Mexico Beach, Florida
New Year's Eve 2004/2005
Cruising along the circuitous
route generated by Mapquest to get from Atlanta to Mexico Beach, we wound
through eastern Georgia and on through southern Alabama, past a lot
of picturesque lakes, cotton fields, and countless barbecue shacks until
finally we had to break for dinner.
|We hit Smitty’s, on the outskirts of
Panama City near the air force base, as indicated by the restaurant’s
aviation-themed décor. Good ribs, cooked without sauce but three flavors
are on the table – hot, mild, and sweet. I liked the baked beans, full of
bbq sauce and chunks of pork, but SW hated ‘em. They’ve got lots of flavor
so you’ll either like them or not.
Back on the road, buzzing through the pine forests of the Florida
panhandle. Last time I went through there was in 1985, days after I’d
graduated high school. Then, the forest was on fire, the road obscured
by smoke so thick we could barely see the yellow line, ashes raining down
like snow. The dark of night obscures the view now as surely as the smoke
On the other side of the base, we’re suddenly in a beachside town, the
black void of the night sea invisible beyond the waterfront condos and beach
houses. We whip the truck into the parking lot of the first hotel we see,
trying to figure out where we are only to discover it’s the hotel where
we’d made reservations – El Governor.
Our room by day.
|The rooms at the hotel all feature private balconies overlooking the beach
and a little kitchenette. The beds were wobbly and squishy, but the place
was clean. It’s very family-friendly, as indicated by the children
running back and forth at all hours. It’s also family friendly in that
it’s run by a friendly family. The daughter checked us in while
mom and the other kids watched TV on the lobby floor, everyone called each
other by first names and wandered from lobby to bar to gift shop to chat.
El Governor by day.
SW had developed a sore throat en route, so she hit the bed to watch TV
and guzzle EmergenC while I threw on my ugliest floral print disco shirt
and hit the hotel “tiki bar.”
El Governor’s bar has a faux thatched roof above the bartop but that’s
about the only tiki part about it. A frozen drink machine offers three
colors of cheap vodka or grain alcohol mixes, but I opted to sip Jack
Daniels instead. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot going on during the
week, off season in North Florida, even the night before New Year’s Eve. I
picked up the TV remote and flipped channels for a while, hoping some
regulars or fellow tourists would show up, but I was only joined by the
hotel handyman, and even he was shooed away by the bartender. I decided I
could flip channels in the hotel room and save the hangover for New Year’s
Day and headed back upstairs.
|In the morning I hit the beach for a short walk while SW slept in. The
beaches of the panhandle are pretty – white, sugar-like sand scattered
with shells, green-blue water, gulls and pelicans. It wasn’t warm enough
yet for shorts, much less a dip in the water, but the day was clear and
I drove around Mexico Beach and found the superette, a few
boutique/trinket shops, the pizza restaurant, half a dozen seafood
restaurants, two bars, the gas station, and…
Well, that’s about it for Mexico Beach. Go inland 2 blocks and you’ll
dead-end in a swampy forest. Go west a few blocks and you’ll find miles of
empty forest hiding an air force base in there somewhere. Go east and
you’ll hit another empty stretch for a couple of miles before you reach
the next town. In between is a small village with a mostly older, usually
I headed back to the hotel and roused SW for breakfast. We hit The Fish
House, a couple of blocks up and recommended by the hotel clerk. Eggs,
tasty bacon, toast, greasy home fries – good stuff, friendly staff, but
then everyone we met over the weekend had that small town friendliness.
We cruised east on Highway 98, looking out over what is marketed as "the
forgotten coast," to the next town, St. Joe’s Beach, really just a tiny suburb
of the next town, Port St. Joe, a small town with a charming, recently
renovated downtown strip of little shops, a bar or two, and a ratty old
art deco theater from 1938 that has been converted into an auction house
where, Friday nights at 7, you can bid on a plethora of antique furniture,
old records, decorative knives, junk and treasures of all sorts.
There was scant evidence, at least in the few miles
we'd driven, of any damage from the many hurricanes that hit Florida in
2004. But Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach are somewhat protected by Cape San
Blass, a long peninsula that forms an elbow in the gulf out in the
walked the length of downtown and back, then stopped in at a
corner bar, Maggie’s I think it was, where two patrons were
slowly sipping their beers, already drunk at 2:30 in the
afternoon. I wondered if they’d see in the New Year, or if
they’d be able to see at all by then. Depressing little place,
somehow choked with smoke and dark despite only three people
inside and the glaring sun trying to work it’s way through the
tinted windows. But then most bars are depressing places at that
time of day, so I shouldn’t judge.
||We headed back to Mexico Beach and stopped at Toucan’s for lunch and sort
of a scouting trip for later in the night. Budget Living had recommended
the place as a good bar to count down to the New Year in the central time
zone. I had some decent stuffed shrimp, SW opted for a massive burger. The
two-tiered patio overlooking the sea looked like a good place to ring in
the year so we decided to return later.
while I walked down the beach again, headed a mile or two down to the
town’s pier. It was just warm enough for shorts, though the moist sand
chilled my bare feet. A lone fisherman cleaned his catch of the day,
tossing the heads and innards to a pair of waiting pelicans. I passed
maybe a half dozen people on my long walk, surprised that the beach
was so deserted on such a lovely day for that time of year.
But most of
the beachfront homes stood empty and our five-story hotel is the largest
building for miles.
The view from our balcony.
"These people could put us out of
Photo Editor, Creative Loafing
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