Growing up in the northeast, for many years Florida was our go to winter vacation destination. We spent holidays and school vacations at the popular beach destinations like Ft. Myers Beach, St Petersburg, and Daytona Beach. We stayed in giant hotels on the beach and joined the throngs of lobster red northerners splashing in the pool, crowding the souvenir shops, and feasting on all-you-can-eat seafood buffets.
At the time is was great fun, but when we decided to come to Florida with our Airstream, I was determined to avoid all of that. Since we’re not on vacation, and we don’t live like we’re on vacation, I really couldn’t imagine staying at a crowded RV park near the beach tucked in tight next to families on vacation and Canadian snowbirds escaping the frozen north. Instead we’re doing Florida our own way. Which for us means staying at state parks and skipping over the too crowded, built-up areas along the Florida coast in favor of the pristine, nearly deserted beaches of the panhandle.
The Florida panhandle is an ideal place to visit this time of year because November & December are the off-season. That means less crowded campgrounds and nearly empty beaches. There is no shortage of campgrounds and RV parks in the panhandle. We could have stayed at any number of state parks between Pensacola and Panama City, but we picked Grayton Beach State Park based on the recommendations of many other RVers, including our friends Jennifer & Deas who have spent the past few winters in the area. All the enticing things we heard about this place was true, and then some.
The campground is very nice with two distinct sections to choose from. The older loop (where we stayed) has hard packed sand sites with dense foliage providing nearly absolute privacy. Our site was quite large, but be warned that some others are narrow with low overhanging branches probably not suitable for larger RVs. A few of the sites in our loop even had small slice of a lake view. The newer loop has gravel sites with little or no vegetation between. They also have full hook-ups, while the older loop only has electric and water. In my opinion, the the older loop sites were much nicer, but if you absolutely need a sewer hook-up than the newer loop is not a bad choice.
The very best part of the campground is the beach. Only a short 1/2 mile walk or bike ride from the sites is the most gorgeous beach I’ve ever seen. It makes all others beaches look ugly in comparison. They call this stretch of Florida The Emerald Coast, and when you see the sparkling green water and bright white sand you will know why.
After we got through the initial burst of rainy weather that greeted us upon arrival, we spent the majority of the week hanging out on the beach. This area of Florida is quite a bit colder than the southern part, with average temps this time of year hovering around 60 or 70. It was even colder than that during our visit…more like 50-60, but we didn’t mind. Instead of swimming and sun bathing we walked, flew kites and even rode our bike along the shore.
I mentioned last week that some of our family came down for Thanksgiving. Grayton Beach is the perfect place for RVers to have non-RVing family members visit because the state park also has cabins. To be honest, cabins aren’t really the best word for them. These are not rustic wood buildings lacking running water and heat. The “cabins” are more like two bedroom condos with a full bathroom and kitchen, a gas fireplace, a screened in porch, and enough chairs and tables that between the two cabins we were able to cobble together a holiday table set-up for all eight of us. They also come outfitted with basic linens and kitchen supplies. It’s really quite a deal for only $110/night, considering each cabin sleeps 4-6 people.
Sadly, I never got a picture of all of us together, but the group of eight included my mom Christine, my step-dad Charlie, my brother Peter, his girlfriend Erin, her parents Lynn & Craig, and of course Tim & I.
Outside of the campground and the beach, there are a ton of things to do around Grayton Beach. The must-do Sunday afternoon activity is a visit to the Red Bar for drinks, food & live music. On the first day in Grayton Beach we were lucky to have our local hosts, the Nealys, take us for a tasty late lunch and some great music by local band Dread Clampitt, with special guest Sam Bush.
Another must-do in the area is a trip to the food truck Airstreams in the nearby town of Seaside. It’s only a few miles away from Grayton Beach, and if the whole family had bikes, it would have been fun to ride there.
We went on the day after Thanksgiving, along with everyone else in the immediate area. It was very, very crowded. We tried our best to check out the shops around the central square, but the throngs of teenage girls in Ugg boots, middle aged women swinging oversize handbags, and massive double strollers were just too much, and eventually we gave up on shopping and settled for some lunch from the trucks.
Between the eight of us we tried all of the trucks except for the ice cream one. I picked the truck with the longest line – The Melt Down – where they serve gourmet grilled cheese. Nearly everyone else was done eating by the time I got my ham & gouda perfectly melted between two slices of thick Texas Toast, but it was worth the wait. Craig & Lynn gave the BBQ Nachos from the Barefoot BBQ truck high marks, Peter & Erin shared a juice from the Raw & Juicy truck, my mom & Tim tried the dogs from Wild Bill’s Beach dogs, and Peter & Charlie sampled noodle bowls from the newest truck called Sóng.
The food truck experience was fun, but overall I think the town of Seaside might be a bit too upscale for our taste. We tend to enjoy places like Grayton Beach that have more of a local feel over towns such as Seaside that seem to exist solely for the purpose of serving wealthy tourists.
On our final night together we gathered at our site for some take out pizza and a campfire. It was the first time we had a campfire since last January, and we decided to go for the full experience by breaking out the s’mores supplies.
The next morning everyone left to fly and drive back home, while we packed up and headed down the road to our next campground. I am so glad we picked Grayton Beach for our family gathering. We might not have had perfect beach weather, but the beautiful white sand beach and top notch accommodations more than made up for the chilly temperatures. Grayton Beach is definitely one that gets added to the “must return” list.