for the St. Petersburg Times (Tampa Bay Times)
The first thing you notice about the beach at St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park are the dunes. These are mountains among the mere molehills of other Florida beaches. Some of them tower 30-40 feet above the surf. They are the Alps compared to the Appalachians.
The sand is wedding dress white.
St. Joseph is ranked the number #1 beach in the United States for 2002 by “Dr. Beach”, Stephen Leatherman, Ph.D., Director of the International Hurricane Center at Florida International University.
St. Joe has been traditionally ranked in Leatherman’s Top 10 every year. It’s a sand dune dynasty, the equivalent of the Miami Hurricanes among beaches. It ranks right up there with vacation hot spots like Hawaii, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Florida’s more famous beaches.
This from a place so remote people get lost trying to find it even with a map and GPS. Where there are no resorts or tourist attractions, not even a hotel to stay in. Then again, maybe it’s because of those things that St. Joe still has its natural, pristine beauty.
The St. Joseph peninsula, known to locals as Cape San Blas, is about 40 miles west of Apalachicola. It juts southwest from the mainland into the Gulf of Mexico, then doglegs northwest. That positions the shoreline directly into the prevailing winds and Gulf current, ideal for the formation of high dunes and the fine, white sand.
Leatherman uses 50 different criteria to semi-seriously rank the top beaches in the country every year. He’s been doing it since 1989, sampling beaches while he studies them for storm surge and erosion data relating to hurricanes. He ranks beaches for fun; the beach communities take it very seriously.
“The number #1 designation has been a strong shot in the arm for us,” says Paula Ramsey Pickett, Gulf County tourism director. “We are getting a lot of inquiries, especially from travel agents. That wasn’t the case before because we don’t have hotels and airports.”
In fact St. Joseph has exactly zero hotels. The closest airport is 60 miles west in Panama City. Interstate 10 is 70 miles to the north. This isn’t someplace you will stumble across. It is remote, rugged, with very few permanent residents. The entire population of Gulf County is only 13,000 people, about the same as Oldsmar.
This is a place for peaceful isolation. A short walk down the beach takes you into the wilderness preserve area of the State Park, which covers the last 7 miles of the peninsula. You notice that the only sounds you hear are your footsteps in the sand, the surf, the wind, and the sea birds. No traffic noise, no planes over head, no jet skis. You aren’t likely to run into people in the wilderness area. Only a handful of camping permits are allowed at a time, and there are few dayhikers. Feel the urge to skinny-dip? You aren’t likely to get caught here.
The peninsula is right on the flyway for migrating birds. The best birding times of the year are spring and fall. Eagles, Osprey and rare White Pelicans are spotted in the bay waters. This is said to be a regular stop on the Yucatan Express for migrating flocks of Monarch butterflies.
With so few people around, you can get closer to nature, and nature gets closer to you. A large manta ray spent much of an afternoon darting around our kayaks and other small boats, almost as if it wanted to play. Outdoors guide Sarah Held of the Wilderness Way in Tallahassee tells of kayaking off the beach and suddenly being surrounded by 30-40 dolphins in the midst of a feeding frenzy.
“We heard the dolphins spout, they jumped and splashed and happily fed, and allowed us to sit and watch, mesmerized at their numbers and their teamwork,” Sarah recalled later.
“I have encountered dolphins while boating many times, but never have I seen a show like this.”
Small sting rays, horseshoe crabs, octopus, and a variety of
fish are found in the bay waters. Diving for scallops is a popular adventure. Bays in this area serve as nurseries for juvenile sharks at certain times of the year. Two and three foot hammerhead and bull sharks are fairly common.
There are bobcats, deer, raccoons, and even rattlesnakes. Very big and thick rattlesnakes. This place still belongs to Mother Nature’s critters. They live here; you’re the visitor.
If you are looking for fine dining and entertainment, this isn’t the spot. Meals are cooked in. Cape San Blas has just one small restaurant. The wait for a table on Friday night can be two hours. Locals recommend an old gas station-restaurant, the Indian Pass Raw Bar, about 10 miles east. From the outside it doesn’t look like much. But from the inside… well it doesn’t look like much inside either. But you won’t find fresher oysters or shrimp anywhere. Walk in, grab a table and serve yourself. If you wait for a waiter and menu, the price goes up.
The evening’s best entertainment is sitting on a patch of isolated beach, far from urban light pollution, watching a spectacular star show and listening to the surf.
Without hotels and motels, finding a place to stay can be tricky. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has 119 campsites in two camping areas and 8 cabins. Sorry, no pets. Reservations can be made 11 months in advance, and are hard to get during peak periods, especially for large RV’s.
The rest of Cape San Blas is private homes, townhouses and beach house rentals. There aren’t any towering condos. The county’s website has a list of realtors and rental agents. Or you can call the tourism office, but there is only one employee so don’t get impatient.
Fun things to do
St. Joseph’s Bay is about 12 miles long and 3 miles across at its widest point. The shallow depth limits boat traffic. Sheltered on three sides, the water is usually calm and an ideal place for kayaks.
The bay is known for scallops. The Gulf waters are known for shrimp and game fishing. There are a number of charter services on Cape San Blas and in Port St. Joe.
A 9-mile bike path is under construction along the main road from the State Park.
There is a wildflower and birding festival in October.
You will feel kind of like the early settlers. Pack in what you need or be prepared to live off the catch-of-the-day. The closest grocery store is 20 miles away in Port St. Joe. There are just two small convenience stores. Just before you enter the State Park there is a gift shop-kayak rental store with a small snack bar. There is no pizza delivery or fast food. Can you believe???
This is a remote part of the state, with no easy access. The best route from Tampa Bay is U.S. 19 north to Perry, and pick up U.S. 98 west. This gives you a scenic drive through rural north Florida. The portion along the coast to Apalachicola provides beautiful vistas of offshore islands and fishing villages. West of Apalachicola be alert for State Road 30 that turns off to the left. You follow it to Cape San Blas. Expect drive time to be 5 hours.
This is truly one of Florida’s most beautiful places. The number #1 beach designation means others will discover what local folks have known for a long time. What happens to St. Joseph’s rustic tranquility now that the word is out? Hopefully it will survive its success.
Links and phone numbers
Tourist Information: 800-482-4853
The Florida State Park system now handles reservations through Reserve America, either on-line (www.reserveamerica.com) or by toll free numbers, 800-326-3521 or 866-422-6735.