I’ve been a bit lazy and out of touch for a week now, and with good reason…I was on vacation with little to no cell or data service! In my Reflections on Fall post, I mentioned that one of my most favorite things about this season is experiencing Fall at the beach, and therefore, weekend before last, we headed to the coast for a family vacation to enjoy the autumnal peace and majesty of the Gulf of Mexico.
I remember the first time I saw Cape San Blas, Florida, on the “Forgotten Coast.” I was staying in the nearby small town of Mexico Beach and decided to drive east with a friend to see what Port Saint Joe looked like. Passing through town, we turned off of HIghway 98 onto C-30, drove on a few miles and stumbled onto a road leading out to a peninsula with a state park at the end. As we drove down the one and only street along the Gulf, we were stunned by the site of tremendous white sand dunes—at least 35 feet tall—rolling along as you headed north, and becoming progressively larger. In between was an almost untouched green and lush jungle, a few secluded sandy driveways here and there and revealing peeks of blue-green ocean, and on the other side of the peninsula, a beautiful bay.
I hadn’t seen anything remotely like this since I was a child and spent summer vacations on Siesta Key in Sarasota, and even their beautiful dunes were not this tall. I had no idea this vision of “old Florida” still existed anywhere. As my eyes got wider and wider in wonder, I made a note to myself: must come back and stay here one day. And about 5 years later, I did come back with my husband and I fell completely in love with the Cape.
Since then, we’ve been back as many times as we can manage. To visit Cape San Blas is to take a journey back in time, and today, 15 years after my first stay, it is still largely undeveloped by comparison to it’s more resort-oriented neighbors and still very remote. That remoteness and a concerted effort at preservation has helped keep its assets pristine and intact: 20-30 foot sand dunes still exist even after massive hurricane assault, there’s an abundance of wildlife, it’s a migratory path for the Gulf Fritillary butterflies, a home to many varieties of sea birds, has lovely white sand beaches, and for the lucky shell seeker, some nice-sized shells and sand dollars—a rarity for a northern Florida beach.
The elbow-shaped Cape forms the bay of Port Saint Joe. The orientation of the Cape relative to the gulf is western facing, so unlike almost all of the islands along the northern coast of Florida, you enjoy a direct view of stunning sunsets. The bay side functions as a wild and pretty incubator for sea life, fostering fish and shellfish as well as flora and fauna. If you love nature, a kayak trip into the bay is a must do and see.
At the northern end of Cape San Blas is the Saint Joseph Peninsula State Park. Continually voted one of the top beaches in the world by “Dr. Beach,” the park stretches out 7 miles, beginning with a limited public access area, some campsites on the gulf side and in a forested area plus about 5 small cabins on the bay side, then miles of tree lined and foliaged wilderness areas leading out to an open sandy spit…only assessable by hiking or by boat. We have camped inside the park, but this time we rented an oceanfront house adjacent to the park with wilderness in the front and right on the gulf.
The entire area of Port Saint Joe, Indian Pass and nearby Apalachicola is renowned for a very special food: the oyster. To come here and not eat oysters is to miss an opportunity to taste greatness. While the preferred way to eat these lovely fresh treasures of the sea is raw and on the half shell, you can get them fried, baked, broiled, steamed, in a stew or massively adorned with just about anything you can imagine. Cape San Blas has only one tiny little pizza and sandwich shop on the entire peninsula, but five miles inland, Port Saint Joe features some lovely little restaurants (a very recent phenomenon) including the Dockside Cafe at the Marina and Joe Mama’s Pizza—wonderful pizza cooked on a wood-fired oven imported from Italy with homemade pizza crust—as good pizza as some of the high end pizzarias here in the city.
But the very best food around, in my opinion, are the oysters….and the very best oysters can be found just outside of Port Saint Joe at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, located about a mile from the entrance to the Cape on C-30 and the road to Indian Pass.
