We wanted to go kayaking. That was the plan. We were dressed. We had our gear. We had our life vests. The protected, glassy waters of St. Joe Bay awaited. Except that it was raining, so the water wasn't glassy. Try again tomorrow - cold and windy, but this time we got the boats onto the shore. One of our number, a canoeist, even managed to launch her craft in the water - where she was promptly tumbled into the chilly liquid by a combination of wind and
current. And so we learned the first rule of visiting Gulf County: Throwout the agenda and be flexible. Lesson number 2 - : Plan B can be just as much fun.
In a state that has perfected the art of assembly-lining visitors and separating them from their money, Gulf County, population 13,500, is something of an anomaly. Elsewhere, Florida bristles with high-rise hotels and condos, theme parks and wall-to-wall chain restaurants. Gulf County just doesn't.
In fact, if you're looking to get away from it all, this is the place. There's little of the tourism machine here and few familiar names on the signs. But be warned: it's not for everyone. The area is a good fit for people who like to find their own fun. If you're depending on Mickey to make your day - or SoBe to make your night - best keep driving.
Then go a little farther and look up. That may be an osprey in the sky, or maybe a bald eagle. Less flashy feathered species are found here as well - more than 200 species have been spotted and it's one of the best places in the eastern U.S. to watch hawks during their annual migration. Ask for a birding list at the ranger station. The area hosted its first birding and wildflower festival this past October, complete with photography workshops, tours by the Audubon Society and seminars on such subjects as building a backyard bird habitat.
There are several hiking trails - watch the foliage for Monarch butterflies in the fall - and weather usually cooperates, so canoeing and kayaking are also blissful ways to spend the day. And of course, there's the beach.
Dr. Steve Leatherman - better known as "Dr. Beach" - ranks the beach at St. Joe Peninsula State Park on Cape San Blas as the top beach in the continental United States. Nationally, it's second only to Poipu Beach in Hawaii, and that's mainly because you can surf in the Pacific.
Leatherman, a professor of environmental studies at Florida International University in Miami and director of the university's Laboratory for Coastal Research, has been doing his top-10 beach list since 1991. The park's beach ranks high because - well, let's let him tell it:
"St. Joseph Peninsula State Park regularly makes the list of Top 10 Beaches in the country, and a visit to this out-of-the-way barrier peninsula will tell you why. The snow-white sand from the beach has been blown by onshore winds into the anchoring sea oats to produce some of the largest sand dunes in Florida. Wooden walkovers take you across these magnificent dunes, which are 30 to 40 feet high. The aquamarine water is crystal clear and the surf is normally low, making for excellent swimming."
Paradise - and a fine place to walk when your kayaking plans fall through. The beach stretches for miles - about 17 miles, to be exact - and remains virtually untouched. On a given day, you'll find more sandpipers than people. Dolphins frolic in the shimmery blue water and the seashells on the seashore are some of the most unusual you'll find anywhere. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you might have to share, but during the rest of the year you can have the place pretty much to yourself.
St. Joe Park is hardly the only beach in this coastal county. Indian Pass beach is a broad stretch of sand perfect for water sports, fishing and sunset-watching.
If you can tear yourself away from the beach, head north of the town of Wewahitchka - which the locals call "Wewa" - to Dead Lakes State Park. This 80-square-mile body of water provides some of the best freshwater fishing in the nation. Watch your watch, too - the dividing line between the Eastern and Central Time zones passes between Wewa and Port St. Joe.
History and other pursuits
Many people know Port St. Joe as an industrial center, the site of a now-closed paper factory. But in the old days - the early 1800s - this small deep-water port was a regular boomtown. In the 1830s, politicos, split between East Florida and Middle Florida, choose it as the spot for the state's Constitutional convention. Those in Middle Florida favored statehood; East and West Floridians opposed it. Still, delegates managed to hammer out a Constitution, unveiling their final draft on Jan. 11, 1839. It was submitted to the people in a referendum and squeaked by just 119 votes - proving that close elections have a long history in the Sunshine State.
The delegates' efforts, along with displays of the area's early history, are exhibited in the Constitution Museum, and old-fashioned, low-tech repository of history that deserves more than the handful of visitors it normally receives. Press the button on the rail of the diorama and the "delegates" speak and move their heads.
Nature wasn't kind to Port St. Joe in the years that followed. A yellow fever epidemic hit the territory in 1841. Between people dying and moving away, the population declined from about 6,000 - already down half from its boomtown days - to about 400 in less than a year. A visit to the museum, followed by a stop at the town's historic cemetery, illustrates the magnitude of the event.
As a result, many of the homes were shipped to nearby Apalachicola. A hurricane in 1844 finished off most of what was left of the town. Mingling with the modern locals is more lively than hanging out at the cemetery. Everybody knows everybody - or at least it seems that way - and most people are happy to chat.
Christmas, of course, is a biggie. An old-fashioned Christmas parade proceeds down Main Street in PSJ. Half the town marches - or rides a horse or waves from a float - the other half lines the sidewalks to cheer. Well, that's not quite true - a fair number of Panama City Shriners participate, allowing more locals the chance to enjoy the sidelines.
If you head the other way (and, incidentally, cross into the Central Time Zone and Bay County), there's Mexico Beach.