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Nestled on beaches of sugar white sand and surrounded by an endless array of outdoor activities combined with Southern hospitality to make you feel at home, the Gulf Coast of Florida beckons for travelers like the Sirens of mythology. Except in this case, the only crashing that happens are the waves on the shoreline and the sound of the daily stress grinding to a halt. Going to the Gulf Coast was probably the most relaxing vacation I have had, and the GCFL is ready to share that with you.
Where to begin? I think the most important thing to stress is to come prepared to be relaxed and casual. There are no “dress codes” anywhere in GCFL, and they really encourage people to come as they are and be as casual and relaxed as possible. The relaxed environment blends wonderfully with the Southern hospitality that permeates all interactions with those lucky enough to be locals.
There are many places to stay when in GCFL, including Turtle Beach Inn on Indian Pass, and the Port Cottages in Port St. Joe. I stayed at the cozy Tiki Palms Inn in downtown Port St. Joe, thanks to the hospitality of the owner, Debbie. After moving from Michigan to GCFL, Debbie and her husband decided to purchase and open the Tiki Palms Inn to provide a home away from home to those who travel to the Gulf. Each room is decorated with a theme, and the suites with two bedrooms are perfect for families vacationing. Each piece in the B&B was carefully and lovingly put together by Debbie herself, showing just how much consideration she puts in to trying to make her guests feel at home.
It is an amazing feeling waking up and going to the main house for a home cooked breakfast by Debbie, and she puts out a spread that will satisfy even the pickiest of eaters. With all the comforts of home, the Tiki Palms Inn was a welcome place to relax after a full day of activities out and about the GCFL.
When planning your itinerary, there is something for everyone, from phenomenal fishing to hiking and biking trails, kayaking, and even going on Turtle Patrol. For the water adventurer, talk with Off The Map Expeditions for the only water tours of the Dead Lakes. You can take a tour by kayak or pontoon, while the knowledgeable guides make sure to create a unique and fun time with stories and local lore along with information on local wildlife.
I went fishing with the only female captain on the Gulf, Captain Charlene at About Fun Charters, and besides the fishing lesson, she shared stories of her time as a Marine Biologist and how she earned the respect of the other captains in the area. She is patient and even a first time fisherman will be able to catch a fish with her knowledge of the waterways. Head out to Cape San Blas to rent a bike, canoe, kayak or paddleboard from husband and wife team Debbie and Dan. They provide pristinely kept rentals for self guided tours or you can have them introduce you to the “Forgotten Coast” in a way only they can. Debbie encourages tourists to learn and appreciate all St. Joe’s Bay has to offer, while leaving it the way they found it. They will be able to delight and entertain all ages as they show off the abundance of marine life found in the shallow waters of the bay. And whatever you do, don’t chase the chickens!
Another must if you hit the Gulf is to go tour an apiary, as GCFL is the only place you can see where Tupelo honey is harvested and taste premium, all natural Tupelo honey. I went to Smiley Apiaries in Wewahitchka and was able to tour how the honey is collected and processed, and even learned how to bottle honey. Of course I had to take some home, and couldn’t resist a pure beeswax candle either! For a truly unique opportunity, call up the Turtle Patrol and volunteer to help walk a section of the 6.5 mile stretch of beach in Cape San Blas that is home to approximately 96 nests annually. Patrols start the first of May and go until Oct. 31. At night throughout the Cape, expect it to be dark as all outside lights are turned off so as not to interrupt the nesting process of the exquisite Loggerhead and Greenback turtles. Another good reason to walk any of the beaches on the Gulf (besides the sugar soft white sand and blue waters lapping at your feet) is to go shelling as there is an extraordinary amount and variety of shells found along the waterfront that are perfect souvenirs.
For those who truly want to commune with nature and leave society behind for a few days, you can camp out or rent a cabin in the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. One of the top rated beaches in the U.S., and one trip down the miles of white sand will prove why. Keep an eye out for deer, alligators, turtles, and over 240 species of birds that live amongst the dunes and scrub pines.
Last but certainly not least is where to eat, as all the activities and adventures in the GCFL will definitely work up an appetite.
If in downtown Port St. Joe, you must eat at the Mason Dixon Food Truck. The food is a perfect blend of North and South gourmet food, made with only local and fresh ingredients. I personally highly recommend the Killington sandwich with the pineapple slaw. But leave room for dessert which comes in your very own Mason jar to take home. If you prefer some indoor dining, the Thirsty Goat has old world charm with award winning gumbo to warm you up from the inside out. The Thirsty Goat boasts live music by local musicians as you eat and drink with a breathtaking view of the bay across the street.
At the marina, you can relax at the Dockside Seafood and Raw Bar where I ate conch fritters for the first time and then could not get enough! You have a view of the sunset over the water as well as watching the day’s catch being brought in off the many fishing boats dotting the marina, lending to the atmosphere as you eat. If in Wewa for the apiaries or touring the Dead Lakes, stop in at the Tikki Grill for some fresh po’boys or fried green tomatoes.
The Tikki Grill is a local favorite and the bar area offers karaoke, pool, and darts in the evening. A number of locals raved about Paul Gants BBQ, claiming it is the best in Florida. With mouthwatering pulled pork and ribs, it definitely was the best BBQ I have ever had, and going up for seconds was not even enough. When lounging in St. Joe Beach, stop in for a drink and music at Lookout Lounge and Package Store which is on the County Line.
The Gulf Coast is full of things to do and ways to relax and enjoy the simple life and extravagant beauty that the Forgotten Coast holds. One trip will not be enough to do and see all you will want to do, and thankfully there is always a good time to visit GCFL. In the beginning of May, catch the Plein Air Paint Out where artists from around the world come to paint the gorgeous scenery and daily life. September brings the Scallop Festival that everyone raves about, and of course fishing is always in season. For more information, check out VisitGulf.com and get ready to breathe, relax, and enjoy!