A small town with a big heart.
The proud residents of Port St. Joe are fond of that municipal nickname, and it's hard to dispute its accuracy.
Founded on a spot of profound natural beauty along Northwest Florida's upper Gulf Coast and also on one of the state's most historic sites, Port St. Joe and its 3,500 residents greet visitors with a wide variety of activities and with graceful, welcoming smiles. This place is a chorus of "Good morning" and "Good evening," of homecoming parades and Friday night lights, of "Yes, ma'am" and "Y'all come back real soon."
"Hands down, it's the people, that's what makes this place special," said Kim McFarland, a long-time resident who teaches at Port St. Joe High School. Her husband, Tim, was born and raised here, and he now serves as a county judge.
"You can have the prettiest beaches in the world, and we do, and so many other things, but without friendly people, it's all a waste," she said. "This is a real small town, with all of the good things that represents. It's very much like going back to Mayberry."
True enough, especially if Mayberry had been located adjacent to one of the world's premier fishing grounds, because this also is a place - let's get right down to it - with some of the most luscious seafood available anywhere at anytime.
And, trust us, you will work up quite an appetite, even during a one-day exploration of Port St. Joe and its environs.
Among the items on our Port St. Joe tourist menu:
An educational, even inspirational, glimpse of some of the state's earliest history. A compact, easily walkable town of gift and antique shops, bistros, vest-pocket parks, wide greenways and an inviting waterfront marina. An expansive state park that offers a deep dive into the state's precious coastal environment, including some of the nation's highest sand dunes and a chance to experience the endangered coastal sand pine habitat. A newly decommissioned but much-loved lighthouse, now just a phantom, a memory of what once was, but with a chance of revival.
Oh, and also lots of noisy over-flights by military jets from nearby bases. Look up and try to find the planes if you must. But if you do, everyone will know that you're not a local.
OK, let's map out our day in Port St. Joe, found along the Gulf Coast about 45 minutes southeast of Panama City and two hours southwest of Tallahassee. We'll call it our inaugural day, because we will return. Guaranteed.
Constitutional Convention Museum State Park
This is a perfect place to begin, one that offers historical and explanatory context to the rest of our day in and around Port St. Joe. Here, one finds a museum and a 14-acre park that harken to the late 1830s, when the original and now lost city of St. Joseph occupied the site.
The thumbnail summary: During that era, St. Joseph was Florida's largest city, its 12,000 residents exploiting the adjacent and natural deep-water port to compete with nearby Apalachicola as the region's shipping center. Cotton and other crops and products made their way, mostly by rail, to St. Joseph for export.
The city was so prominent that it was selected in 1838 as the site of Florida's Constitutional Convention, where 56 delegates from around the territory drafted Florida's first constitution. Six years later, Florida was granted statehood.
Alas, St. Joseph suffered a worse fate - unable to successfully compete with Apalachicola, enfeebled by a yellow fever epidemic and then shattered by a hurricane, it all but disappeared by 1845, later to be replaced by settlers of the new town of Port St. Joe.
Here, at the Constitutional Convention Museum State Park, visitors will find beautifully landscaped grounds, artifacts from once-thriving Native American settlements, a 19th-century steam locomotive, and the opportunity to take a self-guided tour through displays and exhibits that reach back to Florida's birth as a state. Of special interest, particularly to the kids: that locomotive and a Disney-esque exhibit in which full-size, robotic figures play out a scene from the constitutional convention.
If you go
The park is located at 200 Allen Memorial Way, easily found along U.S. 98 as you enter town from the south. The museum is open Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission: $2 per person; free for children 5 and under. Phone: 850-229-8029.
St. Joseph Cemetery
Still happily lost in the past? Take a quick stroll through the St. Joseph Cemetery and its fading grave markers. Can you find the grave of the ship captain who allegedly - and, surely, unintentionally - picked up the yellow fever infection in the Antilles and generously shared it with the doomed residents of St. Joseph? This is relevant insofar as the burial ground also is known as "Yellow Fever Cemetery."
Many of the victims were buried in mass, unmarked graves, and one sign lists dozens of prominent citizens of the time "believed to be buried here." Others were buried individually in bricked graves that are elevated for protection against floods. Most grave markers, eroded by time, are illegible. One that is not: "To The Memory of Jacob A. Blackwood. Who died July 24, 1841. Aged 51 years."
If you go
The old St. Joseph Cemetery can be found just off Garrison Avenue, a few blocks east of 22nd Street, across from the Gulf County Department of Health. It is open daily during daylight hours. Need some shade or a moment to reflect? Take a seat in the cemetery's small gazebo.
Okay, enough of that. Let's return to modern Port St. Joe. Time for a cool drink, a bit of shopping, a nice lunch to sustain us before we head to a large, nearby, multi-faceted state park.
Let's make our way to Reid Avenue, a half-mile stretch smack in the center of town, just a few blocks from the coast. Here and on nearby streets we find an appealing collection of sidewalk cafes and gift and antique shops.
Like so many similar small town downtowns, this one is fighting for survival - but holding its own against the strip-centerization of America. It deserves your support and it is a good place to linger. No looking at your wristwatch allowed. Just roam and explore.
For a potpourri of gifts and souvenirs, try a shop called Per-snick-e-ty at 229 Reid Ave., though many other shops also will please. Some excellent pizza is on offer at Joe Mama's Wood Fired Pizza. Seafood? Pretty much everywhere in and around Port St. Joe, though the Dockside Cafe at the close-by marina is a local favorite.
Cape San Blas park
Now, it's time to leave Port St. Joe proper, at least for the day, and head to what the locals call Cape San Blas park, more formally known as the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.
Swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, fishing, bird watching, explorations of 1,900 acres of wilderness. It's all here, as are miles upon miles of Northwest Florida's famed sugar white sand.
You will not find crowded beaches here; take as much space with as much buffer as you like. You will see some of the highest sand dunes in the continental United States, and you can hike along two nature trails or camp at 119 sites or relax under the trees at shady picnic areas.
Also, as you drive onto the cape, be sure to look for - and take some pictures of - the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. Closed in October 2012, the historic lighthouse is now just a phantom, but local groups are trying to save it.
Overall, this is one of Florida's premier state parks, is only 16 miles and less than a half hour from downtown Port St. Joe, and is not to be missed.
Enjoy the peace, the tranquility. It goes part and parcel with the entire experience in and around Port St. Joe.
"Not many people know about this area - Florida's Forgotten Coast," said Frank Cook, a frequent visitor from the Atlanta area. "People don't know how serene it can be here. Let's keep it this way. Let's keep this to ourselves. Let's not tell anyone."
Ah, sorry, Frank. A little late for that.
If you go
The park is located on Cape San Blas, on the Gulf side of St. Joseph Bay. From Port St. Joe, take State Road 98 south to State Road 30A. Continue south to Cape San Blas Road and head east and then back north along the cape. The address is 8899 Cape San Blas Road. The park is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. until sundown.
Camping and cabin reservations can be made at ReserveAmerica.com or by calling ReserveAmerica at 800-326-3521. Campers with reservations who will arrive after sunset should call the park at 850-227-1327 to get the gate combination and instructions.
- By Martin Merzer, VISIT FLORIDA