05 June 2010
. A Relaxing Journey Along Florida's Forgotten Coast
By Chuck Spicer
Reader surveys over the past two decades tell us that what our visitors enjoy most about Florida’s Forgotten Coast is that they are able to ‘just plain relax.’
But if a totally sedate, ‘just plain relax’ vacation lifestyle is not necessarily your cup of tea; we offer for your consideration at least 101 things to see and do on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
This journey is from west to east along a remote and quite rural portion of the Florida Panhandle between hectic Panama City and an area due south of equally hectic Tallahassee, the state capitol. At the urging of this publication & publisher, it was labelled “Florida’s Forgotten Coast” in the early ‘90s because state tourism promoters most often ‘forgot’ to even include this area on their maps. Ironically it has since evolved into quite possibly the leading ecotourism destination in Florida.
You are travelling along US Highway 98, a mostly two-lane road along the Gulf of Mexico. It is about 15 to 20 miles between communities. Population of the communities generally ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand. Traffic signals are rare as are shopping malls, bungee jumps, bowling alleys and parking meters. What you will see is lots of trees. More than 60% of this entire land mass is either a reserve, preserve or in the hands of one private landowner.
The scenery is fantastic and you can pull over to the side of the road most anywhere and enjoy the view, take a dip or dip a hook. Since the Gulf is to your right you can only take side trips to the left. In fact, Franklin is the only county in the country that has but one east/west artery and one northerly route. (Hint: that means law enforcement has but one main road on which to catch speeders.)
Once you emerge from sprawling Panama City/ Tyndall Air Force Base area the first Forgotten Coast community you’ll come upon is Mexico Beach. Unlike the hustle-bustle (western) Bay County cities of Panama City and Panama City Beach, this eastern Bay County city of some 999 folks is just plain mellow. Not only does Mexico Beach draw sugar-white, sand-loving families throughout the summer but also is a popular “snowbird” destination. Sunbathing, swimming and fishing are the three favorite pastimes most enjoyed by visitors.
Several miles of unspoiled, beautiful beaches run parallel to Highway 98 and the “no undertow” feature makes these stretches ideal for the entire family. In addition to surf and pier fishing, there are charter fishing and dive boats available. An artificial reef association (MBARA) fishing tournament is held during the year as well as a massive Tourist Development Council July 4th fireworks celebration, a gumbo cook off, an art show, musical and sporting events plus rather unique New Year’s celebration(s). Canal Park, where welcome center is located, on the extreme western edge is a great place to relax.
PORT ST. JOE
Port St. Joe (Gulf County) continues to be a city in transition. A former paper mill town, the downtown area has been transformed into an “old time” strolling, browsing and shopping area. Exceptional brickwork and lighting make it a real showplace. The relatively new Port St. Joe Marina is a real draw and hosts fishing tournaments. Pate Park, with a public boat ramp and a gazebo at the end of a long pier, is among its outstanding relaxation and photography spots. Maddox Park is also on the shores of pristine St. Joseph Bay, home of the world’s most succulent scallops. The best place for recreational scalloping is near Black’s Island. Scallop Day on St. Joseph Bay is celebrated each summer and a wide range of other festivals and musical events (July 4 Celebration, Christmas Festival, etc.) are also staged by the Gulf County Chamber (850/227-1223), Tourism Development Council and other organizations.
St. Joseph (Port St. Joe) was a “Boom Town” in the 1830’s and hosted the Florida Constitutional Convention in 1839. A must-visit museum traces the history of the area. Not always a happy history. A ‘Yellow fever Music Festival’ is among the current celebrations. Gulf County (“Old Florida on Florida’s Forgotten Coast”) is also mighty attractive to birders.
Travelling north along Highway 71 from Port St. Joe to Wewahitchka you will pass through White City (great boat ramp) and Honeyville and you will also see highway signs pointing towards several unique fresh water fishing communities leading to the Apalachicola River.
