I looked up and down the wide beach and saw a few houses, old dock pilings festooned with painted palm fronds, a skittering sea gull and an endless vista of stark white beach. No people.
If an uncrowded beach with access to an array of restaurants, a cute downtown area, water recreation activities and huge sand dunes in a state park are your idea of an ideal vacation, head to Gulf County, Florida where you’ll find so many things to do in Cape San Blas and the surrounding areas.
We loved the combination of the white sand beaches of Cape San Blas, the amenities of Port St. Joe and the Old Florida feel of Indian Pass, all part of the area of Northwest Florida beaches referred to as Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
Fun facts about Gulf County: there are only three stoplights in the whole county. But the most important thing to know is it has two time zones, Eastern and Central.
The closest airport to Cape San Blas is in Panama City about 90 minuets away, which is in the Central Time Zone. But Cape San Blas is in the Eastern Time Zone.
Things to do on the beach in Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass
Back in the day, I was content to lounge on the beach, book in hand, for hours on end, rising only to swim in the ocean.
These days, I’d rather go exploring, get out on the water and perhaps poke my head into a cute shop or two. And check out the local cuisine, of course. I did all of that and more during my visit to Gulf County.
I still got a bit of beach time in during my visit to Gulf County. I walked on the beach, strolled through the largest sand dunes I’d ever see and even drove on the beach one day to make the acquaintance of Mr. Crabby II, who despite his name, gave us a big smile as we slowly drove past. Maybe because we were behaving ourselves. (Yes, you can drive on the beaches here but you need to get a permit first._
A highlight of the week was the bonfire on the beach. I was always jealous of those people in movies, usually in California, who hang around a campfire on the beach. At least the ones who don’t wander off and then get murdered in a gruesome way. But bonfires on the beach are less common in the South.
We enjoyed a delightful bonfire one night complete with S’mores and without lifting a finger, thanks to Light Up Your Night Beach Bonfires.
The company sets up wooden beach chairs, tiki torches, music, table and tablecloth and can add on options from their selection of packages.
I leaned back in my chair, enjoying the warmth of the fire against the cool night air, and watched the sunset.
The company serves beaches along the Forgotten Coast including Mexico Beach, St. Joe Beach, Indian Pass, Cape San Blas and St. George Island.
Beyond the Beach: More things to do in Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass
• Let a concierge help plan your trip. For free.
I’m not big on figuring out itineraries and logistics for trips. If that’s not your thing either, contact the Concierge Team at Gulf County and they will help you plan your trip. And it’s a complimentary service.
Take advantage of their knowledge and passion about the area. All you have to do is fill out a form on their website and they can help you plan by phone, virtual meeting or through email.
Even if you make plans yourself, stop by the beautiful Gulf County Welcome Center where you can find brochures for activities, enjoy free coffee and samples of Tupelo honey or just relax on the spacious deck overlooking the bay.
• Hit the water in a kayak or the trails on a bike
I happily hopped in a kayak at Happy Ours Kayak & Bike Outpost for a paddle on the St. Joseph Bay. The water was shallow for the entire trip making it perfect for small children and nervous paddlers. And to spot sea creatures scurrying around on the sand.
After our kayak trip I hopped on a bike and set off on a bike trail to nearby Salinas State Park where there’s a playground, rental pavilion and pickleball court. Cycle up the boardwalk of Serenity Trail for beautiful marsh views.
Other paved trails include the 4-mile Port City Trail in Port St. Joe, the 3.5-mile BeachWalk Trail in WindMark Beach that runs along the water and the Loggerhead Run Bike Path, an 8-mile trail that’s one of the most popular things to do on Cape San Blas.
• Take a customized boat tour
We hopped on board just behind the Gulf County Visitors Center and marine biologist Captain Charlene Burke took us around for a sightseeing tour. While I expected to see dolphins, other boats and a few islands, I did not expect to see a Staten Island Ferry on the Gulf of Mexico. We were 1,200 miles from New York City.
Turns out some of the ferries are built in Eastern Shipbuilding in Panama City and head to Port St.Joe for finishing touches before making their way up north.
Captain Burke takes guests on snorkeling excursions, eco-tours, photography trips and sunset tours.
• Learn about the turtles
If turtles are your thing, head to the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center, home of the Port St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol. They take sea turtles seriously here. Volunteers of the STJP Turtle Patrol scan six miles of the St. Joseph Peninsula every morning from May 1 to October 31 to monitor sea turtle nesting and hatching activity.
