Unforgettable Paradise in Mexico BeachBy Cathy Salustri
Far from the hustle and bustle of many Florida beaches, there’s a beach where soft, white sand melts into the shallow turquoise Gulf of Mexico. This beach evokes images of the Florida of yesteryear. Not one that time forgot, but instead, one where time slowed down, took the time to say hello to people and decided to sit for a spell. This is Mexico Beach, and it’s unlike any other Florida beach.
With less than 1,000 full-time residents, Mexico Beach is a laid-back, unassuming beach town that evokes images of cottages painted in pale tropical shades, where neighbors wave as they pass in their golf carts, and everyone toasts the sunset along the ribbon of sand running along the seaside city’s south shore.
Unlike many towns, Mexico Beach formed around the beach. At its broadest, the city doesn’t stretch more than a mile wide from the Gulf, but more than three miles of sugar sand beach traces the length of the town, making it one of Florida’s most uncrowded beaches. Visitors seeking a quiet place in the sun have no shortage of spots to spread a towel on the sand, plop a straw hat on their head, and sink into a good book, with only the sound of gentle, lapping waves and occasionally talkative gulls as company.
But all that beach equals plenty of water, and Mexico Beach offers plenty to do in and on the water. Enter the beach from a bevy of access points, or launch a boat from the city’s boat ramp — one of the Florida panhandle’s most expansive launch spots for boaters, with four launch lanes, public bathrooms, and plenty of trailer parking. No matter how you do it, getting to the Gulf of Mexico won’t take long in Mexico Beach.
Think scuba diving with brightly colored fish only happens in South Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas? Think again: Mexico Beach has almost 300 artificial reefs with more than 4,000 individual structures (visit the MBARA website for complete lists and waypoints). These reefs start as concrete structures, but in time, fish take shelter inside the nooks and crannies, and other ocean creatures, such as sponges, attach themselves to the structures. In time, these “artificial” reefs look almost identical to “real” ones — and offer many of the same environmental benefits, including shoreline protection and habitat for critical fish species.
Scuba divers can explore these reefs, with depths ranging from 25 feet to more than 145 feet. Expect to see cinnamon-colored starfish, yellow-and-blue queen angelfish, orange-spotted rock bass, and timid blennies with cirri that look almost — but not quite — like dramatic fake eyelashes.
For amazing underwater photo ops, dive the Shrimpboat Shady Lady (Duke Energy Reef and site #99). Over time, this steel-hulled boat has gone from an unwanted working vessel to a 110-foot thriving reef, offering shelter to various sea creatures, from palm-sized sea urchins to massive goliath grouper.
Those same reefs attract anglers from far and wide, and Mexico Beach has no shortage of inshore and offshore charters. Mexico Beach fishing charters, like the beach itself, trend toward the intimate, with few passengers and plenty of attention paid to each person fishing on board. Fishing trips here include gear, bait, saltwater fishing licenses for every angler on board, and the thrill of catching dinner. Captains and mates will clean the catch, usually for a small fee or gratuity.
Fishing in Florida’s panhandle means coming home with Spanish mackerel, pompano, red snapper, or the ever-popular grouper (a firm whitefish served at most seafood restaurants in Florida). Both hard-core anglers and families seeking a bonding experience on the water can all find a captain and boat suited to their wishes.
Surf fishing offers fans a challenge, a bit of sport, and some fun, too. Florida residents can get a free saltwater shoreline fishing license, and visitors can buy a three-day, seven-day or annual license at myfwc.org.
For a slower pace, grab a paddleboard or kayak and take a leisurely tour from water level.
Without the noise of a boat motor, quiet paddlers will see the water around them come to life, with sea creatures and shorebirds galore. Lucky paddlers might even catch a sleek black diving duck, called a cormorant, trailing the kayak underwater. Watch as gunmetal gray stingrays glide over the sand and under the waves, ever in search of shrimp, or as brown pelicans dive for their dinner.
While they don’t often approach people, it’s not uncommon for a dolphin pod to appear in the distance. Look for frigate birds — high-altitude birds, usually with black or black-and- white plumage, forked tails, and wingspans longer than their bodies — circling above the water; their presence often leads to pods of feeding dolphins.
Whether paddling the salty emerald waters of the Gulf or numerous inshore lakes, bring plenty of drinking water, a hat, a life jacket, and other appropriate safety gear.
The tranquil waters of Mexico Beach promise a peaceful getaway, but remember — safety first! Mexico Beach doesn’t use warning flags — and the beaches don’t have lifeguards because beachgoers won’t usually encounter rip tides. Still, make safety precautions a priority. Basic safety practices include swimming with a buddy, keeping a close eye on the kids, and wearing orange or yellow life jackets on any vessel, whether a fishing boat or paddleboard. If the water has whitecaps, paddling, boating, and swimming will be strenuous and could pose a hazard.