Sunset at Cape San Blas …
The boys leap in sync over the lips of low waves that bubble off the Gulf of Mexico. Peals of laughter drift up the beach and skip across the soft sand to fall lightly upon the dune grass.
Here and there across the sand, quiet islands of humanity stir under portable cabanas. The light of the setting sun angles in and illuminates the glowing row of blue and yellow and orange and red and sand-colored houses that stand sentinel along the ridge.
She spots dolphins off shore. An occasional dorsal fin cuts a languid, westward arc above the smooth surface of the water. The boys leap the ambitious waves and sprint with the dolphins along the shoreline, racing the setting sun to the horizon, laughing as the sky transitions from bright blue to dark blue to purple and orange and finally to red-gold.
I watch the boys and my wife and the dolphins and the golden sky, and I resolve: We will always come back to this place. We will always come back to Gulf County, Florida.
It was a sponsored trip, one of those rare and wonderful opportunities online writers are fortunate enough to receive every now and then. This one came via an out-of-the-blue email from a generous agency looking for a writing dad who could bring his family to this secluded place in the Florida Panhandle for a weekend in May.
Yes, I said. Absolutely, I added. We’ll go. We had been almost everywhere else in Florida, but never to Gulf County. It was time to remedy that.
Where. It is on the Gulf Coast, southwest of Tallahassee, east of Panama City. Its only population center is Port St. Joe, home of the 2014 Florida Class A state high school football champion Port St. Joe Sharks. The county consists of forest, marshland, gulf coastline and the scallop-rich St. Joseph Bay.
Getting there. From our home near Tampa, Gulf County and Port St. Joe are a five-and-a-half-hour drive north, through little Florida towns stuck in time – Spring Hill, Homosassa, Chiefland, Fanning Springs (at the Suwannee River), Cross City, Perry. Then west through the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, along the edge of the Apalachicola National Forest, past Sopchoppy, Carrabelle and down Highway 98 where it hugs Apalachicola Bay.
Where to stay. We left on Friday afternoon and at 9 p.m. we pulled in at Cape San Blas, where we picked up our key and welcome packet from the after-hours check-in bin at Coastal Joe Vacation Rentals.
Our beach house was huge and yellow, like the mid-afternoon sun. It’s called At Water’s Edge, because that’s where it is – on the edge of the gulf, tucked behind the dune on Cape San Blas. There are five bedrooms and four bathrooms. There is a private pool, a wood deck in the back, and a wood porch that stretches the length of the eastern side of the house.
You can watch the sun rise over St. Joseph Bay from that porch. Later, you can sit on the other side of the house and watch the sun go down over the gulf.
There is a private path over the dune that opens onto a beach of white sand and gentle waves. It’s a place for sunsets, where dolphins dance with laughing children. When we left late Monday morning, it still was guarded by a mighty sand fortress of our design – not even the overnight tide had penetrated its walls.
I imagine that when we reminisce about this trip to Gulf County, we will think first of the house. Not because it was spectacular, comfortable and huge. It was all of those things, certainly.
What we’ll remember, I imagine, is the time we spent together at that house on the beach, in the pool, or sitting around playing cards or doing nothing. That, in the end, truly was what set this trip apart for me – the rare chance for the four of us to simply be together in a place where the cares and worries and schedules that waited back home could not intrude.
Everything else fell away for a long weekend, and it was just our family and the house at Cape San Blas.
What to do. We had only one scheduled activity pulled from the extensive and detailed Gulf County Adventure Guide: an eco-tour of the St. Joseph Bay by kayak, with Dan VanVleet of Happy Ours Kayak and Canoe Outpost as our guide. The sun shined bright and the sky was blue on Saturday morning, but a strong wind blew from the south and east and made the going tougher than usual on the water for four novices like us.
Still, our younger son took to it like a natural. The next day, he asked if we could kayak across the entire length of the bay. By the end of our guided tour, our older son was able to handle Dan’s sleek, pro-style craft on his own.
Dan, a former teacher who founded Happy Ours in 2000 with his wife, Debbie, taught us how to tell the difference between a St. Joseph Bay whelk shell and a conch shell. Dan also explained why male horseshoe crabs latch on to female horseshoe crabs in the water (yes, it’s related to procreation, but there’s more to it that we did not know).
He also asked us one at a time if we knew why a bald eagle is called that. None of us knew, but I won’t spoil it – it’s much more fun to hear it from Dan himself.
We saw starfish and hermit crabs and, as we drifted along a little saltwater channel, Dan regaled us with the unfortunate history of the original town of St. Joseph. We learned that at one time, the forerunner to the current Port St. Joe was the largest population center in the territory of Florida, and the state’s first constitution was signed there in 1838.
Events in old St. Joseph took several disastrous turns after that, but the misfortune of Florida’s early white settlers helped make Gulf County and the St. Joseph Aquatic Preserve what it is today – a pristine, secluded destination where “real” Florida flourishes still.
Back on land, Dan introduced us to his seven chicken friends – his “girls” flock quickly to him when he calls, and that delighted the boys no end. We bid Dan and Debbie goodbye, and promised to see them again on our next visit.
Saturday evening, we enjoyed a tasty supper at the Sunset Coastal Grill in Port St. Joe before heading back to At Water’s Edge to swim in the pool, to hunt for unusual seashells, and to watch the sun set.
Sunday, we explored the 2,516-acre St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which takes up the outer tip of Cape San Blas. It was another windy, warm day, perfect for hugging the shoreline of St. Joseph Bay along the sandy Bayview Scenic Trail there at the park.
We then made the 20-minute drive around to Port St. Joe, where we let our curiosity guide us to the base of the Cape San Blas light. It was moved to its current location at George Core Park on the Port St. Joe waterfront from the cape in 2014, along with two former lighthouse keeper residences.
There was so much more we could have done. We had the chance to ride horses on the beach, something we’ll definitely do next time. We also could have taken a shuttle out to St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, a no brainer for a future visit.
Instead, we were drawn back to At Water’s Edge, where we ate hotdogs and chips for lunch and whiled away the afternoon by alternating between building sandcastles on the beach and cooling off in the pool.
At sunset, our collective sense of relaxation began to metamorphose into memory as we bathed in light refracted endlessly by airborne salt crystals and sea foam. We were lulled by the lapping low waves into believing it would never end.
And you know? It won’t end. It didn’t end when we drove away from Cape San Blas on Monday morning, and it didn’t end when we pulled safely into our driveway back home on Monday afternoon.
This was not how the story ends. It was how it began.
I know this, because we are resolved: We will go back. We will always go back to Gulf County, Florida.