• Walk up the lighthouse
It’s not your typical black-and-white lighthouse. And it’s not even right on the water. But the Cape San Blas Lighthouse is worth a visit. Moved from the Cape San Blas peninsula in 2014, it is now in George Core Park where you can pay a small fee and make your way to the top for spectacular views.
• Visit a state park
My father died several years ago, but he was foremost in my thoughts when we visited the new Veterans Memorial Park at Beacon Hill dedicated to all members of the armed forces as he was a proud Marine. And it was his birthday the day we visited the park.
The Honor Walk is especially moving with a memorial for each division of the armed forces and a huge American flag flying 70’ in the air.
The park also includes an amphitheater, pickleball court, dog park, playgrounds and pavilions. Cross the street and you can access the beach from here as well.
Sadly, the park was dissected by the force of Hurricane Michael in 2018, the first category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States since Andrew is 1992.
The good news is that the boat ramp and the St. Joseph Peninsula’s beach day use area are open. You can rent boats and kayaks here.
And other areas are being rebuilt better than ever, with eight new cabins, two camping loops and two new day-use areas under construction. There will also be 65 campsites and 14 primitive camping spaces.
The park has 20 miles of beach access, with 10 on the Gulf of Mexico side and 10 on the Saint Joseph Bay.
• Ride a horse on the beach
With its hard-packed, wide beaches, Gulf County is an awesome place to ride horses. Book a one-hour trip on horses with one of the three outfitters. The horses move at a comfortable pace suitable for anyone in the family.
• Stroll the streets of downtown Port St. Joe
Ah, those nasty pandemics. Port St. Joe was founded in 1835 and was for a while the largest city in Florida. But a yellow fever outbreak followed by a hurricane, fire and a railroad that shut down cut its growth and the population dwindled.
The construction of a paper mill that operated from 1938 to 1999 revived the town.
Hurricane Michael hit the town hard in 2018 but it’s mostly rebuilt and is now a thriving four-block area of restaurants, retail and The Joe Center for the Arts, a community arts center.
I spent an afternoon shopping in the cute furniture store Cabana 15, wandering through the aisles of Bay Breeze Antiques.
Despite my vow to quit purchasing jewelry, I bought two pairs of earrings at the cute boutique, Fuss. At just $8 a pair, how could I resist?
I also found a cute little painted seagull at the gift shop Bellou. Despite it being the absolute worst fabric for travel, I love linen. I once took several items of linen clothing on a trip to Provence, only to discover there were no irons in any of the hotel rooms where we stayed.
But I loved the selection of linen clothes at the lifestyle retail shop Joseph’s Cottage and bought a cotton shirt.
• Climb the tower at St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Visitor Center
Hike on the trails and climb the Observation Tower of the Preserve, which has the mission of protecting the state buffer.
• Cater a meal or event, stock your fridge
Before we get into the restaurant scene, an alternative is to have your beach house or rental stocked with food or enjoy the catering of Catering Connections.
With the motto, “just one call feeds them all,” Catering Connections is the only full-service caterer in the area. It serves menu items from area restaurants and can even bring oyster shuckers to you.
Call ahead and your fridge can be stocked before your arrival with all your favorites.
Best day trip from Cape San Blas
More Things to Do in Cape San Blas Florida
We hopped on the pontoon book with company owner Matthew Godwin who seems to know every inch of the 6,700 acres of these lakes and even where we’d have the best chance of spotting wildlife.
He told us that some people come out and kayak on their own, which sounds fun before I realized I’d be hopelessly lost in about two minutes in these dark tannic waters among the cypress trees and dead tree trunks that give the lake its name.
Matthew expertly guided us through the trees and maneuvered up close to the tupelo trees that were in bloom and prized for the honey produced when the bees feast on their blossoms.
Beekeepers from all over the country flock here during the three weeks the blossoms are blooming, leasing land and letting the bees gorge themselves on the sweet nectar.
It was a delightful tour of a fascinating part of Florida I had not seen before.
After the eco-tour, head to get some of that sweet Tupelo honey for yourself at Smiley Honey, just a short distance away. If the shop isn’t open, help yourself at the honey honor bar outside. Be sure to bring cash.
Best restaurants in Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass
I ate really well in Gulf County and lost count of the number of shrimp I downed as we Bubba Gumped our way through several restaurants.
From pizza to oysters to low country boil, you can get your fill of whatever strikes your fancy. Here are some of my favorite restaurants.
I always said if I ever had a restaurant, which to be clear has about as much of a chance of happening as me becoming an Olympic shot putter, I would specialize in one thing.
