March 20, 2024

Favorite Places in the Florida Panhandle 

Katie and Gene Hamilton

Bring Binocular News
Colorful beach homes line the shores of Florida Panhandle towns.


Explore small Old Florida towns in Apalachicola, St George Island, Port St Joe, Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach and their snowy white sandy beaches 

We first discovered the Panhandle while cruising on our boat some years ago and since then have returned by RV and car to explore more of its laidback Gulf beaches and towns. We’re drawn to the less noisy atmosphere because it’s a total throwback from the busy and bustling coastal towns on Florida’s east and west coasts. The adage “Life is short, vacation well” is why we return to our favorite places Apalachicola, St George Island, Cape San Blas, Port St Joe and Mexico Beach on Highway 98. 

The total distance from Apalachicola in the east to Mexico Beach heading west is only 36 miles on Hwy 98. Two delightful sidetrips off Hwy 98 are St George Island, an easy 15 mile on a causeway from Apalachicola. And Cape San Blas is just 12 miles from Port St Joe. The nearest airport is at Panama City Beach (ECP) with direct flights from major cities by Southwest Airlines located 60 miles from Port St. Joe. So this area is accessible from just about anywhere. 

These five small towns offer fishing, both fresh and saltwater, which are key draws to the area as well as birding, paddling a canoe or kayak or just walking on a snowy white sandy beach. Accommodations in all these towns range from small motels, hotels and inns to vacation rentals from cottages to luxury homes. A link at the end of this story will lead you to more visitor information.


Once considered the “oyster capital of the world” Apalach as it’s called, has a strong tie to the seafood industry. In the 1800 cotton and sponge warehouses lined the waterfront on Scipio Creek making the town a vibrant center of commerce. Mansions built to house the captains of these industries were built along with fine hotels and the Dixie Theater. 

Today retail therapy entices visitors with a nice selection of eclectic clothing, artist galleries and of course, restaurants with an emphasis on fresh seafood entrees. Oysters, shrimp and scallops are mainstay offerings along with fish sauteed, broiled, fried and in gumbos. We like specialty shops like one that combines a book store with a yarn shop in a charming old storefront. And we were enthralled with an outdoor yard filled with intriguing marine artifacts for boaters of all persuasions. 

Stop at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce in town for information about this charming town and area.  

Side trip: St George Island 

Friends Nancy and Larry joined us as we visited St George Island lighthouse

Turn on route 300 from Highway 98 in Apalach for a scenic drive across the causeway spanning Apalachicola Bay to find St George Island, a 22-mile barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. As you near the small town you’ll see a selection of stores and shops with all the supplies you might need and places to rent scooters, kayaks and canoes. You’ll find beachfront inns and vacation rentals. We liked the “Skinnies” tall narrow beach cottages in a rainbow of colors.

The historic lighthouse is a dominant feature as you arrive on the island, having been rebuilt four times over the years using as much of the original material as possible.  Nearby is a replica of the original keeper’s house now used as a museum. The lighthouse is a centerpiece in a park with parking, a kid’s playground, covered pavilions for picnics and a ball court. St George Island is one of the few beaches that allow pets and so do many of the vacation homes, motels and inns. 

Beach houses lined up shoulder to shoulder along the beach on St George beach.

At the east end of the island the St George Island State Park offers miles of undeveloped beaches for sunbathing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, boating, fishing, hiking, camping, and nature study. Two boat ramps can accommodate small, shallow draft boats under 26 feet and provide access to Apalachicola Bay. Anglers fish for flounder, redfish, sea trout, pompano, whiting, Spanish mackerel, and other fish off the beach or in the bay.

Accessible beaches for visitors with disabilities

The park is known for its 60 camp sites with water and electricity. For visitors with disabilities there are mobility mats at two beach access areas and three beach wheelchairs, two beach cruiser electric mobility devices, plus a floating Mobi-Chair. 

Hwy 98 entrance to Reid Street in Port St Joe

Port St Joe

It’s an easy 23 mile drive from Apalachicola to Port St Joe, also called the “Constitution City” because the town is where the first state constitution was drafted in the early 1830s when it was the largest city in the territory of Florida. Back then the population was estimated at 11,000, but after many setbacks like disease, and the 1999 closing of the St. Joe Paper Company, the town has reinvented itself as a tourist economy.

