I dined with a friend of mine last Friday, and he reported that he was preparing to visit St. George Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He goes there a few times a year to enjoy some of the country’s best fishing, relax, visit with family, and luxuriate in the bathtub-warm waters of the Gulf.
I tell him that’s quite the coincidence, as I’ve just come back from a visit there, and intend to write about it.
At this, he becomes serious, fixes me with a stern look and says, “Don’t.”
Confused, I ask why. I rhapsodize about the pristine environment, the warm, friendly people, the authentic feel of the places and low-key tempo of the region. And it seems like no one knows about it.
“Exactly,” he says, “And I want to keep it that way.”
I hate to disappoint him, but St. George Island is a secret too good to keep.
The Forgotten Coast
A 90-minute drive from Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), St. George Island is a thin, 28-mile fingerling of land wrapped around an estuary as exotic and 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 they also feel largely devoid of any specific regional quality. Partly due to a flood of new residents from northern cities and other countries, much of Florida feels culturally homogeneous.
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 easy, strangers are open and friendly, and the pace of life feels slower and more considered than in more bustling parts of the Sunshine State.
St. George Island celebrates subtle pleasures. There are no nightclubs here; no places to see and be seen. Celebrities like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have vacation homes here, but they eat at the same restaurants as everyone else, and you can practically count those restaurants on one hand.
A House on the Beach
You won’t find any big resorts with hundreds of rooms here. A decision was made long ago to shun that kind of population density; mostly because of the negative impact such sprawl would have on the environment. If you really want to experience life here as a temporary local, you’re going to want to rent a beach house, and two excellent sources are Collins Rentals and Resort Vacation Properties. Both can easily find accommodations that suit your needs and personality — and your budget.
Diana Prickett kindly sets me up at a beach house called Wind Dancer. Every house here has a numbered address, but as in many beach communities, people here christen their houses with names the same way they would boats, and if you tell people where you’re staying, chances are they’ll know where it is. Wind Dancer feels like it has a history, well loved by its owners, with a handmade, shabby chic aesthetic. The kitchen backsplashes are made of multicolored glass fragments, and hand-painted objects decorate the walls. There’s also free Wi-Fi, cable TV and a private pool. It’s a five-minute walk from the waves, but that’s true of almost every place on the island.
Circle of Friends
The Friday night of my arrival, I drop in on a regular weekly gathering at the Sometimes It’s Hotter Seasoning Company, an open house that takes over their spice shop every Thursday evening and spills over into the adjacent patio. Owner Charlotte Bacher calls it The Circle of Friends, but it’s basically just whoever happens to be on the island at that time. There are free food samples, a great selection of craft beers, wine, samples of more than 60 spices, and lots of gregarious locals. An evening spent here is the perfect icebreaker to get you feeling right at home.
The next morning, I set off for the crown jewel of the island, the 2,000-acre Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park on the eastern end. There you will find empty beaches, undulating dunes, paths overflowing with wild rosemary and mint, wax myrtles, and towering slash pines. Those pines shed their brown needles everywhere, creating a soft carpet on the brilliant white sands. While the environment has an untouched feel, it is carefully managed to keep it that way. There is a modest admission fee to the park, and it is open every day of the year. Rangers conduct helpful tours of the trails, which are clearly marked. You can hike trails, rent kayaks and boats (reserve these in advance), and fish. There’s even geocaching activities for families with children. The morning I was there, there was hardly anyone about. If you want a quiet communion with nature, this is just what the doctor ordered.
Field and Stream named this area one of the best places to fish in the United States. You can fish in freshwater, brackish water or salt water, each yielding a different sort of catch. While I didn’t specifically come down here to fish, I’d be damned if I was going to pass on the opportunity.
The island offers a ton of professional boat charters for anglers, but as the water is a bit rough, I settle for renting a rod and reel, and head for the highway to nowhere. It may sound like a pork-barrel boondoggle, but it’s nothing of the kind. Connecting St. George to the mainland is Bryant Patton Bridge, the third longest in Florida, built in 2004. They considered hauling the old bridge in pieces and dumping it in the sea a few miles out to create an artificial reef, but instead decided to leave one very long stretch in place for the benefit of fishermen. Now the bridge itself is a destination.
