The Road Trip Less Traveled: Gulf County
Perhaps nothing is more American than a road trip. From coast to coast we are connected by patterns in pavement. These highways, byways, state routes, drives and interstates let you ‘SEE’ America. From farmhouses and fields, to forests and mountain peaks, to rocky coasts and sandy shores, the road trip is an observatory into America. A grid of asphalt that connects us to each other and to this land.
Of all the road trips we take as Americans, perhaps the most traveled highways are those that lead to Florida beaches. For years my family made the trek south for sand and sun, but it was only in the passed 6 years that 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.
It is in this laid back paradise where 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.
30 or more 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, Wewawitchka, Indian Pass, and Cape San Blas. With these areas being less dense and more spread out focused on rental homes, Gulf County is an ideal place to road trip in these times of social distancing.
On my recent trip in February I stayed at the beautiful Seas The Day in St. Joe Beach where I was greeted by a starfish as a set foot on the beach. Seas The Day is an ideal retreat for the whole family or a large group with 3 floors of bedrooms, balconies, kitchens, and a pool. St. Joe Beach is a testament to community and helping your neighbor as they continue to rebuild better than before.
If you stay on the Cape which is a little further drive past Port St. Joe, 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 purples and grays.
Kayaking is an absolute must on St. Joseph’s Bay whether you decide to stay in St. Joe Beach or on the Cape, many rental homes come equipped with kayaks. During a typical kayak adventure you will see horseshoe crabs, crown conch shells, welks, starfish, and of course the occasional large redfish swimming about. During scallop season, which this year runs August 17-September 26, people will take their kayaks out and go scalloping.
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.
One of the aspects I love most about Gulf County, 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 the family. If you’re in the mood for a bonfire, Going Coastal Cabanas and more is your contact.
When you do 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. 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. 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 you can imagine with a menu that seems to go on and on. On the Cape, there’s Peachy’s Beach Eats which is casual and fantastic and comes with a fur baby greeter.
One of my favorite places in Gulf County is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, on this 8 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 my most recent trip I discovered a hiking trail located right inside the park entrance called Maritime Hammock Trail. I had this hike all to myself for miles only hearing the sound of the water lapping against the shore. The sand here even has a pink hue. On my excursion I discovered hermit carbs, starfish, scallops, and more. A hike in the state park may be one of the only places in America where you can still feel like you are on a deserted island.
Another hike made insta-famous, is the trek to see the Donna Kay. This shipwrecked vessel seems to have made its home on the south end of the Cape. Its red and white bow pointed inward, it is quite the sight against the bright blue sky.
Another allure of Gulf County is its Tupelo Honey. 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.