area's best-known hangouts. During the high season from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Petit serves between 700 and 1,000 customers daily.
With its red indoor lighting and funky decor, the Bohemian-chic restaurant and watering hole is modeled after his father's bar in Belgium. Old movie, art and music posters from around the world cover the ceiling and walls. Street signs and eclectic knickknacks hang above the bar and doorways.
"It looks chaotic, but there is symmetry," Petit said. "Every piece is hand selected."
The Red Bar, with its six-item dinner menu and cash-only policy, is a come-as-you-are spot where locals drink shoulder to shoulder with tourists and celebrities like Sheryl Crow. The house jazz band is always hoppin'. The beer taps flow generously. The white-sand beach is just outside.
No wonder local resident Lynn Nesmith, an architectural critic and freelance writer, called it "the heart and soul of Grayton Beach."
The Red Bar is one of several gems I found during a recent beach getaway that I took to decompress from a year of much personal and professional change.
Born and raised in Florida, I have always found peace and strength in the sand and surf of Florida's beaches — Captiva, Sanibel, Pass-a-Grille. When I was young, my grandma and I would walk for hours up and down the beach. We talked and picked seashells and lost track of time. Those are still my best childhood memories.
"Nothing like a stay at the beach in the sun to lift one's spirits," Grandma told me. "For all of my life, sun and water have been the constant soothers and healers for me."
So here I was, nearing my 32nd birthday, in search of perspective. In search of my inner bliss.
A Tallahassee friend recommended Gulf Place Cabanas, cute little apartment-style units located in Gulf Place, a relatively new town square development across County Road 30-A from the Gulf of Mexico. Gulf Place has the new urbanism vibe of nearby Seaside but on a smaller, less expensive scale.
I stayed two nights for less than $325 including taxes, and that included beach chairs and umbrellas, DVD rentals and passes to area attractions like a dolphin-watching cruise and even a water park. The cabanas have full kitchens and living rooms. Even the smallest unit sleeps six, thanks to a sleeper sofa and a half-bedroom with bunk beds. It suited me just fine, and it would be ideal for a weeklong family vacation.
The property includes three pools, tennis courts, an artists' square with local art, shops and a few casual restaurants. There's a day spa, surf shop and a Pilates studio.
If you're bored or unhappy here, you just aren't trying.
Beach and a bike ride
Before I found the Red Bar that first night, I found happy hour at Bud and Alley's, a Seaside restaurant and bar overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. The rooftop bar deck was crowded with customers enjoying drinks as the sun dipped low toward the water. Every evening when the sun sets, the bartenders ring a bell. The food is just as good as the atmosphere, and I'm glad I abandoned my healthy diet for the weekend and ordered the thick, hand-cut sweet potato fries.
As it got dark, I hopped in my car and drove back toward Gulf Place looking for dinner. A friend I ran into at Bud and Alley's (it seems this area is Tallahassee West, the preferred weekend getaway spot for residents of Florida's capital city) suggested Trattoria Borago, an Italian restaurant with a warm bar and a rich wine menu.
I paired a glass of Trefethen Chardonnay with Borago's appetizer of veal meatballs over soft polenta. It is the closest thing to Grandma Colavecchio's meatballs that I have ever had outside her kitchen. This, I thought, is the getaway I needed.
Saturday morning I walked just a few steps out my front door and into Miss Lucille's Gossip Parlor, where the lattes and "ssinnamon rolls" beckoned. Topped with a rich, gooey cream cheese, the cinnamon buns are best warmed up. I ate mine at one of Miss Lucille's outside tables, where I could see and hear the gulf across County Road 30-A.
I went for a long walk on the beach and then read under my umbrella for a couple of hours. I rented a bike at the shop next door (just $20 for the day) and cycled about 4 miles along County Road 30-A toward Seaside in search of lunch. I landed at the Gravel Road, a cute little restaurant that served a delicious marinated shrimp over sauteed garlicky broccolini with spaghetti squash.
I cycled back and treated myself to a pedicure in the salon down the block. As the clouds rolled in later, I walked the beach and watched a handsome young couple get married with their bare feet in the sand, the waves crashing behind them.
I returned to Seaside by car and had a glass of sauvignon blanc at Cafe Rendez-Vous, a cool little spot that offers live music and good people-watching along with the sushi and appetizers. For dinner I went to the Pizza Bar at Bud and Alley's, a recently opened extension of the original.
The best things on the menu aren't even the pizzas. Nesmith, the local architectural critic, told me to order the appetizer of seasoned white beans on grilled Tuscan bread. I enjoyed it on the Pizza Bar's outdoor patio, which is so close to the beach, I could hear the waves rolling in.
I felt more calm than I had in months. I felt my bliss.
And as I fell asleep in my cabana later, all I could think was, "I need to come back here soon."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.