My first visit to the Indian Pass Raw Bar was 15 years ago. It was a dive, with peeling paint, rickety tile floors in orange and blue (them’s Gator colors), and a big, bad attitude. A single family had owned the business since the beginning, changing very little as time went on, and that’s exactly the way everyone loved it. In fact, the New York Times “discovered” it and wrote a very favorable review. You’d come in, and no one would speak to you.
There were long plastic tables with rolls of paper towels and wax paper covered packages of saltine crackers, some cocktail sauce in a squeeze bottle, and a bunch of rickety plastic chairs to sit in. Along the back wall was a long cooler of mixed beers and a bottle opener fasted to a post. One guy stood at the corner of the bar shucking oysters while a rather intimidating character in a Florida Gators hat, aptly named “Gator,” would give you the hairy eyeball, but never say a word. We finally figured out you were supposed to grab your own beer, decide what you wanted from the menu board posted over the bar and just give him your order as he passed by, and though he rarely acknowledged you, he always heard you and always got it right.
When the hurricanes came through about 6 years ago and the old building took 5 feet of standing water, they had to renovate a bit. Today, it’s still owned by the same family, it still has the plastic chairs and tables, a new orange and blue tiled floor, and new (swankier) bar finishes and a bigger cooler. They also have more ovens and steamers, and a noticeably more customer friendly attitude…though actually they were all quite nice before, even Gator…you just had to figure out the system! The menu has always been the same: oysters raw, steamed or baked, steamed or stuffed shrimp, crab legs, gumbo and some burgers and hot dogs, plus a few miscellaneous side and dessert items.The food is great, but the oysters are THE BEST.
Salty, fresh and large, they live up the the Indian Pass Raw Bar’s motto: “The oysters you eat today slept in the bay last night.” I usually get them raw, and sometimes split an order of baked with my hubby—all that briny goodness slathered in butter and parmesan cheese and then baked, heaven! And times actually have changed here, I noticed, as the day that we were there they were planning on closing at 3 p.m. to cater to a 200 person wedding party! I’m still trying to work that out in my mind.
Only 21 short miles away and a pleasant drive from Cape San Blas is the charming town of Apalachicola, or “Apalach” as the locals call it. Filled with historic homes, churches and buildings, charming antique stores, beach shops, art and craft galleries and some nice restaurants, this town is the gateway to the more known island of St. George. We spent a day in town taking in the sights and looking around at the stores and galleries. For lunch, we had a truly masterful oyster po’ boy at Papa Joe’s, a very casual restaurant located a few blocks from the main intersection and next to a marina on a creek. We’d eaten there once before and had some great oysters, fish and fabulous local bay scallops. My po’ boy didn’t disappoint, and I gobbled it up before I could take a picture! In fact, during the whole trip I only had one single act of willpower that allowed me to take a picture of the oysters and shrimp at the raw bar, and so you’ll have to take my word about the other restaurants mentioned in this post!
Our whole week was marked by the joys of autumn at the beach: a lack of crowds, migrating butterflies and dragonflies, pelicans, sandpipers and sanderlings, temperatures ranging between 70-85 degrees, ever changing treasures washed up on the shore, seafood to die for and night after night of stunning sunsets. I could go on and on, but will leave you instead with more pictures of this amazing place, along with a few final travel notes.
If you love uncrowded beaches and go to the beach for nature and outdoor activities alone, you will adore Cape San Blas. If you prefer a more structured environment with ready amenities and restaurants close by, this may not be the place for you. And if you do choose to visit here, as I highly recommend, I’ll say this again: Data and cell service is almost non-existent, and although most accommodations have wi-fi now, as ours did, it is spotty…hence my brief communiques while away! But, I find this to be a relaxing benefit of the place and great way to drain your brain of technology for a short time.
And now, I shall end with a few more pics, a series of sunsets …and a promise: Cheers to you, lovely Cape San Blas, I will see you again!