The beaches of the Florida Panhandle east of Panama City have often been left off tourism maps of the Sunshine State. This oversight has led to the area receiving the nickname the Forgotten Coast.
Local tourism bureaus shy away from that moniker nowadays, but in many ways it’s still true. And that’s a good thing for many travelers. Not everyone likes crowded beaches backed by condo high-rises, throbbing nightclubs and streams of traffic along a thoroughfare lined with souvenir shops and fast food joints.
Cape San Blas is the antithesis of this.
Along the Forgotten Coast, Cape San Blas is one of its most overlooked stretches. And those who vacation on this narrow arm of land jutting out at a sharp angle into the Gulf of Mexico are just fine with that. They’re happy to have found a bucolic spot devoid of the hordes of beach-goers looking to party.
It’s quiet on the cape, except for the sound of waves falling on the shore and wind whisking across the high dunes. And unlike the rest of the Panhandle coastline, the cape curls around to face almost due west, meaning visitors get to see the sunset over the Gulf at any time of year. In many other nearby beach resort areas, it sets over land for much of the year, even in summer.
The lay of the land along Cape San Blas makes it almost immune to the over-development common in places like Panama City Beach and Destin to the west. The nearly 20-mile peninsula is so narrow in spots that you can see the Gulf and the bay on either side of you with a quick sweep of the head. Adding to the less-trafficked allure is a bike and pedestrian pathway running alongside the main road, making it easy to get around without getting in your car.
This is a place where Mother Nature is the main attraction. St. Joseph Bay is a protected marine sanctuary where you’re allowed to go snorkeling for scallops in the seagrass during the summer scalloping season. The bay also makes for a scenic calm water paddling spot.
On the beach side, pets are welcome. Cape San Blas prides itself on being a dog-friendly beach area at all hours, not just in the evenings like more populated Panhandle beaches. Pet waste disposal stations are at all public beach access points; you’ll even find special makeshift posts erected in some spots for dogs to check their “pee-mail.” The only place where dogs aren’t allowed on the beach is inside St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which makes up the end of the cape.
If it’s seclusion you seek, with not even a beach house in sight, head to the state park, which has miles of beach and bay shoreline. The highest sand dunes on the coast are in the park and nature trails wind through a maritime scrub forest.
In 2002, the beach at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park was declared “America’s Best Beach” by environmental coastal sciences professor Stephen P. Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach,” in his highly-touted annual beach survey. The fine white quartz sand, emerald waters and pristine setting landed the beach in the top spot.
Many who come to the cape never venture as far as the state park. Those who do may feel like they’ve reached a sliver of paradise at the edge of the world, where only the distant glow of Panama City in the west reminds them of civilization after the sun goes down.
Before visitors reach the state park, the drive down the cape is lined with beach homes, a scattering of low-rise condo developments and two convenience stores. And that’s pretty much it. Dining options on Cape San Blas are scant and downscale. If you want more sophisticated dining, you’ll have to head to the nearest towns of Port. St. Joe and Apalachicola. If you need to stock up on groceries and supplies and don’t want to pay convenience store prices, Port St. Joe is the nearest town with a major grocery store.
A circa-1885 lighthouse still stands at the point of the cape, but not for long. Coastal erosion encroaching on the Cape San Blas Lighthouse has increased at a dramatic rate in recent years, so it will be moved to Port St. Joe, likely before the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Two historic light-keepers quarters have already been moved from the site. So if you vacation there early this summer, you may get to see the rare sight of a lighthouse tower in slow transit to its new location.
If you go
Cape San Blas is a six-hour drive from Atlanta.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Rates: cabins $100; campground $24. 8899 Cape San Blas Road, Cape San Blas, Fla. 850- 227-1327; www.floridastateparks.org. Campground and cabin reservations must be made through ReserveAmerica: 800-326-3521; www.reserveamerica.com.
Coastal Joe Vacation Rentals. Local rental agency with a wide variety of accommodations available on the cape. A recent check of the best in-season rate for a week-long stay in a two-bedroom villa listed a base rate of $900, not including fees and taxes. 4288 Cape San Blas Road, Cape San Blas, Fla. 800-581-2910; www.coastaljoe.com.
Indian Pass Raw Bar. This roadside oyster house sits a few miles east of the cape. It’s impossible to miss on the road to Apalachicola because it’s the only building along a lonely stretch of county highway. At dinner time, you’ll see the parking lot filled with cars and a crowd out front. Under $10. 8391 Indian Pass Rd., Port St Joe, Fla. 850-227-1670.
Cone Heads. The restaurant sits near the entrance to the state park. What started out as an ice cream stand — hence the name — has evolved over the years and now serves burgers, sandwiches, salads and hearty seafood baskets. Baskets start at $9.99. 8020 Cape San Blas Rd., Port Saint Joe, Fla. 850-229-5252; www.coneheadseightytwenty.com.
Gulf County Tourist Development Council. 150 Captain Fred’s Place, Port St. Joe, Fla. 850-229-7800; visitgulf.com.