Two lakes peering into the skies resulted in the Native American name Wewahitchka (watery eyes). We don’t know how or where the Native Americans chartered the aircraft. Commonly referred to as “Wewa” by the locals, the northern Gulf County city is home to the Dead Lakes and Tupelo Honey. Dead Lakes State Recreation Area is an absolute must for camera buffs. Skeletons and knees of cypress trees killed by a massive flood make for a unique and picturesque setting. The fishing is also fabulous as are the facilities.
Wewa folks have been harvesting Tupelo Honey from the swamps of the Apalachicola River Basin for more than a century. Generally regarded as the world’s finest, Tupelo is pure and does not granulate. The 1997 Movie “Ulee’s Gold”, written and directed by Tallahassee resident Victor Nunez and starring Peter Fonda, was filmed in Wewa and the surrounding area. A Tupelo Festival is held in the spring as well as many other celebrations (including a catfish tournament or two) during the year. That Tupelo Festival is held in Lake Alice Park, which features children’s play equipment and restrooms beneath a mighty cathedral of moss-draped oaks.
CAPE SAN BLAS/ INDIAN PASS
Driving from Port St. Joe to Apalachicola, visitors have the option of taking scenic route State Road C-30 rather than Highway 98. A marina (charter fishing), RV site and boat ramp plus St. Joseph Bay Country Club, featuring an excellent 18-hole golf course, are located in Simmons Bayou / Jones Homestead area.
A southerly turn toward the Gulf takes you along a winding Cape San Blas Road on St. Joseph Peninsula and miles of absolutely beautiful beaches. You will pass an outstanding Salinas Park (dune walkovers, beach, restrooms, and play area), the Cape San Blas Light, a refuelling facility, a wonderful handicap park, another county park and the Salt Works Cabins, (site of Confederate Salt works destroyed by the Union in 1862). Boat rentals and horseback riding are available. At the end of the road is the highly rated State Park (best beach in the country) and its many amenities. There are not many permanent residents but Cape San Blas (featuring many upscale beach resort rentals) is a major vacation destination.
Back on Scenic C-30 which meanders towards Indian Pass which features a highly popular raw bar (established 1929), bed & breakfast, campgrounds and public boat ramp. This is also the closest you will get to St. Vincent Island, unless you have a boat; can charter one or can catch Joey’s “ferry” at the campground. This pristine state- owned island, featuring fresh water lakes and unique critters, can be walked only during the daylight hours. St. Vincent Wildlife Refuge Center officials in Apalachicola (end of Market Street at Scipio Creek) will answer all of your questions and is a great place to browse.
At the “Heart of the Forgotten Coast” is Apalachicola. Established in the 1830’s, the 3,000-resident community features a 2.5 square mile Historic District lined with more than 200 historically and architecturally significant structures. An organized Tour of Homes is held the first Saturday in May and visitors love to stroll the tree-lined streets throughout the year.
Also popular is the John Gorrie (inventor of the ice machine) Museum. Apalachicola is home to the Florida Seafood festival (first Saturday in November) – the state’s oldest maritime and seafood celebration, and a wide range of Chamber (850/653-9419) and Tourist Development Council sponsored events. Including the Chef’s Sampler, Antique Boat & car Show (April), art shows (including popular Plein Air Paintout) and Christmas Celebration (day after Thanksgiving).
Once the third most significant port on the entire Gulf of Mexico, Apalach (as the natives refer to it) still features a colorful working waterfront complete with shrimp and oyster boats and seafood houses. Two accommodations complexes are situated on the banks of the Apalachicola River as well as eateries and a private marina.
The centerpiece of the community is the historic (1907) Gibson Inn, which was restored in 1985. The city also features several fine hotels and bed & breakfasts. The restored and renovated downtown area features dozens of unique and charming shops. Plus a whole host of award-winning restaurants. Restoration and recreation projects include the Grady Building, Blair Building, Roman Building, Sponge Exchange and Dixie Theatre.
Parks and attractions include Battery Park (public boat ramp), Lafayette Park, Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) “Estuarine Walk”, St. Vincent Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Raney House, Orman House State Park and the Scipio Creek Marina.
