Photograph courtesy of Rockin M Ranch Beach Horseback Riding
“Well,” I said to my husband, “I don’t think I have ever
dined out looking so grubby in my life—but I don’t remember when I last felt
this relaxed.” With another swig from a bottle of PBR, I leaned back in the
wooden bench on the wide front porch of Indian Pass Trading Post and listened
as Kerry James, whose sun-streaked hair and leathered skin testified to decades
of beach bumming, belted his way through “Sweet Caroline.”
Just ten minutes
before, Jim and I had been sprawled on a blanket, watching horses clomp through
cottony sand and splash through azure surf. I wore a Braves cap over a wet
ponytail, and—good God—a tank top and ancient gym shorts over a damp bathing
suit. Flip-flops. Salt water was still drying on my skin.
A half hour later, seated inside, we shared a plastic picnic
table with a family of locals and watched the kitchen crew shuck just-caught
oysters with the breakneck pace of contestants in a Top Chef challenge.
Popped open, sparkling with brine, and arrayed directly on school
cafeteria–style trays, oysters were delivered to crowded tables in a room where
beer was available by self-service—and on the honor system—from two draft taps.
The Trading Post (Indian Pass Raw Bar my notes)traces its roots to 1903, when it opened as
the company store for a turpentine concern that operated along Cape San Blas, a
seventeen-mile barrier island that curves along St. Joseph Bay at the eastern
edge of the Florida Panhandle. In the 1930s, Gypsie McNeill added food service
for the few travelers who ventured to this distant strip of coastline.
Today the Trading Post (Indian Pass Raw Bar), located on the edge of Highway 30E,
bustles thanks to its minutes-from-the-water oysters, harvested by Gypsie’s
grandchildren and other members of the McNeill clan. It’s also busy because,
frankly, only a handful of restaurants operate on this still-underdeveloped
stretch of coastline, where turpentine and timber businesses occupy acres of
land, and wildlife preserves take up much of the rest. The two-lane highway
runs up the center of the cape, with most locals’ homes fronting the calmer
waters of St. Joe Bay (known for its freshwater scallops).
This crescent of the Panhandle is known as the “Forgotten
Coast.” Once a thriving center of commerce anchored by the Port of St. Joe, it
fell into hard times during the latter part of the twentieth century. This
beachy escape may be called forgotten, but spending a few days there made me
remember why I fell in love with the Panhandle when we first started going to
Seagrove Beach more than twenty years ago. Back then there were no mega shopping
centers, no gingerbread-bedecked developments or colossal beachfront mansions
with six-car garages. The only place to eat was the family-owned Wheel House,
where the catch was fresh and you sat a few feet from the fishermen who’d
reeled it in.
“I know that I promised to write about this trip,” I told
Jim. “But now I don’t know if I want everyone else discovering this place.”
Where to stay: Most people opt for rental
cottages or houses, available by the week or month (visitgulf.com). If you plan to visit for
just a few days—or don’t need a family-sized house—Cape San Blas Inn has rooms and
suites ranging from $175 to $285 and provides breakfast; coffee service;
minifridges; and use of beach chairs, bikes, and canoes.
Where to eat: The Indian
Pass Trading Post’s raw bar (850-227-1670) is a
must-visit. Cape Tradin’ Post(850-229-8775) stocks
beach essentials, fishing tackle, groceries, and a few takeout items (the
hoagies are a good bet). It’s adjoined on one side by a closet-sized but
impressively stocked liquor store and on the other by Cape Coffee Shop. If you
go into Port St. Joe, Dockside Cafe serves
fresh grilled fish and bay scallops, and provides a great view of the marina.
My note: Of course you should stay at Dunes Club 2A or A Tropical Breeze.
What to do: Thanks to its unique geography, Cape
San Blas offers fishing for freshwater bass and scallops in St. Joe Bay and
deep-sea grouper and king mackerel in the Gulf. For mellower adventures, try
kayak and canoe tours by Happy
Ours, or Two-Bit Stable’s
horseback rides in the surf. Shelling, sunbathing, snorkeling, and lolling in
the surf are the amusements of choice at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which
covers more than nine miles of untouched beach.