Gulf County Hospitality
There’s No Such Thing as a Stranger HereGulf County HospitalityThere’s No Such Thing as a Stranger Here By Jason Dehart
I’ve visited the Forgotten Coast many times as a writer for Rowland Publishing, and it’s always great to be on the water, where the folks are friendly, courteous and always glad to see you.
My wife, Patricia, and I recently had a chance to sample this hospitality again when we took a weekend trip to Gulf County. No matter the time of year, there are a variety of things to do. But to keep things simple and relaxed, on this trip we only planned for two main activities — fishing in St. Joseph Bay and horseback riding on the beach along Indian Pass.
Our trip started at the Turtle Beach Inn, a bed-and-breakfast just south of the Indian Pass Raw Bar, a state-certified Green Lodging establishment nestled between the palms and pines on a remote beach that is actually a turtle nesting area. The inn’s owner, Trish Petrie, a retired schoolteacher, was very gracious — even though we got a late start out of Tallahassee Friday night and arrived well after dark, she left our room key in an envelope taped to the office door. Our room was on the top floor of the towering beachfront cottage facing the Gulf and we promptly fell asleep while listening to the sound of the surf.
The inn actually consists of three separate beach cottages. The main house, where we stayed, is the one closest to the beach and features a sundeck patio with lounge chairs and a boardwalk that takes guests straight to the water. Sand Dollar Cottage has two bedrooms and a cozy screened-in back porch with rocking chairs and a swing, and Turtle Tower has two separate one-bedroom units featuring open and screened porches complete with views of the Gulf of Mexico and Indian Lagoon.
Saturday morning’s sunrise found us driving up Highway 30-A to Frank Pate Park and the public boat ramp in Port St. Joe. Our first adventure of the weekend was a fishing tour of St. Joseph Bay. Friendly, knowledgeable charter boat captain Charlene Burke of About Fun Charters welcomed us aboard her 22-foot, center-console Mako, the Saint Misbehavin’. A marine biologist by training, Capt. Charlene grew up on the Mississippi coast and said she’s probably the only female charter captain in Port St. Joe. She has a “six-pack” license (for up to six people) and a four-hour fishing trip costs $325. Like other charters, she supplies the bait, tackle and fishing licenses.
At 64 degrees, the water was just a tad bit below the 69 degrees favorable for fishing, so we crisscrossed the bay looking for warmer waters. On the verge of being skunked, we high-tailed it for “the cut,” the Port St. Joe canal leading to the Intracoastal Waterway. There, near the entrance, groups of seabirds and ospreys were fetching fish near the channel markers, so we dropped anchor nearby, put three lines in the water and soon the reels were squealing. We had chanced on a school of black drum, a sturdy and somewhat feisty fish related to the prized redfish. We came away with three nice-sized samples in the 5- and 6-pound range, and, content with our catch, headed back to the dock.
We drove up to the Port St. Joe Marina and the Dockside Café, which cooks your catch. Cooler in tow, we walked inside and the general manager, Rick Carrie, told us they don’t ordinarily clean the catch before cooking it, but he graciously agreed to fillet one and cook it to order. He even invited us to leave the cooler, promising that when things slowed down in the kitchen the other two drum would be filleted, bagged up, iced down and set outside for us to pick up the next morning. We took him up on his offer.
We had two nice fillets — one grilled and the other fried — presented over a bed of salad greens and surrounded by hushpuppies and lemons. Add an order of coleslaw for each of us, and the lunch for two cost only $17. Rick didn’t charge us for the filleting and even turned down a considerable tip. He didn’t know us from Adam’s house cat … but that’s Forgotten Coast hospitality for you. Trish noted that Rick and staff made us feel like we’d dined with them a million times before — like family.
After lunch we checked out the shops along Reid Avenue, but when the sun and wind got the better of us we trucked back to the Turtle Beach Inn for a nap before coming back to downtown Port St. Joe for supper at Provisions, an upscale and award-winning surf-and-turf restaurant that moved here from Miami in 2005. Here we enjoyed the house sangria, along with some juicy flank steak, roasted potatoes and shrimp.
On Sunday morning we availed ourselves of our hostess’ breakfast offerings of coffee, juice, fruit and French toast in the Green Turtle Inn’s dining room downstairs. After that early morning repast, we went back up to Port St. Joe and enjoyed brunch at the Thirsty Goat Bar & Grill inside the 100-year-old Port Inn.
Next, we were scheduled to go horseback riding on the beach, but along the way decided to make one unplanned side trip to see a tall ship parked down at the docks. The Peacemaker is a 150-foot barquentine and “Flagship of the Twelve Tribes.” According to their pamphlet, the “tribes” are small farm communes located in 12 different locations around the world. We didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the ship’s crew, but their goal is to live in peace and harmony while passing along the art of sailing tall ships.
After visiting and photographing the Peacemaker, Trish and I drove on over to Salinas Park at Indian Pass Beach to meet with Kelly Smith, owner of Broke-A-Toe, an ecotourism group that has offered horseback rides on the beach since 1995. The Broke-A-Toe guides are experienced and certified, and the horses are well trained and great with riders of all ages. And, as it turns out, Gulf County has one of only three beaches in Florida where you can ride horses.
Kelly introduced us to our mounts, Shelley and Little Bit. The fact that both had mild dispositions helped calm my nerves since this was the first time in some 30 years that I “sat a horse.” When I was a kid I was involved in a minor accident, but it was enough to scare me away for many years. Kelly understood and said she often has clients who are just as skittish. She put Trish and I at ease, and soon we were saddled up and clip-clopping over the dunes and onto the beach.
Both animals were accustomed to the beach ride and acted like they were on autopilot — which was just fine with me — so we just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Rocking gently along the sugar-white sands, gazing over the calm, glittering blue-green waters, I could have fallen asleep in the saddle. Kelly walked along side us, using my camera to take snapshots. By the end of the hour-long ride, my phobia was sufficiently exorcised and I felt proud to have finally conquered it.
All in all, the whole trip was fantastic, and we look forward to going back to experience more Forgotten Coast hospitality.
If You Go
Port St. Joe is about a two-hour drive from Tallahassee. Take U.S. Highway 319 south to U.S. Highway 98 and go west. To get to Indian Pass, turn left at State Road 30-A and turn left on Indian Pass Road (at the Indian Pass Raw Bar). To get to Cape San Blas, take State Road 30-A and turn left on County Road 30-E (Cape San Blas Road).