Also Chesnut Street Cemetery. Last, but certainly not least, there is a most significant Viet Nam War Veterans Statue and Park on Market Street. Nearly 200,000 acres of the Apalachicola River & Bay plus surrounding territory make up the ANERR, (Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve) the largest and most magnificent estuarine reserve in the country. Hundreds of protected and rare species of plants, fish, birds and animals call it home. It is also the spawning ground for great Gulf seafood and Apalachicola Bay produces the finest oysters in the entire world.
Why? The mainland and the barrier islands form a sort of mixing bowl. Salt water from the Gulf and fresh water from the Apalachicola River blend ideally in this semi-shallow bowl. Spats sprout into fabulous topless treats.
“Sports Afield” named Apalachicola one of America’s 50 Best Outdoor Sports Towns - number one in Florida. Excellent charter & guide services are available and it has evolved into a leading fly fishing mecca. As well as a mighty popular “skinny water” fishing destination. It was also named one of the nation’s "Top 10 Getaways" and has been recognized for its cultural preservation.
The unpretentious Eastpoint waterfront is lined with some seafood houses and oyster boats as many area residents continue to make a hard-earned living harvesting the sea. Eighty per cent of Florida’s oyster supply is generated by these oystermen. About 20% of the nation’s supply.
As you travel the John Gorrie Bridge (Apalachicola to Eastpoint) and the Bryant Patton Bridge (Eastpoint to St. George Island) you can often see the harvesters working the oyster beds. Their nine-foot tongs manually worked from the side of a unique boat. No mechanical means allowed.
In addition to featuring a fishing lodge plus a couple highway & waterfront restaurants, Eastpoint has become a “commercial” center on the Forgotten Coast. Many new businesses have sprung up during the past few years. It is also the new home of the expanded ANERR operations.
ST. GEORGE ISLAND
Selected as Florida Rural Community of the Year in 1992, St. George Island is home to about 999 permanent residents and the annual (first Saturday in March) Charity Chili Cookoff & Auction. The nation’s largest International Chili Society (ICS) sanctioned regional chilli cookoff; it has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the island’s volunteer fire department and first responders unit.
The 26-mile-long barrier island features an award winning state park (the beach has been rated among the Top 10 in the nation) on one end and an exclusive upscale residential area (the Plantation) on the other. Thousands of visitors flock to this delightful oasis each year for water related activities and to just plain relax. The island’s upscale vacation homes enjoy outstanding occupancy (winter rates are extremely reasonable) and provide a considerable amount of visitor traffic for the area. Three other motels are also available.
Those visitors can select from among outstanding restaurants and visit the souvenir (and the practical) shops, bait stores, grocery, and, of course, restaurants and oyster bars. The fishing is outstanding from the beach and several other land based locations including the State Park. Portions of the demolished old bridge were left intact and serve as fishing piers. This unincorporated area features an active civic club as well as fun-loving crew known as the St. George Island Yacht Club.
St. George Island also provides the foundation or barometer of the area’s Real Estate Industry. Dirt cheap prior to 1990, SGI land values climbed steadily and mainland values went along for the ride. About a half dozen of the areas more formidable real estate companies were started on the island and have expanded to other areas of the Forgotten Coast.
A bike path runs the length of the island and the center of attention is the lighthouse that was moved from “Little St. George” to the main island. There are a few planned events and many more spontaneous events.
To the West of St. George is Little St. George Island. It all used to be one large island ‘til a “cut” was dredged in ’55. There’s no bridge. The lighthouse that was located on Little St. George suffered from instability and rescuers moved it to the main island and it is now a major tourism attraction.
Farther west is St. Vincent Island and then Black’s Island off the Gulf County coast. To the east is Dog Island. A chartered ride is sometimes available to this 100-home island with a single dirt road. A small hotel and a grass landing strip complete the picture.
Like Port St. Joe, Carrabelle (999 residents), also known as “the Pearl of the Panhandle”, has a history that dates well back into the 1800’s. Like several other Forgotten Coast communities, Carrabelle is undergoing considerable change while attempting to maintain its down-home “fishing village” ambience and charm. Despite crippling commercial fishing regulations, a handful of residents still make their living on the water.
