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The Pearl Hotel at Rosemary Beach along 30A in the Panhandle of Florida./ Photo by Jack Weatherly

JACK WEATHERLY — Trouble in Paradise, but 30A smooths the bumps


Driving from Jackson, we pass through Bankhead Tunnel beneath the Mobile Bay, with the U.S.S. Alabama and its World War II guns standing guard above us.

We’ve been on the road several hours and have noticed a vague color on the mid-day horizon.

We keep an eye out for a coronavirus checkpoint soon after we enter Florida via Interstate 10.

But we didn’t see it because it had been dismantled.

Gov. Ron DeSantis had reopened businesses on May 4 and things in late June were continuing to look up.

But on Friday afternoon, because of a spike in coronavirus cases, DeSantis immediately shut down freestanding bars and also restaurants that make more than 50 percent of their revenue from liquor sales.

A view down the shore at  Seacrest Beach./ Photo by Jack Weatherly

That included the Havana Beach Bar and Grill at The Pearl hotel on Main Street in Rosemary Beach. A few diners were at tables at the Havana Beach. No one was at the bar.

All 50 rooms at the white Spanish-style Pearl were booked, manager David Merryman said.

The charm of the area seems to help it survive tough times.

But sometimes it takes a lucky charm.

The Restaurant Paradis, which has has been open since 2009 (a long time in 30A years), and the rest of Rosemary Beach narrowly missed the brunt of category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Mike Wood , manager, said the restaurant is booked solid every night, which means 50 percent, due to coronavirus limitations.

He attributes that to “pent-up demand,” though that will be tested further by the bar shutdown.

That demand meant that our daughter, and trip planner, was lucky to get us one restaurant reservation for our extended weekend — at Cafe Thirty-A (honestly, there are a few titles without the name of the highway). The she-crab soup was equal to what we had in Charleston, S.C. two years earlier, though my subbed red snapper fillet was small and flat.

The herky-jerky life of the pandemic plays no favorites.

And while the Sahara Desert dust cloud carried across the Atlantic and into the Gulf by the trade winds added a certain exotic atmosphere, it might have been of concern for some.

The first two days we were there, a haze filtered the sun and softened the summer heat. It was hard to tell whether it was moisture or dust or a combination.

Tourists on fat-tired rental bicycles kept the paths humming (and keep you on your pedestrian toes and brakes, especially after dark.)

Beachgoers can flip through books by the area’s own mystery writer, Deborah Rine, perhaps “The Girl on 30A.” Talk about a book tailored for the beach reading.

Perfect for peeking over the pages to see a seagull snagging a Cheeto off the wet sand, or a tall skinny teenage girl with long, thin legs failing and failing again to master a paddleboard in the pale-green surf.

The Florida Panhandle is tucked beneath Alabama and Georgia, and 30A attracts successful country-music performers who have a place here.

And it has the annual 30A Songwriters Festival, which was headlined in January by Brian Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys, and John Prine, and many more performers at venues up and down the 18-mile stretch.

The area even has its own namesake brew, 30A Beach Blonde Ale, one of its many beers produced by the Grayton Beach Brewery.

The seed for what was to become a long, low loop of pearls along the highway was Seaside back in 1982. The very American-style community with porches and picket fences was designed by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, an Ivy League-trained husband and wife team.

Duany and Plater-Zyberk in 1995 created another new urbanist community, this one at Rosemary Beach on the west end of the alternate route dangling from U.S. Highway 98. It is equally historical in inspiration but reflects more the New Orleans and Caribbean architecture.

The string of pearls that is 30A lies between Fort Walton-Destin and Panama City, which were established long ago as the go-to spots.

Back in those days, we took a family vacation in Santa Rosa Beach, when it was barely developed, and rented a humble cottage near the shore, never dreaming what was in the future.

All right, 30A  has its own song, too.

“Fat Dad,” written and recorded by Mississippi native Charlie Mars in a sort of Jimmy Buffet/Randy Newman song told from the perspective of a teen-aged girl who digs the really cool lifestyle. “We used to hang out down to Destin/but now we rollin’./Fat Daddy got this bangin’ Ranger Rover./ Oh yeah, we got a fat pad down at 30A.”


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About Jack Weatherly