Florida's best-kept secret

Several times a year, I make the trek to visit family at the Beaches of South Walton in Florida’s northwest corner. Every time, I’m amazed by how many shops, restaurants, golf courses and resorts have sprung from every crevice in this valuable, sun-drenched area.

While I’m impressed with how communities in the South Walton area have balanced progress with nature, I sometimes long for a taste of Old Florida. If you haven’t experienced the way things used to be in the Sunshine State, there are a few places where that feeling still exists. Only 10 miles apart from each other, the sleepy and inviting communities of Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe evoke fond memories. Yes, Floridians will say that a fair amount of building has happened here over the past decade, but compared to the rest of the state, the city fathers have dubbed these panhandle towns Florida’s Forgotten Coast.That Old Florida feeling is further enhanced during the off-season. “Mexico Beach is a great gathering place for families during the holiday time,” said Lynn Costin Marshall, president of the Community Development Council. “Our mild temperatures and beautiful beaches make for a great landscape for holiday cards and family portraits.”

Think locally

The first thing you’ll notice about Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe are the names of the eateries — think Amanda’s Bistro or Sharon’s Cafe. Part of what makes the areas “Old Florida” is an abundance of locally owned businesses. Whether it’s a shop, restaurant or hotel, visiting one is sure to give you an authentic taste of the area.Beach Pizza, Toucan’s Restaurant and the Killer Seafood Restaurant make visitors feel at home. You’ll find local, fresh ingredients in the food, and if you spend enough time in any of these joints, everybody will know your name.Located at the Port St. Joe Marina, the Dockside Cafe offers delicious steamed seafood. Catch a spectacular sunset at the Sunset Coast Grill on the downtown district’s Monument Avenue. The Sunset’s signature crab cakes, Sesame Coated Tuna and Oscar Tenderloin receive rave reviews from visitors and locals alike.When taking a stroll down any given Mexico Beach street — and there aren’t many — it is not uncommon for the locals to wave at you. It’s especially apparent on the town’s main drag, where shops are everywhere.Unlike many main drags in beach towns, Mexico Beach does not come off as a tourist trap. Shops like the Beachwalk, LadyFish, Marquart’s Marina, Tropical Breeze and Half Shells offer unique souvenirs, clothing and antiques seldom found in Florida.When Dolores Lowery moved to Mexico Beach about five years ago, she couldn’t find a shop specializing in gourmet food. She decided to do something about it by opening up her own shop, Prickly Pears.Lowery’s passion for the finer things in life shines through in her store’s lines of organic spices, ranging from unique versions of saffron and arrowroot to juniper berries and vanilla beans. Exotic cheeses, including Drunken Goat Cheese from Spain and Blueberry Stilton from England, lure casual shoppers as well as “serious foodies” into this jewel of a store.

Stay the night … or more

The lodging choices in Mexico Beach are all within minutes of the main area. The Driftwood Inn is one of the most enchanting places to stay in the area. Each room is appointed in its own style with fully restored antique furniture.Modern amenities such as phones and TVs are here, but why would you need them? The view of the Gulf from here is priceless. Barbecue grills, picnic areas, lounge chairs and a gazebo with swings beckon you to spend hours in this tranquil environment. For a more economical stay, look into the El Governor Motel. Its spacious, furnished rooms come complete with double or king-sized beds, stoves and refrigerators. You can rent by the day and even by the month from October through February.For longer stays, house and condominium rentals from several realtors are available through Harmon Realty, Crystal Sands Realty and Forgotten Coast Realty. “Rentals and hotels are offering off-season rates for a fraction of the cost of our summer rates,” Costin Marshall said. “This is a great time to visit our uncrowded beaches.”

If you go

The Trip: The Mexico Beach/Port St. Joe area is about an hour-and-a-half east of the Beaches of South Walton. From the metro Atlanta area, it is a six-hour drive.

Info: For information on Mexico Beach, visit http://www.mexicobeach.com/.

For information on the Driftwood Inn, visit http://www.driftwoodinn.com/.

Did you know?

Sea turtles are popular on Mexico Beach. They are the largest living reptiles, and six species live in the United States.The Mexico Beach Canal gives fishermen direct access to great fishing, including Spanish mackerel and Wahoo fish.

The store Prickly Pears got its name from owner Dolores Lowery’s cooking. She often uses the prickly pear fruit — native to the area — in her dishes.

Port St. Joe has developed into a small, modern town since its paper plant closed in 1992.

Port St. Joe was the site of Florida’s first Constitution Convention, which is commemorated in a museum in the nearby town of St. Joseph.Source: Mexico Beach Community Development Council, PricklyPears.net and VisitFlorida.com


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