I don't want the whole seashore to myself―just enough of it to find tranquillity. I want to hear the thunder of the surf, not the drone of a CD player on a beach blanket 10 feet away. I want to inhale the salt air, not the scent of suntan lotion. That's why I went searching for some of the South's best undiscovered beaches. Here are three I found where vacationers go to break away from the crowd.
St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida
Late one afternoon, park manager Anne Harvey drives her pickup along a trail past dwarf pines and palmettos that cover the wilderness area running up the center of St. Joseph Peninsula. The sand is so blindingly white that the wind-stunted, centuries-old forest looks like a snow-covered ridge in New Mexico.
"We're remote," Anne says. "That's why we don't get the big crowds and the city hubbub." It's 22 miles to Port St. Joe, the nearest town with a traffic light. That saves the park on the eastern edge of the Florida Panhandle from being overrun, even though its pristine 9-mile stretch of beach draws raves from everyone who sees it. Last year Dr. Stephen Leatherman, the Florida International University professor and oceanographer known as "Dr. Beach," picked it as the second-best beach in the United States. It was topped only by Poipu Beach on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.
Reservations for the eight rustic loft cabins that nestle in the palmettos on the bay side are about as hard to get as Super Bowl tickets. But if you're lucky enough to snag one, or if you come to camp, you'll taste the natural beauty that makes the park so special. I spent the night in a cabin and awoke before sunrise to watch a deer splash across the bay while I sipped coffee and savored the moment in a rocking chair on the screened porch.
On its busiest days, the park gets only about 450 visitors--that's all the parking lot can hold. Day-trippers come over from Mexico Beach, about 30 miles away, and others drop in by boat. The Spanish had more people here in the early 1700s when they garrisoned presidio San José with 1,200 soldiers and conscripts.
After breakfast, I followed a wooden walkway across massive sand dunes to look out on the wide beach that arcs into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Without any cars or buildings to mar the view, the sand dunes are magnificent. They soar up to 55 feet, some of the tallest in all of Florida. This morning, except for a few other early risers strolling in the distance, the only inhabitants I see are flocks of shorebirds, a squadron of pelicans, and a starfish as big as a salad plate, set down by the surf at my feet. Welcome to paradise.