The day I cast my line, there is a diverse mix of weekend fishing enthusiasts from all over the world as well as locals on the bridge, but again, there just aren’t many people out here. I chat with another fisherman nearby named Ernie and discover he’s a transplanted Milwaukeean, a former teacher that came to vacation here and stayed. That will not be the last time I hear that refrain on St. George Island.
I cast my line and wait. The wind ruffles my hair. The sun sparkles on the water. Back home in Milwaukee, it’s dark and cold, and I feel lucky to be where I am. I say as much to Ernie, and he smiles sagely and tells me that he had the exact same thought thirty years ago. And he’s never looked back.
My new friend and I catch some luck as the tide starts to roll in. In about thirty minutes, I catch a croaker, two whiting, and a beautiful black bass. I can’t take them on the plane so I give them to a grateful Ernie to take home for dinner.
On the walk back down the bridge, I’m basking in Ernie’s praise, feeling very full of myself, and I pass a young family trying their luck. “Catch anything?” the father asks. I casually tell him about my prize black bass. “Yeah,” his pre-teen son responds, “Caught ten of them myself in the past hour.”
Ten. In the past hour. He opens the cooler so I can see for myself. With what remains of my dignity, I congratulate him and depart.
The Elephant in the Room
The massive British Petroleum/Halliburton Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 was one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history. While that spill occurred far from the shores of St. George Island, there is still oil out there in the Gulf, along with the chemical dispersants used to break up the spill, and no one really knows what the long-term effects of it will be on the Gulf’s ecosystem. The EPA has now pronounced Gulf seafood safe to eat, though that judgement is not without controversy. Thankfully, excepting some isolated reports of the odd tarball or two, Franklin County’s pristine ecosystem seems to have escaped the damage. For now.
On this trip, I walk through inspiring forests, linger at the margins of marshes thriving with life, and pass through acres of unblemished wildness. I see bald eagles, great blue herons, countless other birds and great clouds of butterflies filling the air. Looking at this pristine wilderness, I get angry that it was all put at risk. And it’s still at risk. It’s the oldest lesson of all, that Eden is fragile, and our hasty actions could cause us to lose paradise forever.
While St. George Island is the star attraction, it would be a shame if you didn’t spend at least one afternoon going further afield. On the other side of the bridge is Eastpoint where you’ll find Captain Snook’s Seafood Restaurant. The seafood is great and the pie is better. This homey, old-style crab shack overlooks an oyster bed worked by local fishermen, with a shaded deck offering a view of the water. The remains of a half-submerged sailboat lies in the shallows, its lone mast standing crookedly up from the waves. It looks like it’s been there forever. This really does feel like the forgotten coast.
After lunch, continue on to the nearby town of Apalachicola. While it now has fewer than 11,000 residents, the town has a rich history of prosperity, beginning as a boomtown for cotton in the early to mid-19th century, eventually becoming the third-largest port on the Gulf of Mexico. When the railroad arrived, it spurred the growth of lumber mills to process the area’s abundant cypress forests. That combined wealth resulted in some beautiful local architecture, much of which still stands, with 200 Victorian-era homes and buildings 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 1836 for merchant David Greenway Raney, and beautifully preserved for visitors.
The town is charming and a joy to stroll. As on St. George Island, dogs are allowed everywhere. The little Dixie Theater, 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
Everybody eats at the Blue Parrot. There are good reasons for this. First, to be fair, there are only a handful of restaurants on the island. But even if that were not the case, this would be a standout place to eat fresh seafood. The estuary waters are incredibly rich in a diverse mix of fish, with 180+ species, many of which could conceivably show up on your menu here. On the recommendation of my server, I had the best grouper I’ve ever eaten as well as a plate of assorted crab claws that were incredibly succulent. And of course, the oysters are some of the sweetest anywhere. Highly recommended.
I Saw the Light
The lighthouse that serves as a symbol of St. George Island stood against storms and floods for 135 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 that helped restore the lighthouse.
The messages seem to encourage you as you climb. On the first stair, John & 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
Delta, Continental, Northwest and US Airways all fly into Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP). From there, Franklin Country is an easy and scenic 90-minute drive by rental car.
Story and Photography ©Robert Bundy