In the legend of the Blue Lagoon a boy and a girl find themselves stranded on an island filled with mystery and nature, this to me is a dream vacation – a place where the noise and chatter fade away and you are left with the ones you love surrounded by natural beauty and wonder. There are few places where my husband and I have traveled that have come close to this – at Amanyara in Turks and Caicos we had our own private beach and lagoon to snorkel in, in Bermuda the beautiful Cambridge Beaches offers gorgeous cottages with private coves overlooking the brilliant blue waters and a restaurant where they cook your freshly caught fish anyway you like. But there is one place not an ocean away where we found seclusion, natural beauty, a freeness of the spirit, and a bounty of marine life. That place is Gulf County, Florida home to Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas.
45 minutes east of Panama City you will find a coastal area not filled with black Range Rovers and Alvin’s Islands, but instead a port boasting some of the gulf’s best fishing, large shrimp boats lining the intercoastal, a state park where marine life including manatees is a normal occurrence, a charming kayak rental nestled right up to the bay, and signs pointing you to apiaries where the world’s most bountiful harvest of Tupelo honey can be found. This connection to the land and water can be felt in each place you venture and each person you meet. Captain Danny Raffield of Raffield Fisheries says, “Nature has a way of balancing itself out. If man does something nature will react it may not be immediate but there will be balance.” This wisdom of walking hand in hand with nature is evident in the low key yet enchanting ‘salt’ lifestyle of the area.
Our home on Cape San Blas was a beautiful 3 story house equipped with everything you could ever want from a top story master suite to an outdoor shower to a fish cleaning station to big balconies overlooking the beach. Called A Turtle’s Retreat by Gulf Coast Vacation Rentals, the home is nestled behind the dunes on the gulf side of the cape.
As you drive out to Cape San Blas you pass by an old convenient store/seashell stand, a restaurant, and perhaps even a roadside stand selling Tupelo Honey. On the cape you find yourself surrounded by water on both sides juxtaposed between sunrise and sunset which makes for one of the most breathtaking views imaginable. In fact 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 brilliant and bold changing the sky from vibrant oranges and pinks to dark. The cape is home to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park and Eagle Harbor. In the state park you can kayak along the bay from Eagle Harbor, observe turtle patrol and watch for sea turtle nests and baby sea turtles hatching, or simply enjoy the trails. Last year on a fishing trip to the area we saw 3 manatees in the harbor and of course my daughter thought that was so cool to see these large teddy bear like creatures swimming in the water.
Just outside the door of the beach house, waves call you to wonder along the shoreline where you will find so many shells. Another wonderful plus of the beach and the area, it is pet friendly. So our 14 year old Maltese got to make the trip and enjoy the beach with us too.
Down the road from A Turtle’s Retreat on the cape was Happy Ours Kayak Rental. Owned by the friendly and incredibly knowledgeable couple Debbie and Dan VanFleet, you arrive at their home/business and find an array of animals. Their kayaks nestle right up to the bay and the tour we went on with Dan was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. Even our 6 year old daughter had her own kayak seat with daddy and her own paddle. Before you even launch yor kayak you will see Fiddler crabs scurrying along the beach. During your tour you will see horseshoe crabs, crown conch shells, welks, starfish, and of course the occasional large redfish swimming about. During scallop season which typically runs July-September people will take their kayaks out and go scalloping. Rates are extremely affordable ranging from $30 for a sinlge half day to $60 for a tandem full day – it will be a memory you nor your family will soon forget.
The scallops from St. Joseph’s Bay are so fresh and tender they will melt in your mouth. Scalloping in the area is a must whether you charter a boat privately for your family, go on a boat tour with a group, or kayak out to harvest scallops. The scallops sometimes hide but once you find a patch among the seaside you will likely be able to harvest a lot. You look for their glowing purple eyes and once out of the water you will see and hear them snapping and chattering about. Many people will eat them raw but of course you can sautee them in a little butter and salt just for a few minutes and you have an out of this world dinner.
The area also boasts some of the best fishing. Charter a boat from the Port. St. Joe Marina for a half day or full day and you are bound to catch redfish, blue fish, speckled trout, triple tail, pompano, or flounder in the bay. If you venture offshore you may snag snapper or even a shark. Your captain should pack your fish for you and if you want to enjoy it right off the boat the Dockside Seafood and Raw Bar will cook it for you. Otherwise take it back to your place and cook it in a little olive oil with salt and pepper and you will never want to eat anything but freshly caught fish again. If you have a group of friends, you may want to get the fryer out and have fish fry.
The wonderful thing about the area is with such great fishing, scalloping, and seafood markets receiving shrimp, crawfish, and fresh catches right off the boat, you really do not have to worry about going out to eat. You can grab groceries, enjoy the sunset, not worry about changing clothes, and then saute fish or put on a crawfish boil in no time at all. If you do want to eat out, there is the famous Indian Pass Raw Bar where you can shuck oysters, drink bottled beer, and even bring your own chicken to throw on the smoker, Triple Tails with its fresh seafood cooked up just right, and even delicious Paul Gant’s BBQ.
Another allure of Gulf County, the world’s largest harvest of Tupelo Honey comes from the area. Tupelo Honey comes from the blossom of the tupelo tree, which belongs to the sour gum family. There are several species of gum trees, but only the white tupelo tree (Nyssa Ogeche) 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 the Florida Panhandle, in and around the Apalachicola and Chipola river basins. These areas are world-renowned for producing high quality Tupelo Honey. Smiley Apiaries is one of the many apiaries found in the Wewahitchka area that supplies Tupelo Honey all over the world boasting that their honey is 70-95% pure tupelo.
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 also 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 hunting has become increasingly popular and for select permitted sportsmen the Dead Lakes are their hunting waters with season typically lasting from August-November.
From the Tupelo Honey Festival to Plein Air Invitational where artists from all over are invited to come 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 does something unique 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. Free shuttle buses run continuously from Port St. Joe to Mexico Beach and everywhere in between. Two firework shows as well, one in each time zone.
If you love the smell of salt in the air, the view of a beautiful sunset stretching along a white sand beach, the thrill of catching a large redfish, and the ability to experience a world of wonder right outside your door, Gulf County is the place for you. For a vacation well lived and a life well loved, make Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas your next stop on the map.