A near-catastrophic event befell Cape San Blas a little while back. No, we don't mean the dreaded Gulf oil spill (fingers crossed that the massive leak continues to spare the Gulf's pristine beaches). Rather, the cape got cell phone service.
Up until then, the 18-mile spit of land in the crook of Florida's panhandle had been as far removed from Atlanta's idea of civilization as Kandahar. To this day, the cape has not a single high-rise, beach bar or boutique. That's a large part of its charm. But for many – myself included – a trip to Cape San Blas wasn't official until, upon reaching a certain point along County Road 30A, your cell reception would start slipping away, the bars blinking off at about the time the scent of saltwater began seeping in. The vacationer (if he or she so chose) could be completely and blissfully unreachable.
OK, so the influx of cell phone towers isn't quite as devastating as, say, the arrival of mini-golf – or thousands of barrels of washed-up oil. But with a regularly buzzing phone, a little of the cape's epic privacy has been eroded. Let's hope that's the extent of the intrusion. IPhones and encroaching oil slicks be damned, this is still the best beach within driving distance of Atlanta for washing away all remnants of city life, for exploring a rustic and undeveloped Florida that's pretty much disappeared, and – get this – for frolicking in the surf with your dog. Because not only is the cape an idyllic, unmolested, dune-lined burst of sunshine, it's also one of the only dog-friendly beaches in the Southeast. (Travel tip: If you limit your stops, it's possible to make it from Atlanta to the cape in just six hours. Google will tell you to head to Panama City on Highway 231, then hang a left on coastal Highway 98, but I prefer the route that ditches 231 sooner, taking you through Marianna and Wewahitchka.)
Unlike some other panhandle destinations, Cape San Blas isn't prohibitively expensive. There are plenty of beach rentals on the cape, with some of the cheapest lining the southernmost part of Cape San Blas Road just off 30A (where, frankly, the beaches aren't nearly as pretty as the cape's northern end). Some of the best lodging along that stretch can be found at Old Saltworks Cabins (850-229-6097, www.oldsaltworks.com). The 11, no-frills bay-side cabins sit comfortably apart from each other in a piney thicket, connected by sandy, shell-lined paths.
About two miles beyond Old Saltworks, the cape takes a sharp turn to the right. Travel another mile or so, and you'll reach the wider, dune-lined portion of the peninsula, where you'll find some of the nicest beaches – and beach houses – around. (Two good rental agencies are Cape San Blas Vacation Rentals, 4320 Cape San Blas Road, 850-229-6916, www.capesanblasvacationrentals.com, and Pristine Properties, 800-215-0677, www.visitfloridabeaches.com.)
The further along the cape you travel, the prettier the scenery gets until it culminates in the 1,750-acre St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (850-227-1327, www.floridastateparks.org/stjoseph), a gloriously bucolic network of trails for biking or hiking flanked on one side by wide saltwater flats (where, from July to September, you can pluck fresh scallops!) and on the other by 10 miles of sparsely populated beaches. The park has some of the cape's best bargain lodging, offering both camping sites and cabins (800-326-3521, www.reserveamerica.com). And if you book now, you just might be able to snag a cabin for 2011. (Seriously, they fill up fast.)
As for things to do, well, in addition to exploring the park, the cape's only gas station, Scallop Cove (4310 Cape San Blas Road, 850-227-1573, www.scallopcove.com), rents fishing tackle, bikes and kayaks. There's also a cool old lighthouse at the base of the cape worth checking out. But really, one of the best pasttimes is admiring Cape San Blas's sparkling shores and snow-white dunes. Let's hope they stay that way.
Don't leave home without ... A decent stash of booze (liquor is expensive down there!) and a few decks of cards (for idling away rainy days with rounds of strip poker).
Don't miss ... Adjacent to the cape, Indian Pass Raw Bar (8391 Indian Pass Road, Port St. Joe, 850-227-1670, www.indianpassrawbar.com) is a great little oyster shack serving honor-system pitchers of beer, while the neighboring town of Port St. Joe has a surprisingly good pizza place, Joe Mama's (406 Reid Ave., Port St. Joe, 850-229-6262, www.joemamaspizza.com), and book store, Palm Tree Books (306 Reid Ave., Port St. Joe, 850-229-9277, www.palmtreebooks.net). But when you're all beached out and really itching with cabin fever, you can always make the 25-mile trek to the adorable, old-timey bay town of Apalachicola (www.apalachicolabay.org), with its ridiculously charming shops and respectable mix of shabby and chic restaurants.
Recommended song for the drive ... I love, love, love Florida Rocks Again! No. 41: Jeff's Panhandle Platter, a podcast available at garagepunk.ning.com. It's a self-professed "tasty selection of tunes from the Florida panhandle scene of the '60s."