Gulf County Florida isn’t a tourist town. Not yet anyway. The blow-ins, carpetbaggers looking for a quick buck, don’t last long. Life in Port St. Joe and its surrounding communities and beaches takes work. It’s something locals take in stride; it’s the way it’s always been. Yellow fever and a hurricane decimated the prosperous port town in the late 1800s. The closing of the paper mill and Hess oil refinery tested the resolve of current residents in the 70’s and 80s.
Gulf County Florida
Just like the rare plants that blossom after control burns done in the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve, the GCFL (Gulf County Florida), made up of Port St. Joe, Indian Pass, Cape San Blas, and Wewahitchka (Wewa to locals) is blooming again. White sandy beaches dotted with colorful homes in a random pattern attract beach goers who want something a little less planned, a little less contrived than nearby Seaside or Watercolor. You can even have fires on the beach. The idea of huddling around an open fire in a comfy sweatshirt roasting s’mores and watching the sunset over the ocean sounds divine. And it’s pet friendly too. The fishing is good here, even drawing locals from neighboring beach communities.
But even with the amazing setting, it took me a bit to understand the secret of GCFL’s charm (maybe it was the bugs, bring lots of OFF when you visit). What I came to realize is that GCFL’s secret sauce isn’t just the activities or the beach, but the community, salt of the earth people who truly care. It’s taken them a while to embrace the tourism economy. Many long time locals don’t understand the fuss, or the jewels in their own backyard. The scenery may have brought me to GCFL, but the people will keep me coming back.
The People of Gulf County Florida
Gary Heist, Seahorse Water Safari Boat Tours: Gary is a reel-in, what the locals call those blow-ins who weave themselves into the fabric of the existing community. A Vietnam veteran, he married his high school sweetheart twenty some years later. He’s become an unofficial historian for the area, regaling us with the community history on an amazing sunset cruise. He took a local history class at nearby Gulf Coast University, but much of his knowledge comes from guests, the Red Hat ladies who talk about their grand daddy’s, and the Port St. Joe Company developer who built the modern marina.
Russell, Rockin M Ranch: Russell grew up in Gulf County. His wife joins him in the busy summer months on the riding tours, but during the school year, she’s a kindergarten teacher. She does it for the benefits, because Lord knows, the money isn’t enough. His wife’s best friend owns Broke-a-Toe Ranch. When groups get too big for Russell, they call Broke-a-Toe. Business is good. A billboard he put up along the main road paid for itself in one day. In my mind I thought he must be doing well to pay the fee and development of a large steel billboard. It didn’t register at first when he mentioned the wood he bought to build the sign, or that his dad owned the property where it stood. There are no large steel billboards in GCFL. This sign was the result of hard work and family and neighbors helping each other where they can.
Matt Godwin, Off The Map Expeditions: Like many of the GCFL locals, Matt moved away for a while. He came back with a corporate job, working for Coca-Cola. On weekends he would take people kayaking on the Dead Lakes, maybe a visiting friend or a photographer wanting to capture its beauty. Two years ago, he decided to make it a business and traded the corporate world for some flip-flops and sunglasses. Normally he leads kayak tours. It’s easier to get into the tight areas between the cypress trees. We went on a pontoon boat, to cover more ground in our limited time. He’s happy to do either, whatever the guest wants. I’d like to try the kayak with the boys, maybe in the fall when the leaves are changing or during Halloween. The Dead Lakes are a bit spooky in broad daylight, mix in a little storytelling and the threat of a gator sighting and you’ve got a natural haunted swamp.
Wade Guilford, Break-A-Way Charters: Wade was born in Key Largo FL, but spent summers coming to GCFL before his family moved back. Instead of college, Wade opted for captain’s school and followed his dad Bobby into the family fishing charter business. He tells people he spends five days fishing so he can fish on the weekends. When the fishing business is slow, he works in heavy machinery, another one of the family businesses. We spent a perfect morning with Wade and his dad exploring the coastline by boat and searching for scallops. As we drove by shoreline, Wade told us about youthful antics along the beaches, and shark hole. He invited us to come play horseshoes. His dad has some land and everyone is welcome to hang out. We didn’t find scallops, but did find lots of sea urchins, sand dollars, a starfish, and some community. I could have stayed out there all day.
Crystal Follin, Gulf County TDC: Crystal works at the Gulf County Tourism Development Council. She graduated from Port St. Joe High School and is now raising her daughter here. Her love for the ocean and ecosystem is evident, which is probably why she is such a wonderful ambassador for the area. As with most people in GCFL, she’s also a Jill of all Trades. Part ambassador, part artist, part mom and even dry wall hanger. Crystal hung drywall in the Pristine Properties beach house we stayed in, as well as the cottages at Black’s Island, a remote resort where celebrities like Joe Pesci vacation. She takes an artist’s pride in her work and does such a nice job, I asked her if she’d be available to do the house we’re building. I’m honestly considering bringing her to Atlanta for the job.
I participated in a press trip to Gulf County Florida. However, all opinions are my own.