When I was a little girl before I ever laid eyes on the ocean, I read about it. I read about the waves and the sand, the shells and the sand dollars, the sea turtles and the dolphins. I read about sea horses and starfish, about crabs and sea urchins, about sting rays and sharks. I could not believe that there was a world under the sea filled with the wildest, most beautiful creatures you could ever imagine.
My first trip to the beach I was 5 or 6 (unlike today when children go to the beach 3, 4, or even more times a year starting as babies). The beach was a treat and boy was I excited, I couldn’t wait to see all those creatures that I had been reading about. And then we got to the beach, and I did not find all those creatures I was anticipating on seeing, in fact I was lucky to find a half broken shell. It was still magical and still beautiful just to feel the sand in my toes and hear the waves rolling to shore, but not the world I had dreamed up in my imagination. It would not be until my adult years when I began traveling outside the United States that I would begin to discover those creatures I had so fallen in love in National Geographic Magazines.
Then just a few years ago my family went on a fishing trip to a place called Cape San Blas. In one day we saw dolphins right next to the boat, manatees, sand dollars, horseshoe crabs, and caught a variety of fish. On our next trip we would find shell after shell, see sting rays glide along the ocean bottom, and discover that this same area is known for its Tupelo Honey. On the next trip we would go scalloping, kayak out to sandbar after sandbar in St. Joseph Bay to discover new shells and new creatures, catch beautiful Spanish and King Mackerel, and watch a leatherback turtle nest evaluation after its hatching. Then we shared this place with friends and the memories made since are even more magical than the first trips – finding a honey hole of red fish and catching one after the other; discovering starfish, sea slugs, big live welk shells, and even a baby sea star inside a shell on kayak excursions; seeing a sea turtle swimming through the bay; surf fishing and catching flounder on the Gulf side of the cape; filling net bags with bay scallops we would then eat for dinner; kayak fishing with twilight cascading the horizon and the full moon rising.
To watch our children, my daughter and our friend’s sons, play with such wonder in their eyes, with such freedom in their movement, with such curiosity in their minds – it is beautiful.
Even I feel my thoughts melt away in this magical place. My mind is clear but my senses are acute – sight, sound, touch, smell. As we kayak through the bay the salty air hits my nose, I feel how the paddle glides along the water, I see a blue crab side stepping his way through the sea grass in the crystal clear water, I hear what seems like a hundred mullet jumping out of the water and splash nearby. In this beautiful place I am in the moment and it is a beautiful feeling.
45 minutes east of Panama City you will find a coastal area not filled with black Range Rovers, trendy restaurants, and Alvin’s Islands, but instead 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. This connection to the land and water can be felt in each place you venture and every 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.
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.
It is ideal to rent a home on the cape and you can do this through Pristine Properties, Gulf Coast Vacation Rentals, or VRBO. We prefer the bayside, it is great if you have a boat and if you plan to do any kayaking, paddle boarding, scalloping, or snorkeling. Here is a link to the bay front home we have rented, the location is great. Each morning the sun rises majestically right in front of the home and there is endless exploring be done right in the bay. The house is beautifully updated with a fully equipped kitchen, stunning views, and great outdoor dining areas. There are more than enough kayaks for everyone in our families and paddle boards also. With just 3 bedrooms it is plenty of room for our 2 families, with a large bed and pull out couch in one room where all the children can sleep.
Kayaking is an absolute must and many places come equipped with kayak rentals, but also on the cape is 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 daughter had her own kayak seat with daddy and her own paddle. Before you even launch your 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. If the season is open, scalloping in the area is a must whether by boat, with a tour, or by kayak. 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 blue 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 saute them in a little butter and salt just for a few minutes and you have an out of this world dinner. Bay scallops are smalls notch 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 from the Port. St. Joe Marina for a half day or full day. 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 and you will never want to eat anything but freshly caught fish again.
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 shrimp 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. You can also enjoy live music and a craft cocktail The Thirsty Goat in Port St. Joe.
Another allure of Gulf County where Cape San Blas is located, 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 trapping has become increasingly popular and for select permitted sportsmen the Dead Lakes are their hunting waters with season typically lasting from August-November. Wewa is also where you may want to have your first drive thru liquor store experience.
If you’re muscles are sore from all that fishing and kayaking, SpaPur is a quaint but fantastic spa located in Port St. Joe. Schedule a massage or facial and you will not be disappointed.
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. Two firework shows as well, one in each time zone.
I marvel at this place – there are no waterslides, no high rises, no fancy restaurants, yet there is everything you ever dreamed the beach itself could be.