Continuing Our Van Journey Along the Gulf Coast to Camp at Navarre Beach

We finally put our toes in the warm Gulf water!

Our morning began cloudy and drizzly. With our Transit van packed up we sadly left the Ho Hum RV Park along Hwy 98 just east of Carrabelle, Florida.

With about 200 miles to drive before settling into our next campgrounds for four days, we traveled west along the Gulf of Mexico. Our first stop was the stunning Crooked River Lighthouse.

Visiting a historic lighthouse

The open framework design is typical for this area of the Florida coastline. The lighthouse was originally built in 1895 as a replacement for three earlier lighthouses that were destroyed by storms.  Although the structure underwent many changes and repairs over the years it remained in operation, albeit unmanned, until the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1995.

The lighthouse grounds are open to the public thanks to the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association who worked to restore and preserve this seaside relic. The light was reactivated after renovations and replica Fresnel lens replacement in 2009.

It must have been quicksand!

In our excitement to park and check out the grounds we didn’t notice that we had parked our van in a very sandy spot of the parking lot. We discovered this as we were backing out to leave. Whirl, thunk! The rear wheels of our fully loaded van were buried up to the axel.

Thankfully, the president of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association was working on a project on the grounds. We used our MaxTrax recovery boards and the tug of his pickup truck to free our 2-wheel drive van from the sand. An important Florida lesson learned. Watch where you park!

Getting a cup of Joe in St. Joe

Back on the road again we were enjoying the cool Florida Gulf vibe on Highway 98, but we were needing some more coffee and a little late brunch to keep us going. We found just what we needed in Port St. Joe.

Now with a guy named Joe (JK) driving the van, you know we had to stop to take a look around this quaint gulf side town. Located at the intersection of Highway 98 and State Road 71 on the Florida Panhandle, the town of about 3,400 people has a delightful downtown area, a historic lighthouse and loads of recreational opportunities.

Some Joe history

Port St. Joe is located along the shores of St. Joseph Bay. The coastal town was known during the Civil War as St. Joseph was a producer of salt for the Confederate army. In 1862 Union soldiers demanded that salt production be stopped at the large salt works. When they refused to stop, the Union army destroyed the facilities and sent the workers away.

With the coming of the Apalachicola Northern Railroad in 1909, the newly settled town took on the less formal moniker of Port St. Joe.

Much to his delight, JK found “his” coffee shop in the historic downtown area of Port St. Joe called, appropriately enough “The Joe.” The ladies behind the espresso machine were a definite hoot and were having as much fun at work as we were on vacation.

The tiny shop features all kinds of coffee drinks, plus an assortment of muffins, Danishes and bagels. They also put down some hearty bagel sandwiches, which we ordered and munched on back in the van. One of the gals came outside to help us snap a few photos of “the Joe (JK) standing by “The Joe in Port St. Joe” sign! Great fun!

The beach from Tourist Hell

From Port St. Joe we made our way on Highway 98 past Mexico Beach, the massive Tyndall Air Force Base, across the DuPont Bridge into the Florida tourist trap high rise craziness of Panama City and Panama City Beach.

This strip of the Florida Gulf coast has some of the world’s best white sand beaches and most picturesque aqua blue water, you would never know by driving through the towns. High rise condo after high rise hotel block out most of the water view. In between the high rises are literally thousands of kitschy tourist driven attractions, tee shirt shops, restaurants, and surf shops selling everything beach-related things you will “never” need while on vacation there.

This was late October, and it was still crazy congested and busy. We could only imagine what this area is like during Spring Break! If you can squeeze between the stacks of vacation rentals and time share high rises to actually get to the beach, we are sure it’s stunning. We played the Van Halen song “Panama” while we drove past just because that’s what you must do.

Moving farther up the highway

Highway 98 turns inland from the shoreline for a brief time before returning to the Gulf waters at Miramar Beach. There are still high rise condos and timeshares along this stretch of beach front property, but not to the extreme level as Panama City.

Here you’ll find the narrow strip of land Destin, which boasts incredible beaches, too. On one side is the Gulf waters and on the other is Choctawhatchee Bay.

Hiding away at the Hideaway

From here it’s a short drive to Navarre Beach and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels’ hometown of Pensacola, Florida. In Navarre we had booked four nights at the Hideaway Retreat RV Park.

The campground is not directly on the Gulf of Mexico, but along a stretch of beach on Santa Rosa Sound. Between us and the Gulf was the miles-long and pencil-thin Santa Rosa Island. That’s where the great white sand beaches and awesome blue waters are, as we would discover.

Our campsite was right on the sandy edge of the Santa Rosa Sound, which afforded boat and barge watching and great sunset views on the water.

Many of the waterfront resort areas are still recovering from damage caused by past hurricanes, and the Hideaway Retreat is one of those. Some shoreline restoration and repair work has been completed but the campground fishing pier still lays in broken disrepair. There was erosion fencing at our campsite to step over and the neighboring campsite remained closed.

The Hideaway Retreat is wedged between the four-lane Highway 98 and the Santa Rosa Sound. Because of that there was constant traffic noise from the road. It wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t sleep. Thankfully we were tucked way in the back of the resort, in the furthest spot away from the highway.

We’re under attack!

