Past Perfect

Time really does stand still in this classic seaside village on the Florida Panhandle.

Text by Alex Crevar

 

I give my mother’s kayak a gentle shove and watch it split the waters of Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park. To my right, a cloudless blue sky arcs above a powdery, white, Gulf of Mexico beach. Moms, dads, and children fly kites, lay out shrimp lunches, and read under umbrellas. Behind me, the tiny Florida town of Grayton Beach spreads haphazardly along shell-strewn roads that ramble through scrub oak and sea oats.

My grandfather built a house in Grayton 70 years ago, when it truly was the middle of nowhere. As a kid, I studied Gatsby-esque black-and-white images of my grandparents. They weren’t my ancestors yet; they were youngsters with carefree friends and cocktails in hand. Their grinning faces convinced me that this is how people should spend their summers: utterly removed from the world.

Even today, a stranger needs good directions to find Grayton. Just south of Florida’s Scenic Highway 30-A, it retains the feeling of a place apart. At Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse, a favorite breakfast spot and the town’s only inn, a chalkboard out front announces the day’s motto. Today’s sign reads “Be Peaceful.” It’s easy to follow the suggestion as I walk with innkeeper Cheri Peebles through the tree-shaded property, profusely planted with herbs and flowers. Inside the 11 rooms, Old Florida kitsch prevails, with coffee tins on bureaus and faded pennants tacked to the walls. “People are looking for their childhood memories when they come here,” Cheri says. “Guests will say, ‘Oh, when I was young, things were just like this.’”

Little has changed on Grayton Beach since the Butler family bought a quarter-mile stretch of sand on the Gulf, in about 1920. In 1986, they sold the beach to the state, with the stipulation that residents could continue driving on it. The reason behind the tradition: That’s how Grayton fishermen launch their boats.

“We’ve always driven our buggies down to the beach,” says resident DeLene Sholes. “When people got stuck, we’d just pull them out. It happened so often we started taking our drinks and making it a party.”

If allowing vehicles to rumble across the sand past quietly picnicking families seems contradictory, well, that’s Grayton. In a cluster of boutiques called The Shops of Grayton, The Studio Gallery sells artwork for as much as $3,500 next to a wall where Graytonites have painted pictures of their dogs.

Grayton’s rustic village feel “adds so much to the places that have been developed around here—Seaside, Rosemary Beach, WaterColor. It’s authentic without being trashy,” says Johnny Earles, executive chef and owner of Criolla’s restaurant. Criolla’s, in a French Caribbean-style building at the north edge of Grayton Beach, draws on Johnny’s Louisiana heritage and his travels for such wonderful dishes as pineapple-crusted grouper and Blue Mountain short ribs (named after nearby Blue Mountain Beach). Florida Trend magazine has named it one of the state’s 20 best restaurants every year since 1991.

For something a little funkier, diners visit Picolo’s Restaurant and The Red Bar. At this New Orleans–style joint, Christmas lights crisscross the ceiling, which also sports the odd chandelier and disco ball. Movie posters, tin placards, and circus bills plaster almost every inch of wall. Behind the decor, graffiti survives from when the building housed the Grayton Store. Old-timers remember dancing to the jukebox and drinking 10-cent beers. Today, the attractions include gumbo, mahi-mahi sandwiches, and scrumptious Bloody Marys—plus, most nights, live music.

“Our idea was to make a place that felt good, where people dropped their troubles when they walked in the door,” says Belgian-born Philippe Petit, who runs the establishment with his brother Oliver. “It’s a place where bankers and construction workers can come in flip-flops.”

The same could be said for Grayton Beach. Philippe agrees: “What makes this town special is that it’s laid-back, almost lost in time.”

My grandparents would appreciate that. I know I do.

Grayton Beach Basics
Sleep: Hibiscus Coffee & Guesthouse rates start at $125, including breakfast; or hibiscusflorida.com. Grayton Beach State Park has 30 furnished, two-bedroom cabins at $110 per night. Call ( for cabin reservations) or visit floridastateparks.org/graytonbeach.

Eat: Criolla’s, the place for a special meal, serves dinner Monday–Saturday; or criollas.com. Picolo’s Restaurant and The Red Bar, the quintessential Grayton Beach experience, serves lunch and dinner daily; or graytonbeach.com/redbar.html.

Shop: The Studio Gallery, in The Shops of Grayton, sells a mix of fine and funky art and home accessories; or studiogallery30a.com.