Two purple flowers with white around a yellow center. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

How we found the best island in the Florida Panhandle

Part two: The best five days in July

Missed part one? Read it now.

Stopping only at the local grocery (no, not even a supermarket, simply a grocery store) for ice, we motor south as fast as an aging SUV pulling a travel trailer can go, which is to say not so very fast. We drive and drive and drive (this may have felt like a longer drive than it was because of the rain and the underlying fear we’d lose out on a fantastic campsite) and break out of the forest onto the shores of the northern Gulf of Mexico, head slightly west, and then cross the Bryant Grady Patton Bridge. As we cross the swooping bridge, I roll down my window and suck in a lungful of sweet, salty air.

The sand dunes at St. George Island State Park. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We’d landed on St. George Island and had found a last-minute campsite at Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park (St. George Island State Park to its friends) through some combination of a merciful park manager and my ability to use a Florida Gazetteer.

While working on “Backroads of Paradise“, we’d tent camped at this park. I took some amazing photographs of the amazing sand dunes (I’m a sucker for sand dunes), then promptly forgot I’d ever visited it… until we returned.

The first time we’d spent any time along the coast of the Florida panhandle, I’d asked Barry if he wanted to move there. He reminded me that I put on sweatpants when the mercury dropped below 80º and suggested perhaps we should simply visit. Despite that, we haven’t spent any time of consequence in the area in almost eight years which, by my calculations, is eight years too long.

It’s a no-brainer that the beach is the big deal here, but the trails, too, are lovely. Pine trees – longleaf pines used to cover this part of the state, until the St. Joe Paper Company ripped them out for lumber and pencils and replanted with a faster-growing type of pine tree that, yes, looks almost as lovely but also changed the ecology of the area – pine trees abound here, close to the dunes.

Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We spend some time on the beach, and more time exploring the trails. There’s almost no cell service to speak of, so when it rains I read or work on a puzzle or pretend to write. We drive in to town and meander through the neighborhoods. We go back to the market – it’s definitely not a supermarket, more of a local grocer – to restock, and stop for ice cream. We take our bikes on a trail at the east end of the park, turning back when storm clouds darken the sky. I make friends with a tiny frog standing guard over our electrical hookup.

If loving a (blurry photo of a frog with a wonky leg is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

The panhandle has a long, tragic history with hurricanes, and some of the trails still haven’t reopened since Hurricane Michael. Many of the homes outside the park sit perched on concrete stilts; we even had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the ice cream shop. There are a few cheeky birds who take more than a passing interest in what we’re cooking, going to far as to swoop in on our dinner as it cooks on the grill.

At one point we had four cardinals and few other birds within five feet of our food as it cooked on the grill. The presence of two (admittedly unmotivated) dogs didn’t seem to phase them. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

We had a gorgeous, serene stay, and when the Fourth of July passes without a single firework (on behalf of my anxiety-ridden coonhound, I’d like to thank the Florida Parks Service), I’m already trying to plan a trip back, ashamed that I’d basically forgotten we’d camped there before.

I will not forget again.