Battle of the Best-Kept Secrets

Sunday, January 19, 2003

You say you've never heard of St. Joe Bay and Charlotte Harbor? Neither had we. Marketers tout the two laid-back coastal areas as the "best-kept secrets" in Florida, undervisited places with great natural beauty. We paid a visit to each to see what all the talk (or lack thereof) is about -- and how they measure up.

Gulf County, Fla., is compact, largely devoid of people and -- with beaches so perfect that any number of travel story clichés could describe them -- one of the most beautiful spots in the United States that you're likely to encounter.

Here are a few things that Gulf County, Fla., is not.

It's not Panama City, that Gomorrah of daiquiri huts, wet T-shirt contests and Waffle Houses an hour west on the Panhandle.

It's not Apalachicola, the vibrant fishing community 25 miles east that's replete with inns dripping in gingerbread and streets lined with boutiques and cafes.

And it's most definitely not a "best-kept secret." A few years ago, perhaps. But now it's more of a pretty-well-kept secret, as builders have descended upon the county -- or at least on its waterfront along the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph Bay -- like buzzards on road kill (which, incidentally, you can also see here). "For Sale" signs compete for attention with hand-painted placards for fishing charters and canoe rentals, and realty companies outnumber decent restaurants.

It might just be another Outer Banks in the making. But let's hope not.

Three, maybe four, cars speed by the gates of the Old Saltworks Cabins on Cape San Blas, the primary (some might say only) reason to venture to this neck of the "Forgotten Coast." That's what marketers have dubbed the stretch from even more obscure Mexico Beach eastward to Apalachicola and St. George Island. Gulf County sits in the middle, with the cape jutting out from its southeasternmost tip like an upraised arm; the cabins are just about where the limb would receive its smallpox vaccination.

"I used to live in Atlanta, so I know what crowded roads are like. You know why I moved down here?" says Old Saltworks owner Lannie Blair, a bear of a guy fighting a nasty cold. He gestures through a thick knot of pines and palms toward Cape San Blas Road, now silent. "This is our idea of heavy traffic."

It's a cloudless Saturday afternoon, with the temperature a nippy -- at least for these parts -- 55. Perfect for a visiting northerner, subarctic for the locals. "Winter is a good season to be here . . . it's real peaceful," Blair says. "We actually forget how to talk to one another. We just point and grunt."

Before long, he points and grunts me toward my home for the next two nights: a bayfront cabin with two bedrooms, kitchen, screened-in porch and deck wrapped around a towering pine. Other cabins sit nearby, but all I can see from my windows are fantail palms, tree trunks and St. Joe Bay. The tab: $49 a night.

During the Civil War, the Confederates used a pond on the property to distill salt, which was used for preserving meat and tanning leather; in 1862, the saltworks were destroyed by cannon fire. Blair's Web site runs with the story, promising the easily transported that "you can almost smell the gun powder."

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