Are off-the-beaten-path destinations your preference? I certainly prefer them. If you are looking for a less crowded beach for putting your toes in the sand, perhaps Gulf County, Florida is the answer.
My Itchy Travel Feet featured writer, Debi Lander of ByLanderSea, recently traveled to Gulf County, Florida. Keep reading for plenty of Forgotten Coast fun.
Finding a relatively quiet, underdeveloped beach area in Florida sounds impossible, but it’s not. I recently discovered Florida’s Forgotten Coast, below Panama City and Mexico Beaches, on the southern tip of the Panhandle.
Folks call it ‘forgotten’ because, for years, travelers bypassed the area due to a smelly paper mill. In 1999, the St. Joe Paper Company curtailed operations, and the smell disappeared. Then, the town reinvented itself.
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Where is the Forgotten Coast?
Gulf County rests 300 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia or about two hours southwest of Tallahassee. Boomers find it an ideal place to relax and unwind or perhaps bring the family. And its the perfect addition to a Big Bend Scenic Byway road trip.
How to plan your trip to Gulf County, Florida
To help you plan a trip, the Gulf County tourism council developed an online form and complimentary concierge service. Simply go to VisitGulf.com, click on Plan Your Trip, then scroll down to Concierge Services.
Indicate your interests in the document, and you will receive a 20-minute follow-up session with a local expert. And, yes, it’s a live person, not a recorded message.
The website is also an excellent source for discovering places to stay or rent, as the area lacks major hotels. Instead, many book rental beach properties through multiple agencies like VRBO.
Where to go on the Forgotten Coast of Florida
Today, Gulf County locals and visitors enjoy 244 miles of coastal shores with no tall buildings or neon lights. The pet-friendly beaches stay relatively empty and offer all the possible water activities.
Cape San Blas
Cape San Blas lies on a 750-acre narrow stretch of land on the St. Joseph Peninsula. The natural paradise extends from Port St. Joe and curves around St. Joseph Bay.
The nine-mile-long T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (website) offers dramatic sand dunes, some of which tower about 15 feet high.
Follow the path through the dunes on soft, sugar sand to reach the rolling waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Relax on the beautiful beach for a while. But remember your bug spray (here’s a plant based bug repellent); the state park has an official policy of never spraying for insect control.
A shimmering bay awaits on the opposite side of this skinny land strip with a boat ramp at Eagle Harbor. You’ll find the full-amenity campground only a short walk from the beach, or you can hike and enjoy primitive campsites inside the Wilderness Preserve.
The park offers eight cabins for rent on the bay side. The cabins, more like cottages, and RV park were recently remodeled after the hard-hitting Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Surf fishing is always a popular option, and don’t miss exploring the pristine nature trails within the park.
I stayed in a rental property named The Grove on Indian Pass, eight miles beyond Port St. Joe. The location allowed sunrise and sunset views and an easy walk to the beach.
The “Old Florida” feel of the place provided a refreshing stay with all the luxe comforts imaginable. The Grove is a complex or event space, sleeping up to 24 in three houses; plus includes a shallow water dock, game room with a dry bar, and even an indoor heated pool.
The Grove made me wish my extended family could join me. Indian Pass removes you from the main beachy action but keeps you close to everything you might want to do.
Port St. Joe
The small town of Port St Joe unites the area, acting like a central hub. Its main shopping district is home to clothing boutiques, cutesy shops, galleries, and many restaurants, yet convenient for both land and water activities.
St Joe Beach is especially loved by families. Rish Park is a barrier-free recreational area for people with disabilities, 15 miles from downtown.
The 1884 Cape San Blas Lighthouse was moved to Port St. Joe in 2014 due to its precarious position on the peninsula. Take on the fun challenge of climbing the 85-foot high metal structure. You’ll be rewarded with some birds-eye views of the coast.
Veterans Memorial Park at Beacon Hill includes an amphitheater honoring the armed forces, playgrounds, pavilions, a dog park, and pickleball courts. Perfect spot for a family reunion or gathering.
On the shores of St. Joe Bay, you’ll find the upscale coastal resort community named WindMark. Residents and renters share nature trails, boardwalks, cart paths, and a fitness center.
Homes are raised slightly to take full advantage of the Bay breezes. The Boomer-centric community features a swimming pool, village green and amphitheater, and beach walkover to four miles of bay coastline. I especially enjoyed WindMark’s downtown area with fun bars and lively restaurants.
The Dead Lakes
I made a short drive to Wewahitchka, a small town with a long Seminole name meaning “water eyes.” The title refers to the two round lakes in the heart of downtown.
When cypress trees in a nearby larger lake were cut for the paper mill, they left thousands of stumps and created the Dead Lakes. I went to enjoy a pontoon boat ride and take photos.
After many years, new growth grew around the stumps, creating a haunting, mystical scene. The trees reminded me of overgrown bonsai with artistically arranged branches supporting delicate foliage.
