An Untouched Beach Escape

By: Diane Lacey Allen

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The beach at T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is one of the few 'hidden' escapes on the Florida coastline.

There is a good explanation why the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park is tucked away in the northwest section of the state. God really wanted it to himself. One can only guess that if he had to share, he expected us to make the drive.

There are plenty of reasons - 2,516 pristine acres to start - why the drive is worth it. St. Joe's was been named the nation's best beach in 2002 by coastal researcher Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (a.k.a. "Dr. Beach"). Near the vast, high dunes that make up this piece of heaven, odds are you'll see only your footprints.

For many folks, neighboring St. George Island is far enough. It is undeveloped by most Sunshine State standards. Here, condos and three-tier homes have yet to block out the sun - and you'll get a kick out of reading the names of these personal retreats.

But the locals who live on the elbow of land known as Cape San Blas say that St. Joseph Peninsula is what St. George Island was 30 years ago.

You have to relax at the park. In fact, you don't have much choice. Take your cue from a monarch butterfly or a hawk.

If you don't count gas station food marts, restaurant options are pretty limited. For fresh seafood, visit the Indian Pass Raw Bar which specializes, of course, in oysters. With its weathered white wood, equally worn Gator memorabilia and plastic-chair-charm, the Indian Pass Raw Bar fits this rustic gathering spot, where regulars talk about local events and know where to find the bottle opener. Or you can always drive a half-hour east to Apalachicola for more choices.

Yes, you can leave the designer labels at home. This is the land of blue jeans, baseball caps and people who drive SUVs because they need them.

The nesting sea turtle is sacred. From May 1 to October 31, it's lights out after 9 p.m. During that time, there are no lanterns or flashlights allowed on the beach. The turtle also reigns at the Turtle Beach Inn (850-229-9366, www.turtlebeachinn.com), a bed and breakfast inn and cottages that faces the sparkling Gulf of Mexico. The place is loaded with turtles - from tortoise soaps to carved art. Another option is the Old Saltworks Cabins (850-229-6097, www.oldsaltworks.com), which is a Ponderosa-like resting place off the main road to St. Joe's park.

When the weather cools off, and a fireplace makes things cozy, the park is a great place to be. It takes a little planning, but the park accepts cabin reservations up to 11 months in advance (800-326-3521). In addition to a chance to hunker down in cabins near the water and big dunes, there is room for up to six people per cabin. The cost is $100 per night. There is an additional $5 per person for more than four adults. For those who think the cabins are too good to be true, there's a maximum 14-night stay. There's also primitive and non-primitive camping in the park's wilderness preserve for $24 per night.

The park is sided by both the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph's Bay. To get there, you drive past modern-day military sites, Cape San Blas and new homes that seem to have sprouted up from the sand.

The park itself is little more than dunes, wooden walkways and trails. There is an area designated for non-motorized craft.

Although tempting, you are not allowed to drive or walk or even sit on the dunes. The view from the beach is enough, though. They are more like cliffs, framing the surf and sand as the sea oats bow in the wind. The sun seems to shine brighter here, reflecting off the bleached dunes - dancing like plates of diamonds on the water.

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