30A: Culture Shock on Florida’s Gulf Coast

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“Are you planning to write about your time in Florida?” a reader asked me after I had announced on my Facebook page that I was enroute. My instant response was one of apathy. I’d been to Florida so many times in my life that it held little novelty or any of the cultural idiosyncrasies that normally inspire me to write.

After all, I was just there to visit some dear friends, and recover from my two months of bouncing around the Caribbean on a variety of sailboats. This was almost a “holiday” (in a manner of speaking) from being The Professional Hobo – whatever that means.

But my trip up to northwest Florida (referred to as “the panhandle”) – and the 30A neighbourhood in particular – was a surprising cultural and scenic anomaly for me, and quite in contrast to the Florida that I’ve come to know.

This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Where is 30A?

30A is a 19-mile stretch of connecting communities along the Gulf Coast of Florida. Since the majority of the state is made of up of the (gigantic) peninsula that juts off the southeastern corner of the USA, many people don’t think of this northwestern arm when they picture Florida.

Also known as the Emerald Coast, this part of Florida earns its name due to the unique emerald hue of the ocean, which constantly rolls onto impossibly white-sand beaches. The sand – which is some of the softest I’ve ever dug my toes into – squeaks underfoot, and is almost 100% quartz.

Emerald Coast sand
sand castles

Because of the unique sand, it forms gorgeous dunes that line the coast, and this part of Florida is home to very rare coastal dune lakes (the only in the US and one of only a few places in the world where these unique salt/fresh water eco-systems exist).

sand dunes

The Nature

White-sand emerald-water beaches and dune lakes aren’t this area’s only attraction. Miles upon miles of beautiful trails and state forest lie just inland of the beaches, with fragrant pine trees hovering above a sandy floor of tropical palms, ferns, and wild rosemary.

In fact my friend and I got irrevocably lost one day on a leisurely stroll through a state park, foolishly thinking we were on a small looping trail when we were inadvertently on a 15-mile loop we’d have had no hope of completing before dark. (Luckily we were “rescued” by a very kind forest ranger who drove us back to our car!)

The Weather

Not all of Florida is hot and sunny year-round the way many people envision it. Although it is considerably more temperate in climate than the snow-riddled north, donning a bathing suit and swimming in the chilly waters is virtually impossible during winter months.

empty beaches

In fact, although 30A is home to some snowbirds (Canadians and people from the northern US who spend their winters here), the beaches and establishments were relatively empty during my visit; peak season along the Gulf Coast is during the summer, not the winter.

30A beach

The Communities on 30A

The scenery and weather wasn’t my only Floridian surprise. As soon as I hit 30A, the architecture (and people) visibly changed. You drive through perfect little communities and developments, all manicured to perfection and (almost too) aesthetically pleasing. Each community has a theme of sorts; one is built to resemble a European town, another emulating Morocco, and another yet with a Caribbean flair.

one of the (slightly over) fabricated and manicured 30A neighbourhoods

Despite these contrasting architectural features, 30A maintains a cultural continuity and adopts little more than the aesthetics of the nations they’re fashioned after. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to see anybody other than a (financially well-endowed) white person in 30A; something for me that was homogeneously arresting.

Although you may detect a note of distain in these last few paragraphs, I must admit that the area is beautiful and has a unique flavour and culture all its own. One that, in its own right, gave me a sense of culture shock and surprised me by shaking my pre-conceived notions about the entirety of Florida and the southern US states.

And in the name of traveling and immersing myself in different places, I do love surprises. Even on my “holiday” from being The Professional Hobo, I gained a new perspective of yet another little corner of the world.

Check out my Travel Lifestyle Guides for more ways to earn money remotely, spend it wisely, and balance the two so you can travel as long as you wish, in a financially sustainable way. 

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12 thoughts on “30A: Culture Shock on Florida’s Gulf Coast”

  1. If you get a chance head a bit south the the “big bend” and check out Cedar Key. Fun, funky little town. A drinking town with a fishing problem…. One of our favorite places on earth.

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  2. You should have come to Toronto for a week to visit…its been low 20’s for the last week and we are even meant to hit 30 on Wed! Who knew in March? Plus, we miss you a lot here you know!

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  3. This is an area I am very familiar with. When my children were little we vacationed at a community called “Seaside”. It was not so built up as it is now. It was a quiet place to vacation with little ones and not deal with the Disney crowd. The natural beauty was wonderful. I have not been back in over 10 years and think it might be a bit of a let down with all the development.

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  4. @Diane – “A drinking town with a fishing problem”…ha ha! I missed Cedar Key….I’ll make a point of it next time I’m around.

    @Kate – Awww….thanks! The cool weather really was a shock to the system; who knew it was warmer even in Toronto? Wow.

    @Marcia – Seaside is absolutely gorgeous, but yes – probably much more developed than many years ago. Condos are millions of dollars, and there are art galleries and shops everywhere.
    It’s actually one of the areas I liked the most in the 30A strip however, as it looks and feels the most “in place” with a maritime feel than some of the other areas/communities.
    Apparently it’s a mad-house during the summer, but I can see why – it’s lovely.

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  5. I like it when any preconceptions i may have about a certain place are torn down one by one. I learn sthg new every time 😉

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  6. Lived for a number of years between Pensacola & Milton (small down east of P’cola) – not a place I would’ve chosen to live but fate kept dragging me back to those perfect white sands you mentioned.

    Eventually, I broke free & headed west out here to CA. Once in a while I think of the Emerald Coast with fondness but can’t say that it’s a top destination. It’s a nice stop for beach vacation / spring break but that’s about it for me.

    30A sounds like the compound for the Others on TV show Lost!

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  7. @John – Ha ha – I hadn’t thought of the show Lost, but I did feel a certain sense of displacement when I was there… (pardon the pun)

    I take it you like CA more….

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  8. I love that I just stumbled across a comment about Cedar Key while surfing around at random!

    We’ve made this amazing little town our base for the month of January. The best sunsets I’ve ever seen in Florida are literally right out our bus windows. Perhaps some of the best on earth – when the bayou water is still and becomes a perfect mirror. 🙂

    This is an amazing place, well worth a visit. Even if you aren’t into drinking or fishing!

    Cheers,

    – Chris

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    • Hey Chris – I’m glad you’re enjoying the emerald coast! I have fond memories of those beautiful beaches and idyllic cafes (and the oysters! Yum)!

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