Perhaps nothing is more American than a road trip. From coast to coast we are connected by patterns in pavement. Of all the road trips we take as Americans, perhaps the most traveled highways are those that lead to Emerald Coast beaches.
For years my family made the trek south for sand and sun, then ten years ago we took the road less traveled to the Forgotten Coast where we discovered the most geographically unique coastal region. We return year after year after year. There are no waterslides, no high rises, no fancy restaurants, yet there is everything you ever dreamed the beach itself could be. With seashells, starfish, sea turtles, the best fishing, coastal hiking trails, kayaking on the crystal clear bay, sunrises and sunsets over the water – everyday in Gulf County is an adventure.
In this laid back paradise, you feel America. You feel it in the people you meet who are so proud of where they live, you feel it in the fishing boats and shrimp boats, you feel it between your toes as you sink into sand, many days without another soul around. That spirit of what it must have been like to first set foot upon Florida’s shores is still alive and well in Gulf County. A place that despite expansive growth all around doesn’t feel commercialized or plastic, a place where every person and every adventure seems connected to the land.
Forty-five minutes east of Panama City if you follow county road 30A toward Apalachicola, you find Gulf County with a port boasting some of the Gulf’s best fishing, large shrimp boats lining the Intracoastal, a state park where marine life - including manatees - is a normal occurrence, a beach and bay lined with shells of all shapes and sizes, and signs pointing you to apiaries where the world’s most bountiful harvest of Tupelo Honey can be found. Gulf County is made up of St. Joe Beach, Port St. Joe, Wewahitchka, Indian Pass, and Cape San Blas.
Cape San Blas is where we stay again and again. On this peninsula, you find yourself surrounded by water on both sides juxtaposed between sunrise and sunset which makes for some of the most breathtaking views imaginable. In the morning the sun rises like a big bright orange ball of fire right out of the water on the bay side and in the evening the sun sinks into the water brilliantly and boldly changing the sky from vibrant oranges and pinks to dark purples and grays.
Kayaking is an absolute must on St. Joseph’s Bay, and many rental homes come equipped with kayaks. During a typical kayak adventure you will see horseshoe crabs, crown conch shells, welks, starfish, stingrays, sea turtles, and of course the occasional large redfish swimming about. During scallop season, which typically runs July through September, people will take their kayaks and go scalloping.
The scallops from St. Joseph’s Bay are so fresh and tender they will melt in your mouth. The scallops sometimes hide, but once you find a patch you will likely be able to harvest many. You look for their glowing blue eyes. Many people will eat them raw but you can sauté them in a little butter and salt just for a few minutes and you have an out of this world dinner. Bay scallops are smaller, so not much cooking time is needed at all. The key to cooking scallops is to dry them off first; this will create that nice sear.
The area also boasts some of the best fishing. Bring your boat or charter a boat for a half day or full day with Captain Lee Thompson of Shallow Seas Charters (shallowseascharters.com). You are bound to catch redfish, speckled trout, triple tail, pompano, or flounder in the bay. If you venture offshore you may snag Spanish or King mackerel, grouper, red snapper or triggerfish. You can take your catch back to your place and cook it in a little olive oil with salt and pepper. You will never want to eat anything but freshly caught fish again.
One of the aspects I love most about the Cape is after a long day on the water you can relax, enjoy the sunset, not worry about changing clothes, and just have an easy, delicious dinner in your beach home with your family or friends. If you’re in the mood for a bonfire, Going Coastal Cabanas is your contact.
When you do venture out to eat, there is the famous Indian Pass Raw Bar where you can eat oysters and drink bottled beer. In downtown Port St. Joe you will find Uptown Bar and Grill serving up oysters, shrimp, fish, steak and more. Dagwood’s in Port St. Joe is a great grab-and-go with exceptional food. For the best donuts, check out Sweet Bunz. If you crave Mexican food like our family does, a place that never disappoints and has become a staple each trip is Quattros Locos Tacos and Cantina. For a colorful atmosphere, lively patrons, and great food there’s Krazyfish in Port St. Joe. Shipwreck in St. Joe Beach offers some of the tastiest seafood. On the Cape, there’s Peachy’s Beach Eats which is casual and fantastic and comes with a fur baby greeter, a great to-go also.
One of my favorite places is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. On this eight mile stretch of land you will find hiking trails, camping, kayak rentals, boat launch and miles of beach dotted with sea turtle nests. The tip of Cape San Blas is located in the park - many people take their boat to the tip and anchor down for a day of swimming and exploring. On a recent trip I discovered a hiking trail located right inside the park entrance called Maritime Hammock Trail. The sand here even has a pink hue. You will find hermit crabs, starfish, scallops, and more. A hike in this state park feels like you're on a deserted island.
The Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Museum in Port St. Joe is a fun stop for families. You can tour the facility and their animal habitats while learning more about the sea turtle conservation efforts of their Turtle Patrol. If you are an early riser you can also join Turtle Patrol at sunrise from April to October as they observe sea turtle nests.
Another allure of Gulf County is its Tupelo Honey. Tupelo Honey comes from the White Tupelo tree (Nyssa ogeche) which produces an excellent table-grade honey. Although White Tupelo trees grow throughout the southeastern United States, some of the largest concentrations of these special trees are found in Gulf County. Smiley Apiaries is one of the many apiaries found in the Wewahitchka area that supplies Tupelo Honey all over the world.
Also located in ‘Wewa’ as the locals say – the Dead Lakes. The landscape of the Dead Lakes is a photographer’s dream with the mossy branches and unique dimensions of the cypress dotting the Lakes. This area is home to a variety of bird species such as the osprey, ibis and heron. A bass fisherman’s dream and an eco-adventurer’s paradise, a tour of the Dead Lakes is a magical experience. Tours are provided by Matt Godwin of Off the Map Expeditions. Godwin knows the area remarkably well from every osprey nest to every bug skimming the water. Alligator trapping has become increasingly popular and for select permitted sportsmen the Dead Lakes are their hunting waters with the season typically lasting from August to November.
From the Plein Air Invitational (where artists from all over are invited to set up station along the scenic coast for one week and paint) to the annual Scallop and Music Festival, there is always a celebratory time to visit Gulf County. Even during New Years the area hosts a celebration called Celebrate Twice. Party goers start in the Eastern Time Zone in Port St. Joe and St. Joe Beach, then travel west just five minutes to Mexico Beach and they celebrate all over again an hour later in the Central Time Zone. There are two firework shows as well, one in each time zone.
Every visit I marvel at this place because it is holds all the wonder I ever dreamed a beach could have.
"There is everything you ever dreamed the beach itself could be."