The focus in recent years has shifted from commercial fishing to sport fishing (the harbor is the deepest on the Big Bend), and the Carrabelle Boat Club even offers ownership of condos for boats! The city is headquarters for several “fishing classic” tournaments, for charity and for large purses, attracting upwards of 800 competitors, and a holiday Boat Parade of Lights in December. Marine Street, a half-mile of “Old Florida” Riverwalk, now includes a restaurant, Pavilion and night spot. The stretch is site of the April Chamber of Commerce Riverfront Festival (an artistic affair).
At one time the festival featured a charity gumbo cookoff and the 1997 winner (Jackie Gay) subsequently won the Good Housekeeping Magazine recipe of the year contest (sponsored by Paul Newman) and a $50,000 check to help build the beautiful Franklin County Public Library on Highway 98 in Carrabelle. Today, the festival features dozens of art, craft and food booths, and live beach music day and night.
The Camp Gordon Johnston Museum (located just off Highway 98 at the City Complex) commemorates our WWII D-Day victory that followed years of top-secret amphibious training on this coast. Camp Gordon Johnston Days in March are quite possibly the nation's largest non-Veterans Day celebration of our troops - past and present. Timber Island, across the harbor, is transforming to a desirable residential, commercial and water access spot, nestled among square miles of untouched estuarine salt marshes.
One “must” stop for any visitor to Carrabelle is the World’s Smallest Police Station, located smack dab on Highway 98 in the center of town. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it. One visitor at a time allowed in. Featured on TV shows such as Johnny Carson, You Asked For It, etc, and in international magazines, the local police station is a genuine phone booth. Like the one used by the greatest crime fighter of them all. The local police force actually used it as a base of operations. And don’t forget to visit the local history museum and the Crooked River Lighthouse out west past Carrabelle Beach. The non-commissioned light has a visitor center, complete with a keeper’s house, area information and parking on off Highway 98. From the lighthouse don’t miss the Tate’s Hell State Forest entrance just down the road. Walk miles of forest trails past the same all-natural Florida, the Seminoles walked thousands of years ago, and see the only stand of dwarf cypress trees in the world.
During the late 1800’s Lanark Village was a major tourist destination. Many believed that the waters in the area were of “healing” value. The area featured a magnificent and highly regarded hotel visited by folks from throughout the country. It disappeared long ago.
This area was also the home of Fort Gordon Johnston during WWII. The “secret” base was used as an amphibious training facility for the Normandy Invasion. Munitions are still found throughout Franklin and Wakulla Counties. Do not handle! In March of each year a reunion, parade and good fellowship are in order. With all veterans and active troops invited by the Camp Gordon Johnston Association..
All that remains of the “Fort” is some asphalt, a few concrete blocks and some “barracks.” Lanark Village has an abbreviated “par three” golf course, a community center (Chillas Hall) and boat club. After jumping through hundreds of environmental hoops, an 18-hole championship golf course called St. James Bay was created just a couple miles up the road .- There is also a large St. Joe Company development called “SummerCamp” at the Highway 98/Highway 319 fork in the road. It is also the location of the Florida State University Marine Lab.
Again, miles and miles of unspoiled beaches are at your disposal along the shoreline of the Alligator Point peninsula on the Franklin/Wakulla border. There are only a few hundred permanent residents as most of the waterfront homes serve as second homes or transient rentals for fun-loving vacationers.
At the very end of Alligator Point is a large marina with a store and refuelling facilities. There are also charter boats available. The state purchased the pristine portion of the peninsula known as “Bald Point” and hiking trails (as well as a beach) are available to the public. Gas up before making the trek. Why the name ‘Alligator Point’? Just look at the shape on a map.
OCHLOCKONEE BAY/ PANACEA
Waterfront camping is available in the Ocklockonee Bay/ Panacea coastal communities in Wakulla County. Several marinas are featured (with all of the amenities) as well as a couple of outstanding restaurants. These restaurants draw food lovers from the east, west and north. “Panacea”, like Lanark, was once known for its soothing/healing waters.