As a photographer, I’d love to return to this peaceful place around sunrise or sunset. In fact, the outing became my favorite memory from my Gulf County visit.
I understand bass fishermen regularly travel to the Dead Lakes to wrestle record-breaking fish out of the cypress tree stumps. Bird watchers come to see the wildlife.
Also, in Wewa, as the locals call it, you’ll find local tupelo honey. The white tupelo tree’s blooms produce a most pleasing taste, and some consider it the top of the honey line.
Many tupelo trees grow in the Dead Lakes. Drive to a Wewa apiary and talk to a beekeeper. Watch the liquid gold bottled. Take a taste test of the different flavors, and buy a jar as a lovely souvenir or gift.
Gulf County Activities
Vacation activities abound in Gulf County, and you can pick something different daily: fishing, hiking, biking, boating, swimming, tennis, horseback riding, and more.
Children and anyone new to kayaking will feel safe on the shallow waters of St. Joseph Bay. The bottom is visible, and I spied scallops, whelks, starfish, and a ray among the seagrass.
Happy Oars Kayaks makes a paddling adventure easy as their boats are stored just a few feet from the water’s edge. Stand-up paddleboarding is another option, and you can also rent a bicycle.
Many off-road biking trails stretch along the bayfront, safe for children and adults. I must admit, I’m not keen on biking on roads and much prefer these types of bicycle trails.
Public access tennis courts are located at Lamar Faison Park, near the Port City walking or bike trail.
Those interested in horseback riding can trot along the beach during a sunset ride. The horses don’t go into the water, but the experience is undoubtedly memorable and offers many Instagram photo ops.
With all the surrounding water, it’s no surprise that boating is big. Rentals and fishing charters start at Point South Marina. You can hire a captain and sit back worry-free, depending on your needs. Tour around St. Joseph Bay, enjoy a sunset cruise, eco-tour with Marine Biologists Captain Charlene Burke, or have a dolphin encounter.
Sandcastle building with grandkids is fun, but perhaps you want to go below the surface? Head over to Daly’s Watersports for a Discover Scuba Diving program. A certified instructor leads the half-day outing, and you’ll even get to explore a shallow shipwreck.
Anglers stop into the bait and tackle shops for supplies or gear to prepare for the day’s catch. They leave with the region’s weather and fishing advice. If you are interested in scalloping, ask about dates, as they vary from county to county in Florida.
Golfers can take a break from the surf and sand and tee off at two 18-hole courses: St. James Bay Golf Resort or St. Joseph Bay Golf Club. The St. James facility offers golf villas and luxury condos.
Roasting marshmallows over an open fire is an essential tradition on many family vacations. As the sun sets, enjoy a beach bonfire without doing any work. Let the Light Up Your Night crew will set up, light the fire, and return for clean-up. Smore’s ingredients included!
Dining on Florida’s Forgotten Coast
In my opinion, all vacations or getaways call for dining out. While in Gulf County, try some of the area’s famous local oysters and fresh-caught fish at these restaurants.
Krazyfish Grille is a local favorite. The laid-back atmosphere, inventive drink menu, and coastal entrees combine for the classic relaxed dining experience.
Indian Pass Raw Bar is one of the oldest establishments in Gulf County, loved by locals and guests. Of course, they are known for their oysters, also gumbo, you pick your beer and the “honor system.” This is a fun spot that includes an outdoor music venue.
LongBill’s Restaurant is another hit with a fun, casual atmosphere and a menu filled with local favorites.
For a fancier night out, The View on Old 98 at WindMark Beach serves fresh Asian (yummy sushi) and American cuisine with a magnificent waterfront view. The food and atmosphere were excellent, my favorite.
For a special treat, an in-home chef-prepared meal by Your Table, Our Chef is a fabulous way to create a special occasion meal. Or hire Skully’s Low Country Boil to bring a feast to your rental property.
You can’t go to the beach without ice cream so make sure to stop by Sugar Shack PSJ.
Where to stay in Gulf County, Florida
Use VisitGulf.com to investigate a long list of rental properties. VRBO is another option (start your search here).
The Port Inn and Cottages, in downtown Port St. Joe, would be my choice for a land-based stay. Reserve one of the 22 boutique hotel rooms or one of their twelve 2-bedroom cottages with porches and rocking chairs.
Black’s Island sounded terrific, but I did not get an opportunity to visit. This “private island getaway” offers 26 luxe bungalows on a seven-acre island in St. Joseph Bay.
The only access is by a 10-minute boat ride boat from the mainland. There’s a four-story clubhouse with an observation deck, a pool, white sand beaches, and a 1,200-foot boardwalk. (I want to go there!)
If you’re looking for a Florida beach, fishing, or boating vacation, your desires will be fulfilled in Gulf County!
Not ready to end your Florida Gulf Coast road trip? Keep driving south to discover the best cultural things to do in Sarasota.