Mexico Beach Wins G&G’s Favorite Southern Beach Town Bracket

Among 32 beloved Southern beach spots, a recovering Florida town takes the title

Three weeks ago, we launched our tenth annual Garden & Gun bracket: Favorite Southern Beach Towns, featuring thirty-two seaside locales from eight Southern states. Today, after five rounds of voting, the winner is in: Mexico Beach, Florida.

With fifty-nine percent of the votes in the championship round, the Panhandle town edged out runner-up Pawleys Island, South Carolina. Mexico Beach, with a population under 1,300, embodies a small-town beach vibe with its friendly locals, go-to eateries, and colorful beachfront homes. “It’s Old Florida; it’s laid back,” says Kimberly Shoaf, the director of tourism and a Mexico Beach native. “We’ve never had nightlife and bars and clubs; when the sun sets, the only lights are from kids looking for ghost crabs on the beach.”

Photo: Bill Fauth

A view of the shore in Mexico Beach, Florida.

Mexico Beach hasn’t had an easy past few years. In 2018, Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm, raked the area and flattened much of the town’s infrastructure. It’s still in the process of rebuilding, and the pandemic didn’t make things any easier. “We’ve had a lot against us,” Shoaf says, “but we have done so much since that storm.” The town’s coffee shop, Caribbean Coffee, came back early. The restaurant Killer Seafood followed. After operating out of a food truck since the hurricane, the town’s burger and wing stop, Mango Marley’s, moved back into its original location late last year. The visitor center, which had to be torn down and rebuilt completely, is reopening in July. As Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey puts it, “things are looking up for Mexico Beach.”

“And winning this just makes the spirit of our little town even stronger,” Cathey says. “It’s like someone just the other day told me, ‘Hey, we are on the map’—even though we never tried to be on the map.” To win the bracket, Mexico Beach relied on the support of its residents, visitors, and neighbors to the east and west, including Panama City Beach and Port St. Joe, thanks to Shoaf’s marshalling efforts. “She was like a little butterfly around this town, and everyone was trying to help us out,” Cathey says.

Photo: Austin Bond

Dawn on Pawleys Island, South Carolina.

In Pawleys Island, Mexico Beach had a worthy opponent: The tiny community located on a four-mile-long barrier island about an hour down the coast from Myrtle Beach is another serene sand-and-sunset getaway. “People say that when they drive over the causeway they just feel lighter,” says Betsy Altman, the owner of Pawleys Realty and a tourism board member who has lived just off the island since 1984. “What makes Pawleys so special is its quaintness and its people,” she says. She is partial to walks on Pawleys’ stretches of beach, the crab nachos at the local cafe Chive Blossom, visits to Brookgreen Gardens and the Pawleys Island Chapel, and interacting with Pawleys visitors who have become like family. “We’ve been working with the same families for generations,” Altman says. 

Thank you to all who voted in the bracket. And for those who are worried their secret beach spot is out of the bag, rest easy—Mayor Cathey has no intentions of changing Mexico Beach. “We are comfortable in our own skin,” he says. “There is no movement in our town to do anything different than stay who we are—we’ve always stayed quaint and charming and friendly. That’s what Mexico Beach is all about.”

Bracket illustrations by Marco Goran Romano