There is only one item on the menu at Skully’s Low Country Boil, and it’s one of the most popular Cape San Blas restaurants. The only question to answer is how many servings of this delicious mix of fresh shrimp, smoked sausage, corn on the cob and new potatoes do you want. Choose between one serving or 20 if you’re feeding a crowd.
We enjoyed a heaping pile of the delicious dish our first night in Gulf County, along with oysters from Indian Lagoon Oyster Company.
Local favorite Indian Pass Raw Bar is housed in the former company store for a turpentine operation that started in 1903. Gypsie McNeill served meals in a portion of the store in the 1930s and now her great grandson, Austin McNeill, runs the restaurant.
One of the many young business owners in Port St. Joe, Austin took over the restaurant after the death of his legendary father, Jim McNeill, who passed away in 2020.
While you can get a hamburger here, the specialty is seafood – oysters, shrimp, crab legs and seafood gumbo. There’s an outdoor area with a stage where local musicians perform.
For a delicious sandwich, head to Dagwood’s Delicatessen. For fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, take a seat on the screened porch of LongBill’s. I was surprised to see cheese curds on the menu, as I think of those as a Wisconsin specialty. The smoked fish dip and fish tacos are yummy.
On the sweet end of the dining spectrum, head to Sweet Bunz Donuts for breakfast. Be warned – you may see lines and some items may be sold out if you don’t get there early.
Co-owner Belva shared a bit of her story with us as I enjoyed a bear claw, one of their specialties. Her husband, Richard, trained with a master baker from Germany and has been baking doughnuts for 50 years, making all the doughnuts and pastries himself.
Two more of the young entrepreneurs of Gulf County, sisters Jera Horton & Jae Glass opened Sugar Shack last year, serving handcrafted ice cream and ice cream treats.
We had lunch at Provisions and enjoyed “paella for the people,” a Friday specialty. Other items on the menu here include chicken piccata, shrimp scampi and other pastas.
The colorful décor and humorous signs at Krazyfish Grille made me smile before we even sat down. Menu items include seafood, burgers, tacos and creative drinks, like a margarita served with a tequila floater on top.
Another example of a young business owner, Nicolette Haddock is running the restaurant after her father and founder, Mark, died in 2021. The signs in the restaurant were a reflection of her father’s sense of humor, she told us.
It took a minute to figure out how to order at Sand Dollar Cafe, which serves southern comfort food for lunch and dinner in a cafeteria style. For breakfast, we could choose any three items for $11, which included a biscuit.
With old cookbooks and a game of Candyland hung on the wall, the décor is meant to evoke a feeling of visiting your grandmother’s house.
They don’t serve food, but hanging out, drinking beer and listening to live music at Scallop Republic is one of the favorite things to do on Cape San Blas for locals.
The newest development in Gulf County is WindMark Beach, located on the St. Joseph Bay, with charming houses and a strip of retail and restaurants.
Our dinner the last night was at the aptly named The View on Old 98 at WindMark. We had a table by the window of the open and airy restaurant and enjoyed delicious sushi and ahi tuna salad from the Asian-American menu.
I spied an order of the lobster mac and cheese at a nearby table and can attest that it’s bigger than your head.
After dinner we took a stroll down the boardwalk onto the beach to watch an amazing sunset.
Then we walked the other way and stopped at The Mill Mercantile & Social for a drink. The combo package store/bar/coffee shop has a large outdoor area with games and features live music Thursday through Saturday.
Another popular spot in WindMark is Bruno’s Pizza at WindMark Beach. The daily lunch buffet features all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta, salad, drinks and dessert.
Where to Stay in Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass
Most people who visit Cape San Blas, Port St. Joe and Indian Pass rent a home or cottage. We stayed in a large, sprawling home on Indian Pass that’s perfect for a large group or family.
The Grove at Indian Pass has three buildings with five bedrooms and four bathrooms that sleep 14, a huge kitchen and dining table and screened-in porch. One of the buildings is a game room with pool table and indoor pool.
The best feature is the dock right on the water with magnificent views of the sunset. Second best are the rocking chairs facing the dock that line the screened-in porch.
For plenty more options, visit the VRBO site.
On our previous visit to Cape San Blas, we stayed at a house rented through a company called Sunset Reflections that handles vacation rentals and were very happy with the home and the service.
For another of our favorite Florida beaches, see our story: How to Have an Amazing Vacation in Navarre Beach, Florida.
For more on Gulf County, Florida, see VisitGulf.com
– Photos and story by Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief