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Florida's Best Kept Secret: Port Saint Joe

Written by Karina Dearwood, associate photo editor 

Out on the Florida Panhandle, about an hour east of Panama City, lies Port Saint Joe. The quaint Gulf County beach town offers a boatload of fun all in one spot—perfect for a fit gal! Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit the hidden gem for a few days and naturally fell in love with the laid-back vibe, active lifestyle and finger-licking good food. Here’s why you should add Port Saint Joe to your “To Travel” list:

To start, Gulf County has the charm and flair of the south—in the best possible way. The food is fantastic (po' boys, hush puppies, sweet tea, the works!) and the people are beyond friendly (Now I forget this, being a New Yorker and all, but people outside of the concrete jungle actually wave and say hello to strangers). The fact that residents are also deeply rooted to the area, whether they are recent transplants or have been fishing there for generations, makes you feel all the more welcome.

To kick off my trip, I headed out on a pontoon boat through Saint Joseph's Bay, up to the Intercoastal, where my fellow travelers and I learned about how the area is the world’s foremost supplier of Tupelo honey. We got a tour of a Donnie's Bees, a small honey producing facility—did you know that even in this day and age, honey can only be cultivated by humans and not machines? Crazy! Donnie put us to work feeding the honeycomb through the machine, but we were rewarded with our own jar. I've been swirling mine into my tea ever since!

We then hopped back on our boat for an excursion through the Dead Lakes, which were formed years ago when sandbars blocked the Chipola River. A resulting flood killed thousands of trees, leaving eerie-looking stumps popping out across the lake. Add some fog to that scene because of some rainy weather? A perfect, tranquil spot. We had a fantastic guide, Matt Godwin from Off the Map Expeditions, who navigated the strangely beautiful maze with ease. 

But let's not forget the food. Oh, the food. That night I was invited to my favorite thing in the whole wide world: a crayfish boil! If you've never been to one, pack your bags immediately and go. It's tasty without any frills, and because it's seafood, I think you can really eat a ton and not worry about it...I think.

The following morning we thankfully worked off our evening indulgences at Saint Joseph Peninsula Park. Eagle Harbor is pretty stunning with white sand beaches and dunes. Besides the beach, the park offers a large wooded area—perfect for hiking—as well as popular camping grounds. Now, I don't do camping, but they offer "glamping," which is basically fancy camping—you stay in little cottages that offer all the amenities you need, so you can just pretend to rough it. I guess I’d be down for that.

The final day in Gulf County was of course the most beautiful, filled with my favorite activities. We started off fishing—my first time ever. I was put in the expert hands of About Fun Charters and their amazing captain, Charlene Burke. Not only is she a master fisherman but she's also a marine biologist. So while I caught our dinner, a 27-inch red fish, she was able to tell me all about it. (When I say “I caught the fish,” I have to be honest—she baited the hook for me, told me where to drop the line and then helped me reel that sucker in. But hey, that's all pretty good for a first-timer/city girl!) The best thing about fishing is that even if you don't catch anything, you still have a blast on the boat with friends. After fishing, we rode bikes through the city, catching a local farmers market and cruising along a local bike trail. With the sun shining, I then took to kayaking the Dead Lakes. In the bright light, the lakes took on a completely different persona, teaming with life. I saw an osprey nest, glanced at a hidden alligator and kindly made my guide, Matt, shoo the rattlesnake we encountered. (Um, a rattlesnake that skids on the water? No thank you!) Because there was so much to see, the 3-mile excursion felt effortless. One thing I’ll be trying next visit: horseback riding on the beach.

It's only a matter of time before the word gets out about Gulf County Florida. Pack a light bag, grab a swimsuit and be a vacation pioneer!

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