Gulf County, nestled in the heart of the Florida Panhandle, doesn’t have everything—and that’s one of its most beloved traits. You won’t find high-rises, traffic jams, or crowded beaches here. What you will find is colorful villages like Wewahitchka, where unbelievably sweet Tupelo honey is harvested; 244 miles of tranquil shoreline that includes luscious sugar sand beaches, inland passages and a mysterious lake bristling with the skeletons of dead trees; and outdoor adventures that range from snorkeling to horseback riding on the beach.
Read on to discover more about this hidden gem.
Port St. Joe
Sited between Panama City to the west and Apalachicola to the east, Gulf County’s Port St. Joe is the picture-perfect coastal town where Florida was born.
Well, in a sense.
Seven years before Florida achieved statehood, it was here, in 1838, that 56 delegates gathered to cobble together a constitution, with many of the names affixed to the document – for example, Blount, Levy, Duval, and Yulee -- now affixed to the names of cities and counties across the state.
An arch that commemorates the event stands in the shade of hundreds of towering pines that fill a 12-acre park that reaches to St. Joseph Bay. Dedicated in 1923, this long-standing tribute to the historic event takes on even more meaning when paired with the adjacent Florida Constitution Convention Museum State Park, which includes artifacts from the era and exhibits on the timeline of the creation of the constitution.
In the town itself are other notable bows to Florida’s history. One is the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. Moved here in 2014 as the focal point of George Core Park, compared to other lighthouses this circa-1885 beacon is minimalist in design but powerful enough to attract visitors who can climb to the top. At the adjacent gift shop and tourist welcome center, be sure to pick up brochures – especially the one that includes a lighthouse driving tour of the Forgotten Coast.
The popular Port City Trail is a combination of pedestrian and bicycle paths of varying lengths, each interconnected and each exploring different areas of the town.
You’ll see more history any time you check the time. While nearly every time zone around the world is divided by imaginary north-south lines, in this pocket of Gulf County an east-west line – namely the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway – separates Central and Eastern Standard Times.
One story is that a railroad originating from Jacksonville terminated at the only stop along the line that stubbornly ran an hour earlier than the rest: Port St. Joe. To keep things simple, timetables and time itself were modified here.
Time also seems to stand still along Reid Avenue, the business district where a pleasing absence of chain stores brings to mind a shopping village of the past. There’s a bar and package store established in 1938, the historic 1938 Port Theatre with its art-deco facade, and independent businesses including florists, antiques, salons, a day spa, realtors, boutiques and gift shops.
When it’s time to refuel, abundant eateries offer a vast array of choices to please any palate.
At Provisions, you can discover mouth-watering fare that includes a seafood stew overflowing with scallops, shrimp, mussels and snapper; a decadent grilled skirt steak sandwich with roasted red peppers and mozzarella; and sesame seared tuna.
Bayside Bakery and Café tempts visitors with seasonal loaves of bread; generous slices of cheesy quiche; and fresh-baked chocolate chip, peanut butter and M&M cookies.
With stellar reviews for its friendly atmosphere and icy Margaritas, Pepper’s Mexican Grill is the place to go for classic Mexican food.
While the town is small, not everyone goes to bed early, and you’ll find a lively selection of nightlife. The Haughty Heron is a local’s favorite, boasting live music and parties on the patio, a walk-in wine cellar stocked with more than 300 brands of wine, and lots of friendly faces.
And the music can be very, very good. Brothers Osborne recorded their 2018 album titled Port St. Joe here, taking inspiration from the water and the town’s vibe. If you’re in town in October, make sure to catch the Blast on the Bay Songwriter’s Festival, showcasing Nashville’s talented musicians and songwriters.
Places to stay in Port St. Joe include vacation rentals, RV camping, and the Port Inn and Cottages, a boutique hotel rich in historic charm that promises to spoil you with modern amenities.
Cape San Blas
Sited on St. Joseph Peninsula, Cape San Blas stretches out from Port St. Joe and reaches around St. Joseph Bay, a narrow spit of land that’s renowned for its pristine, white-sand beaches and its seclusion. As one of the least populated coastal areas in Florida, if you want to get away from it all, you can’t do better than the Cape.
The vibe is all about the outdoors, or just kicking back and soaking up the glorious scenery.