As you drive Highway 98 going west the road follows the curve of the coast to the center of town. There’s a prominent lighthouse and Visitors Center that sits in a waterfront park with a gazebo on the water. Throughout the town a string of connected walking and biking trails make it ideal for pushing a baby stroller or walking a dog. Or sit in the park and enjoy the view. PSJ is a popular destination because it’s a walkable town with a waterfront redevelopment underway. The waterfront sports a new marina, commerce and restaurant just steps away from the main shopping center.

Reid Street is the main drag of town that runs a block off and parallel to Hwy 98 where you’ll find a nice selection of restaurants and retailers. 

Reid Street is the main drag of historic downtown Port St Joe with a nice mix of restaurants, shopping and entertainment.

Just outside of town we enjoyed a visit to the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center where we encountered  Raylan, the African spurred turtle weighing in at 55 lbs. There we learned about the good work volunteers do to protect local sea turtles and coastal habitats throughout the year.  

While the town doesn’t have a beach, nearby St. Joe Beach and Windmark, a few miles west have lush sandy beaches and easy access to them. 

Side trip: Cape San Blas

It’s just a 12 mile run from PSJ to Cape San Blas on Hwy 30A, the Cape San Blas Road. The road travels along a narrow split of land between the Gulf of Mexico and  St Joseph Bay and ends at St Joseph  Peninsula State Park. 

The drive to Cape San Blas takes you through pine forests lining the road. We stopped at Presnell’s RV resort and marina where we had stayed in our motorhome on a previous visit. It has a popular launching ramp for fishermen, too. On the road we passed by several communities of RV lots, property complete with a pole barn for covered parking, screened porch, storage sheds and a concrete pad for car and boat. 

We stop at the St Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve for a glimpse of the surrounding area, a peninsula that extends into St Joseph Bay. It meanders on a sandy path through a forest of pine trees and evergreen shrubs overlooking the bay. At the Preserve we picked up a laminated copy of the trail map which was helpful.

Katie observing from an overlook at the St Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve between Port St Joe and Cape San Blas.

On the road we saw a large government facility, the U.S. Elgin Air Force, houses a radar missile base, the first built during the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. We were reminded of the movie Doctor Strangelove, the 1964 Peter Sellers parody about a nuclear war.

Cape San Blas draws fishermen and beachlovers any time of year.

As you near the small community of Cape San Blas you’ll see a wide multi-use trail for walkers, bikers, and strollers on the bay side opposite impressive rocks and boulders on the Gulf side. There’s easy access for beach lovers at the cape, just stop and park on the sandy road shoulder. We found two general stores with anything you might need to buy or rent. At Scallop Cove you can rent anything from a canoe or kayak to a pontoon boat.  For a small community we noticed many real estate offices offering rental beach homes and cottages.

Accessible lodging at state park

At the William J. “Billy Joe” Rush Recreation Area we talked to the ranger who told us about the accommodations for disabled visitors. There are two family-style cabins available for rent which provide overnight accommodations for people with disabilities, their families and their caregivers. Information and reservations can be made by calling 800-326-3521 or visiting

Mexico Beach

It’s been six years since our last visit and so much has changed in Mexico Beach, a peaceful beach town with endless snow white beaches and crystal clear aquamarine water. We joked that annual visitors didn’t tell anyone about Mexico Beach because they did’nt want word to spread about this Old Florida beach town. But when Hurricane Michael, a category 5 hurricane, hit in October 2018 the area was all over the media showing the devastation. In our February 2024 visit we recognized little, what we saw was an amazing transformation. New beach homes, renovated cottages and a new marina sported fishing boats in covered slips and signs of renewal were everywhere.  

The sign welcoming visitors reminding them to change their clock to Central time was there; so was the rocky seawall and beautiful beaches with white sandy dunes and recently planted palm trees.  

When we stopped at the Welcome Center just beyond the marina I asked what the town was known for. The answer: the beach. This is another beach town where you have instant access to the beach. Just pull off the sandy road, park, unload your gear and walk to the water. They call the sand “Florida Snow” because it’s so white and fluffy.  

Mexico Beach survived hurricane Michael and now is a showcase for a beachfront community with a new marina and Welcome Center.

A nice addition to the Welcome Center is their Free Little Library on its front porch. It’s a handy and convenient place for visitors to exchange books and “take a book, share a book”. 

The marketing folks who named this area Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” didn’t do it justice. We think it’s more than memorable. Wherever or whenever you visit the area of the Panhandle, you’ll find a nice selection of small motels and inns, as well as B&Bs. To learn more about what’s available go to and and request a Visitors Guide.