The Forgotten Coast

3/27/2015

Spring 2015

I’m walking through a forest of towering slash pines in the 2,000-acre St. George Island State Park. Seabirds call to each other in the air above me. The sky is almost an unearthly shade of bright blue, a stark contrast to the emerald glow of the surrounding evergreens. A breeze carries the sound of the crashing Gulf surf inland toward me, stirring the beach morning glory and yellow asters as it races over the high dunes and through the brush.The air is salty yet sweetly floral with the scent of the wild Florida rosemary and mint that grow everywhere here. The bright red berries of yaupon holly shine in the morning sun as if lit from within.

 

A fluttering cloud of yellow-orange and black suddenly rises up from the milkweed and brush to fill the air in front of me – monarch butterflies that had been resting on their long migration back to their home in Mexico. They hold there in midair for a moment as if undecided, then move off toward the neighboring trees to circle the clearing once before finally settling back to where they had lazed only a moment before. Apparently, whatever had disturbed them into flight is not nearly as compelling as their urge to stay here a little longer. Their long journey home can wait. For now, life is too sweet here on St. George Island to leave. I know just how they feel. 

A SENSE OF PLACE

Just off the coast of Florida’s Panhandle and connected to the mainland by the Bryant Patton Bridge, St. George Island is a thin, 28-mile fingerling of land wrapped around an estuary as unspoiled as anywhere on Earth. The closer you get, the more it seems like you’ve entered a time warp. So many of the most popular destinations in Florida are wonderfully shiny and new, but also can feel largely devoid of any specific regional quality. But Franklin County truly feels and sounds like the South: There is lilt and musicality in the accents. The turns of phrase are more interesting. Smiles come easily, strangers are open and friendly, and the pace of life feels slower and more considered than in more bustling parts of the Sunshine State.

APALACHICOLA

While St. George Island is the star attraction, more delights wait farther afield. Drive across the bridge to the nearby town of Apalachicola. While it now has fewer than 2,000 residents, the town has a rich history of prosperity. That wealth resulted in beautiful local architecture, much of which still stands, with more than 900 Victorian-era homes and buildings in its Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If you want a peek inside at one, you can tour the Raney House Museum, built when cotton was king in 1838 for merchant David Greenway Raney, and beautifully preserved for visitors.

Colorful shops in the charming nearby town of Apalachicola.

The town is charming and a joy to stroll. As on St. George Island, dogs are allowed almost everywhere. The little Dixie Theatre, dating to 1912, still puts on live performances, as well as live music and films. There are independently owned shops, boutiques, restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries. A couple of evocative ruins dot the town, long ago reclaimed by vines and trees. Massive live oaks create a shady canopy for the sidewalks. A tiny maritime museum demonstrates shipbuilding techniques and offers some wonderful vintage photography tracing the history of the area. And the docks are still crowded with fishing boats. Best of all, none of it feels too polished. Enjoy a splendid afternoon puttering in and around the place, and then head back to St. George Island for dinner at the Blue Parrot.

POLLY WANT A CRAB LEG

Everyone eats at the Blue Parrot. There are good reasons for this. The estuary waters are a fisherman’s dream, with 180+ species, many of which conceivably could show up on your menu here. And the kitchen takes full advantage of their good fortune. On the recommendation of my server, I have the best grouper I’ve ever eaten as well as a plate of assorted crab claws that are so fresh their original owners are probably still surprised to see that they’re missing. And, of course, the famous oysters are some of the sweetest anywhere. The Blue Parrot is flip-flop casual, with seating indoors and out, and after dinner you’re just a short flight of stairs away from the beach so you can walk off your crab legs. Highly recommended.

I SAW THE LIGHT

The lighthouse that serves as a symbol of St. George Island stood against storms and floods for 153 years on a western edge of the island, but finally toppled in October 2005. Volunteers quickly mobilized to rebuild it, salvaged the bricks, cleaned the aged mortar off of them, and then began a long restoration. Realizing the former site was no longer suitable, they decided to re-erect it right smack dab in the center of town. Now the octagonal glass lantern room once again glows into life as night falls, a glittering jewel box declaring St. George Island to all the ships at sea.

CIRCLING WITH FRIENDS

If you time it right, you can do the Full Moon Climb all the way to the top. Ascending the spiral stairs, you are carried higher and higher by 92 wooden steps with brass plaques bearing the names of the people who helped restore the lighthouse. The messages seem to encourage you as you climb. On the first stair, John and Kerry Thompson tell you to “Enjoy the view!” Halfway up, John Baldino wants you to know how much he loves his home here. The Ficklin family urges you “Don’t give up the ship!” as you take the 80th stair. And George and Linda Rawlins welcome you to the top. Go look out the lighthouse windows to see what those nice people already know: This is a beautiful place on Earth. Come see for yourself. 

 

 

When You Go:  St. George Island is a scenic 90-minute drive from Tallahassee Regional Airport via Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail and U.S. Highway 319 S, or two hours from Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport of Panama City via U.S. Highway 98 E W.

Learn more about St. George Island.