Category Archives: The Florida Panhandle

Mexico Beach, a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola

From Destination Weddings to Family Vacations, Mexico Beach is a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola, But That Doesn’t Mean it’s Boring There

Pensacola is a popular and fun place to visit, don’t get me wrong. But this blog is about the lesser known spaces in our state, the kind of place where a visitor can catch his or her breath and slow down a little. That doesn’t have to equate to “boring”, however.

Mexico Beach is family-oriented but is also a popular locale for destination weddings. Less prone to rip tides, the beach also boasts a good-sized turtle-nesting habitat. Located on Northwest Florida’s gulf shore between Port St. Joe and Panama City, it, too, boasts the white sugar sands of Florida’s fame. The City of Mexico Beach maintains four beach parks, each accessed by wooden walkovers that spare vegetation from being trampled.

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Pets are not allowed on Mexico Beach within the three miles city limit, so if you want to bring Fido to the seashore, nearby St. Joe Beach would be a better choice. Yoga classes are held on the beach during season and fishing tournaments, music festivals, and triathlon events are held throughout the year.

We passed a sign that said “trailers for sale or rent” as we wound our way along the coastline, and found a room at the El Governor Hotel. That evening, we enjoyed another oyster dinner and then a walk on the beach:

Our room was quite comfortable and very reasonably priced. Other lodging choices included an inn, numerous rental agencies and privately owned properties, and a couple of campgrounds and RV parks; one offers cabins, as well.

The dolphin fed on an abundant supply of fish:

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The birds are almost as hard to photograph as the dolphin (you’d think they’d learn to stay still!):

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Where the river reaches the beach:

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I love the 3-D Bird-of-Paradise detail on this building because it reminds me of Miami Beach:

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My husband tried to talk me into moving to the area. He wants to rent a store in downtown historic Apalachicola and he will build things and I will sell them and that’s how we’ll pay for my medical bills. On weekends, I’ll look for shells to make necklaces to keep him in beer money:

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Ah, dreams! Hope there’ll be enough shells:

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Sunset on the beach:

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I turned off the noisy a/c and opened the doors and let the waves lull me to sleep. It took me back to my childhood, when I wanted the windows open on summer nights, the rhythm of the waves keeping me company, rocking me to sleep. “I am here,” they tell me, “Constant. Fluid. Relax. Hear the pattern. Find the rhythm. I am comfort.”

Early morning, Mexico Beach (put yer shades on):

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We’ll come back to this area, because there is more to see: horseback riding on the beach at Cape San Blas, buying Tupelo honey in Wewahitchka, as well as touring antebellum homes and spelunking in Marianna. Our list is long and our state is big. Next time, we head to a new area, but we’ll come back to this area. Everyone always does, once they’ve visited.

St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

Twenty-five miles south of Tallahassee, St. Marks is a small fishing community located in Florida’s Big Bend where the St. Marks River and the Wakulla River converge. The Gulf port on the Apalachee Bay was first developed by Spanish explorers in the 17th century who built a fort that played an important role during the Civil War.

The fort’s foundation is located within the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. Bicyclists and horseback riders enjoy the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail State Park, a sixteen mile long trail that finishes on the St. Marks waterfront. Some believe the fort’s tower once held torches to guide boats safely, which would make it the site of the first lighthouse in the country.

The current lighthouse, St. Marks Light, was built in 1828. It is interesting to note that construction costs for the lighthouse exceeded the allocated $6,000 budget by more than $5,000. Even worse, the first one was rejected because it had hollow walls (you’d think someone would have caught that), so the lighthouse was rebuilt and it was put into use by 1830. Hmmm…a project that costs twice as much as predicted, poorly planned, and poorly executed? Yep. It was a government job! Time and erosion took its inevitable toll and a new lighthouse was built further inland in 1842.

St. Mark’s NWR and Wakulla Springs State Park draw visitors from all states and is popular with birders. The area’s ecosystem ranges from saltwater estuaries and bracken marshes to swamps and forest.

Boating and fishing are big here, of course, so arranging a fishing charter or contacting an outfitter is easy.  Lodging accommodations range from trailer parks to inns (there are various motels and hotels in nearby towns, as well). The Shell Island Fish Camp, located directly on the Wakulla River, offers accommodations that range from motel, cabins (2 bedrooms, kitchen and bath), tents, campers, and a limited number of RV campsites with water, electric, and dump station. A full service marina provides boat rentals and boat repairs.

The Sweet Magnolia Inn Bed and Breakfast offers a slightly different ambience. Its history as a general store, boarding house, brothel, church, city hall, possible bootleg warehouse, hotel, and hurricane shelter offer up many a story on a warm summer night. In its current dress, the B&B stays true to its roots, right down to a fishpond built in the shape of Florida, including the keys.

A vintage shot of my mother, in her first year of college, 1948. She’s the one closest to the shrimping boat:

Mom #9

And St. Marks today:

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We enjoyed our visit and would go again for a more in depth exploration of the area.

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St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

The Florida panhandle has seen its share of storm damage. Tropical storms aren’t usually too much trouble for a Floridian, but hurricanes can be relentlessly unforgiving. As one man said, “You hunker down and ride out the wind, hoping you don’t lose everything, grateful for what’s left.” As hard hit as it seems to get year after year, I simply cannot resist going back time and again to drink in the Florida of my youth, when people stopped to do a favor and roadside stands promised just one delectable temptation at a time.

Of course, once we round the bend, our mouths start watering for oysters, so we spend a lovely morning of shopping in Apalachicola, stop for an oyster po’boy lunch and then we head west again to visit the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but then again, this park is an eyeful.

The park is on the very end of a finger of land that protects the mainland. The waters are clear, blue and not prone to riptides because of the peninsula’s protection. Nine and a half miles of snow-white sand welcomes the beach crowd on the Gulf side and bayside accommodates the boaters with some interesting accesses into the grass flats and coves that carve out the landscape.

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There is a tiny “museum” of fossilized specimens of days gone by; some, sadly, has been taken, since there is seldom an attendant on duty. There is a concession stand, but I’ve never bought anything there, since I was far too busy discovering wildlife along the 6 mile access-by-permission-only wilderness trail (there are two other, shorter, hiking trails with public access).

Here you will find the usual oceanfront recreations: a wide variety of boating and camping choices, fishing, snorkeling, and swimming, along with fishing, biking, and hiking. Or you can choose your spot on the ten miles of white sand beach, in 2002 named as the best beach in the nation by none other than Gainesville’s Dr. Beach (Dr. Steven Leatherman), who issues a new list each year. There are public restrooms and cold-water shower facilities for day guests, hot water facilities in the campgrounds for overnight guests (although day guests can sometimes receive special permission to use the camp showers).

We want to return to the St. Joseph State Park and rent one of their “cabins”: small, tidy, furnished stand-alone cottages that sit right on the water’s edge. The units have kitchens equipped with basic cooking and dining utensils, seasonal gas fireplaces, heat & A/C, and, of course, bathrooms. There is no TV, internet service, or telephone ,and cell phone reception is poor. The price sure was reasonable: $100 per night, $650 for the week. Each cabin sleeps up to six people.

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We’ll return again one day, to build castles on the beach and watch them wash away with an incoming tide and a setting sun.