Oh, and one night we all were ousted from our rigs by the sounds of overhead aircraft and loud explosions and gunfire. Apparently, the nearby Elgin AFB and Hurlburt Field does live-fire training on a regular basis. It would have been nice at check-in if the staff would have warned us of the possibility!

The grounds are charming and offer all the expected amenities, such as laundry, showers and restrooms, and a communal fire pit under the trees strung with party lights. There were a few weather-beaten games, such as ping pong, foosball, and corn hole available outside to enjoy.

A cute vintage Shasta camper is parked on the grounds, but didn’t look like it had been used as a guest rental recently.

But with all that said, we had made the multi-night reservations to make us stop, stay in one place for a few days, try to rest after Kim’s EXIT Realty Annual Convention, and enjoy what the Navarre Beach area had to offer.

Pine -vs- Palm

One of the stereotypical images that we had of Florida and the Gulf coast area was palm trees. We imagined palm trees everywhere. Yes, there are palms around but the most common native tree species that’s everywhere is the common pine tree. Lots and lots of pine trees.

There is longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, loblolly pine, and spruce pine found throughout the Sunshine State. As a matter of fact, there are 126 species of pine, seven of which are native to Florida. 

One morning during our stay, we ventured away from the campground and headed toward the Gulf Islands National Seashore along Santa Rosa Island in search of the iconic aqua blue water and white sandy beaches. But first breakfast.

Y’all goin’ to da Waffle House?

JK was dead set on eating at one of the famous Waffle House restaurants that seem to be everywhere in the South. Just so happened there was a Waffle House in the small community of Gulf Breeze, right on our way to find blue water.

Waffle House is often the subject of jokes and after bar drunk food crashing, but we found this four-star-rated location to be no joke.

The open kitchen was spotlessly clean, as JK watched the line cook wiping down and polishing the stainless-steel kitchen equipment in between orders. Big thumbs up from the former chef.

And y’all better come hungry. 

The menu is basic breakfast fare with a couple holdover items for the early lunch crowd. Our only complaint was their tables aren’t large enough to hold all the food they bring to you. Every side item seemed to come on its own plate.

Apparently, Waffle House has its own specialized lingo. According to Wikipedia, Waffle House sservers, besides calling you “Baby,” “Hon,” or “Sugar,” use a proprietary version of diner lingo to call in orders, and the menu suggests some use of the same lingo when placing orders.

If y’all want hash brown potatoes, there are several ways of ordering, such as “scattered” (spread on the grill), “smothered” (with onions), “covered” (with cheese), “chunked” (with diced ham), or “country” (with sausage gravy).”

Try the grits.

Get the grits with cheese – which were some of the best ever – and you’ll find a slice of American cheese buried at the bottom of the bowl waiting to be stirred into the hot, creamy Southern staple. Of course, you order a waffle at Waffle House, you order the pecan one.

We both ordered the “All-Star Special.” This features a belly-busting combination with two eggs, toast, grits or hashbrowns, choice of bacon, sausage or city ham, and a waffle! All this food was only $8.10. Coffee in iconic Waffle House diner mugs was only $2. We were stuffed and needed to find a stretch of Gulf water to beach ourselves!

It’s just like the post card picture!

We finally found the Florida we were looking for when we drove the van over the state road 399 Pensacola Beach bridge and west onto Fort Pickens Road. This area is lined with colorful beach homes, vacation rentals and several high-rise condos that we spied from our campsite.

Vehicles are allowed to drive the entire length of the Santa Rosa Island up to the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center at the eastern end where the road turns into a walking and biking trail through the grasslands and turtle habitat.

As we drove on this extremely narrow strip of land, we could look to one side and see the Gulf. We turn our heads and see the waters of Santa Rosa Sound. We said one big wave could wash across the narrow barrier island and send everybody and everything out to sea!

Living the beach dream

That thought quickly disappeared as we walked onto the pure white and soft sand of Pensacola Beach. We were probably both standing there looking at the clear blue water with disbelief on our faces. A closer look at the sand revealed millions of tiny seashells littered everywhere along the sand.

After getting our blue water beach fix, he headed north on Highway 98 across Pensacola Bay back to the mainland and the city of Pensacola. Looking at a map, Pensacola isn’t on the Gulf, but it’s a beach town through and through.

The Pensacola beach ball

We parked beneath the iconic beach ball water tower and had a tropical cocktail and an appetizer at a beachfront joint. As we sipped, we watched the surf and all the tan beach bums and their colorful beach towels and umbrellas.

If someone had come up to us at that moment and said, here’s the keys to a beachfront home for you to live in and enjoy this lifestyle, we probably would have taken them up on the offer.

Before returning to the campground, we stopped at some touristy shops to buy a few Christmas gifts for the family, and the grandkids. Yes, we picked out a couple souvenir tee shirts for ourselves, too.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit this area of the Florida Panhandle and the Emerald Coast, do it! We would go back in a heartbeat. We now see what all the “snowbird” going to Florida thing is all about.

If it wasn’t for the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes, we might just give the thought of living down there some serious consideration.

NEXT TIME: All good things must come to an end. It’s JK’s birthday as we leave sunny Florida for Mississippi and a visit to Laurel, MS the home of HGTV’s Hometown Ben and Erin!

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