Small-town allure endures in Port St. Joe

Florida Panhandle town evolves and recovers but retains low-key charm.

I first visited Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle after my grandparents retired to Panama City Beach in the mid-’70s. We took a day trip to check out what was then a mill town on St. Joseph Bay. The looming industrial towers and smokestacks of the paper mill next to the bay is what I recall most.

My next visit wasn’t until 2011 for a beach wedding. What a difference a few decades and the closing of a paper mill make. Tourism, not paper, is now the revenue generator in this bayside town with only two stoplights and a year-round population of 3,300. Visitors come for the small-town coastal charm, easy access to uncrowded white-sand beaches and outdoor adventure.

Credit: Picasa

Credit: Picasa

But in October 2018, Hurricane Michael nearly wiped Port St. Joe off the map, along with the surrounding beach communities of St. Joe Beach, Cape San Blas and Indian Pass in Gulf County, and Mexico Beach in neighboring Bay County, where the eye of the storm made landfall.

Today, the area is mostly recovered from the category 5 hurricane. Port St. Joe is in full swing with new and reopened businesses, but the storm is still a common point of reference for locals whose timelines frequently reference “before” and “after.”

Returning to the area four years after the storm, I saw plenty of construction on waterfront houses — some new, others being rebuilt. One of the more anticipated hotel reopenings is the El Governor in Mexico Beach. The five-story beachfront hotel was left with nothing but a concrete shell after Hurricane Michael. It reopens in 2023, exact date yet to be determined. The RV park across the road from the hotel reopened in 2020.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

There were also fewer trees than I remembered, especially on the St. Joseph Peninsula where Cape San Blas is located. Revisiting T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, certain areas were unrecognizable because of the loss of tree cover. Where you once couldn’t see either the bay or the Gulf of Mexico, now you can take in both with a turn of the head.

The hurricane cut through the peninsula at its narrowest point making much of the state park an island for a short time before the channel was filled back in. But the park is still home to some of the highest dunes on the Gulf Coast and peaceful unspoiled sands. The cabins and campgrounds still remain closed for renovations.

In the meantime, day visitors can enjoy water sports, wildlife viewing and beach combing. Scallop Cove Too! is a vendor next to the park’s boat ramp that sells fishing and beach gear, and rents pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks and paddle boards.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

The proper place to begin a trip is at the Gulf County Welcome Center in Port St. Joe. As visitors’ centers go, this one stands out. Beyond the typical wall of brochures and a person at the desk to answer questions, you can get free coffee, sample the purest Tupelo honey from nearby Wewahitchka (called Wewa by locals), relax in a hammock and enjoy a view of the bay from the upstairs deck.

Before arriving in town the welcome center can help with personalized trip planning through its free concierge service. Fill out a form on their website specifying your interests, and local residents with deep knowledge of the local scene can customize itineraries, provide insider tips and recommend accommodations that fit your needs.

From the Welcome Center it’s a four-minute walk to Port St. Joe’s commercial district. Here you’ll find Krazyfish Grille, which has a fun atmosphere and well-prepared seafood dishes, and the Port Inn and Cottages, the only hotel in the center of town. Nearby is the historic Cape San Blas Lighthouse for those who want an even better view and are willing to climb the 130 steps of the tight circular staircase to the top.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

On my last visit, I stayed at The Grove Indian Pass, a 5-acre property with a house, two bungalows, an indoor pool and a game room. This Old Florida jewel overlooks a large lagoon and extends across the road to the beach on the Gulf. It’s ideal for large groups, family reunions and beach weddings.

During the off-season, smaller parties can rent one of the two bungalows or the main house separately. The one-bedroom Lower Bungalow is a good option for solo travelers and couples and has an idyllic palm tree-framed view of the lagoon from the patio. For boaters, there’s a private dock at The Grove and a public boat ramp nearby.

Also nearby is the Indian Pass Raw Bar. I was happy to see not much had changed at this legendary roadside establishment after Hurricane Michael. Housed in the former company store of a large turpentine operation from the early 20th century, the establishment allows patrons to serve themselves beer on the honor system by grabbing cold ones from the cooler in the back and informing their servers how many they had when settling the bill.

The chalkboard menu features fresh shrimp and oysters, as well as burgers and such for those who don’t eat seafood. And live music is still a primary focus outside, the only change being there’s now a covered stage so acts no longer perform at the edge of the front porch.

Credit: Blake Guthrie

Credit: Blake Guthrie

The new stage is dedicated to James T. McNeill III, aka Jimmie Mac, the music-loving former owner of the raw bar who died in March 2020 and dreamed of having such a stage. Jimmie Mac’s son Austin McNeill now runs the business and intends to keep things going in the same laid-back, low-key style that his father did.

Before leaving Port St. Joe last spring, I was crossing over the U.S. 98 bridge and did a double-take when I spotted the Staten Island Ferry docked down below in the bay. It was in the same spot where the millworks once were. A concierge at the Gulf County Welcome Center provided answers. There’s now a shipyard in the footprint of the old mill that does finishing work on vessels built at a neighboring shipyard in Panama City. What I saw was a new version of the famous ferry. How appropriate, because Port St. Joe seems a new version of itself, too.


If you go

Port St. Joe, Florida, is 316 miles south of Atlanta via I-85 to I-185 to U.S. 27 to FL 71.

Sights & Activities

T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. $6 per vehicle. 8899 Cape San Blas Road. 850-227-1327, www.floridastateparks.org

Scallop Cove Too! $250 for pontoon boats, half-day; $40 for kayaks and paddleboards, two-to-eight hours. At the Eagle Harbor boat basin inside T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, 8899 Cape San Blas Road. 850-229-1188, scallopcove.com/state-park.

Cape San Blas Lighthouse. $5 to climb. In George Core Park, 200 Miss Zola’s Drive. 850-229-1151, www.capesanblaslight.org.

Stay

The Port Inn and Cottages. In the heart of Port St. Joe, this hotel features an inn plus 10 cottages. Request one of the six cottages behind the inn with a swimming pool out the back door. $145 and up. 501 Monument Ave. 850-387-2279, www.portinnandcottages.com.

The Grove Indian Pass. $970 and up nightly for the entire property; main house $550 and up; upper bungalow $260 and up; lower bungalow $170 and up. 1249 Indian Pass Road. 850-899-5666, www.sunshinevacarentals.com

Eat

Krazyfish Grille. Beachy vibe with high-end seafood dishes in downtown Port St. Joe. $17 and up. 113 Monument Ave. 850-229-7878, www.krazyfishgrille.com.

Indian Pass Raw Bar. Legendary roadside oyster bar and hangout with live music. $8 and up. 8391 County Road. 30A. 850-227-1670, www.indianpassrawbar.com.

Visit

Gulf County Welcome Center. 150 Captain Fred’s Place. 850-229-7800, www.visitgulf.com.