Mashes Sands Beach is an attraction as is Woolly Park, which hosts the annual Blue Crab Festival. The first Saturday in May event draws upwards of 20,000 people. Besides crab pickin’ and lots of entertainment, the festival features a parade plus dozens of art, crafts and food booths.
The unique Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory is located in Panacea and is a great place to bring the youngsters. Touch tanks galore.
The Wakulla community of Medart (on Highway 98 just after the turn to Crawfordville) is home to a full-fledged, outstanding 18-hole golf course called Wildwood Resort that features restaurant and bar facilities and inexpensive play. .
Continuing on Highway 98 (Coastal Highway) brings you to the Shell Point and Spring Creek coastal portions of the county. It is a popular destination for Tallahassee weekenders and vacationers. This is the site of the annual Stephen C. Smith Memorial Regatta in April. The two-day event is for charity. Nearby is Spring Creek, popular among boaters and anglers.
Back on Highway 98 and travelling eastward takes you to the turnoff for St. Marks. This coastal community is the starting point for the St. Marks Rail-Trail that wanders on towards Tallahassee. Following the former Gopher, Frog and Alligator (GF&A) Railroad line. It also features a couple of marinas. St Marks hosts several festivals (stone crab and monarch) and features the nearby San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site. San Marcos has a long and colorful history dating back to 1528 and 1679, (when the fort was built). It’s a must for history buffs as the museum houses great artifacts and historical documents. Some signed by Andrew Jackson. .There’s also a 150-year-old lighthouse nearby as well as a public boat ramp and park.
Head slightly east across the bridge over the St. Marks River to Lighthouse Rd. (Co. Rd. 59) and start your exploration of the natural Florida of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Hiking, bird watching, salt and freshwater fishing, hunting and photography are popular activities within this 70,000-acre preserve.
The historic and beautiful St. Marks Lighthouse and the Visitor Center are also located on Co. Rd. 59. For more information, visit saintmarks.fws.gov or call 850/925-6121.
This is also the stopover point for migrating Monarch in the fall of the year as well as rare whooping cranes that follow aircraft to the location..
Some have called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and that’s why Wakulla Springs State park draws visitors from across the world. It is home of one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs. Because of its magnificent natural beauty, several movies have been filmed there. Including the old Tarzan flicks.
There are nature trails, guided boat tours, swimming, picnicking and a whole host of activities held throughout the year. The park also features a large, charming and venerable lodge and conference center. There is an outstanding restaurant on the premises as well as a gift shop. Many of the nation’s leading companies use the facilities for weekend retreats and rewards for their top performers. Many special events are staged throughout the year (see Coastline calendar).
Nearby Woodville is the site of the annual Battle of Natural Bridge re-enactment in March. The Rebs win this one. The Crawfordville area is one of the fastest growing areas of the state. The city features an old courthouse that has been restored and a modern livestock pavilion that is the site of the annual Wakulla County “Pig Party”, a swine show and festival in late February. The Wakulla Chamber (850/926-1848) is located here.
Sopchoppy, which features some quaint older homes and a truly neat old train depot, grabs the area spotlight on the Fourth of July as it hosts a celebration that is the envy of the entire area. A parade and lots of entertainment and food. The community works the entire year in order to put on its really big show. A musical “hotbed”, Sopchoppy also hosts a Worm Gruntin’ Festival in April and a big “jam session.’ And, of course, the Worm Grunters Ball!
There you have it...at least 101 things to see and do on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
Hope you enjoyed the trip.
For even more detailed information contact the individual Chambers and Tourist Development Councils (your bed tax dollars at work) in each area and be sure to pick up your free monthly copy of “Forgotten Coastline.” If you aren’t here next month, you are also encouraged to download the online PDF version of Coastline at the all new and exciting www.forgottencoastline.com. There you can read feature articles on all the parks, lighthouses and attractions along the Forgotten Coast. Oops, one other thing - please take a few minutes to fill out our visitor survey.
You will sometimes find it in our publication and it is always online. It helps let us know if this publication and area has its act together. Thanks – and enjoy.