Area experiences include horseback riding on the beach, an epic adventure where you might see dolphins frolic from atop the back of a trusty steed, with outfits like Two-Bit Stable or Broke-A-Toe; as well as fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, biking and hiking. The 8.7-mile Loggerhead Trail, a paved recreational pathway that spans the length of the Cape, promises a popular way to explore.
The beaches, which you’ll have mostly to yourself, feature generous swaths of sugar-sand that beg you to ditch your sandals, and the area’s multiple parks make it easy to access them.
T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph State Park, situated on the furthest reaches of the Cape, is the undisputed star of the peninsula, offering Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph Bay beach access. The park is heralded as the most productive shorebird nesting beach in the Florida Panhandle, and the birding is spectacular.
The crystalline waters of St. Joseph Bay, which features deep-water access from the park, deliver great fishing and snorkeling, with simple-to-reach off-shore reefs. Scalloping, a family-friendly, underwater treasure hunt, is all the rage during the summer months.
Biking, hiking, searching for seashells or just relaxing on the beach are other popular experiences.
On the Cape, you’ll discover a few restaurants, like Skully's Low Country Boil, offering spicy gumbo that gets rave reviews, fresh Gulf shrimp and low country boil; and Long Bills, that invites you to dive into a meal of fresh Gulf seafood; as well as a couple local stores where you can stock up on provisions.
Places to stay include vacation rentals, many of them magnificent affairs, as well as the tranquil Cape San Blas Inn, located a mere three miles from the St. Joseph State Park.
Only 20 minutes from Port St. Joe, you’ll know you’ve arrived in this unincorporated community because it seems the only building for miles is an old filling station/general store, reincarnated as the Indian Pass Raw Bar, a restaurant and gift shop with character to spare. Inside, folks are gathered at small tables where boxes of Saltine crackers, sauces, and napkins are placed as they await delivery of fresh-from-the-bay oysters. A map cluttered with push pins shows that folks from around the world have been here to dine on fresh seafood, many leaving with souvenir T-shirts and ball caps to prove they’ve discovered this remote hideaway.
The raw bar is at the junction of Indian Pass Road, which leads three miles the Indian Pass Campground where RV sites, campsites, primitive camping, and a general store can help you escape civilization a while longer. The great escape, though, is just across the water.
St. Vincents National Wildlife Refuge is a barrier island that helps create the broad lagoon before you, with 12,300 acres that provide an undisturbed environment for fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, hiking, bicycling, kayaking, and nature photography. It’s home to a pack of American red wolves, one of the most endangered animals in the world as well as birds that include Snowy Plovers, Great Egrets and Little Blue Heron. To reach it, the St. Vincent Island Shuttle ferries people and bicycles – but not cars- to this undeveloped island where you’ll find a shoreline that’s never changed and trails that take you into the quiet woods.
It’s not often a county seat changes places, but that’s when happened when Wewahitchka passed the baton to Port St. Joe in 1965. Although business may take place closer to the coast, “Wewa” still has plenty going for it, including the stately, historic 1927 Gulf County Courthouse, which stayed right here.
It doesn’t take long to drive around the town, and one of the most pleasing routes will take you around Lake Alice Park, where the town’s annual Tupelo Honey Festival every May celebrates its sweet, fragrant Tupelo honey- a delicious natural treat that smells a bit like fresh roses- under the shade of graceful oak trees. For over 100 years beekeepers have harvested the world-famous honey from the White Tupelo Gum trees that thrive in the Apalachicola River Basin.
If you like the outdoors, you’ll love Wewahitchka. The tiny enclave takes its name from the American Indian words for “water eyes,” and it lives up to the moniker with a rich tapestry of waterways, including the Chipola River and the eerily beautiful Dead Lakes.
Legend has it that the Lakes were born when sand bars created by the Apalachicola River blocked the Chipola River, flooding the area and killing thousands of trees, leaving a mysterious graveyard of cypress skeletons, stumps and knees that jut out of the water. Dead Lakes is a favorite of photographers and bass fishermen.
South of town, White City Park and Boat Ramp offers yet another way to enjoy the area’s waterways, providing access both to the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal. It’s a popular spot for shoreline fishing and is well-employed by local kids as a swimming hole.
When You Go…
For help planning your Gulf County getaway, check out www.visitgulf.com/. If you’re already in the area, stop into the Gulf County Welcome Center and the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce, in Port St. Joe.