Small-town charm and wide-open beaches characterize the less-developed part of the Panhandle.
By James and Dorothy Richardson
Some may call it the “Forgotten Coast,” but travelers who visit a 120-mile portion of Florida’s Panhandle will long remember it. The section of coastline in question stretches between Panama City and Tallahassee, from Mexico Beach (east of Panama City) to St. Marks (south of Tallahassee). It seems that the area was omitted from a Florida tourism map back in the 1990s. This prompted the chambers of commerce in the affected counties to dub their area the “Forgotten Coast” “” and the name stuck.
Whether or not this part of the state was omitted intentionally may never be known. But the small towns in this area promote a different type of Florida: more natural and less commercialized, more raw and less developed. You’ll still find white sand beaches, great restaurants, intriguing attractions, and sunshine. Yet it actually may offer more opportunities for historical explorations, great antiquing, and excellent fishing than other parts of the Sunshine State.
The weather in this region is mild, but, not surprisingly, cooler in winter than it is at the southern tip of Florida. In January, for example, Apalachicola’s daily high temperature averages 63 degrees, but the mercury sometimes peaks above 70 degrees for several days.
How could anyone forget Mexico Beach once they have visited? A beautiful stretch of white sandy beaches along U.S. 98, this first stop along Florida’s unremembered coast is lined with motels and restaurants. Mexico Beach highlights include fishing, swimming, and sunbathing. At the extreme western edge of town, Canal Street takes visitors to Canal Park. The canal affords boaters access to the ocean and is a hot fishing spot. Park conveniences include rest rooms, covered picnic tables, and a boardwalk along the water. Trout, redfish, and flounder use this canal as the tides come in and out, and it’s also a favorite spot to catch big blue crabs.
Surf fishing here can be both productive and relaxing. The sights and sounds of the Gulf make for a wonderful day at the beach, especially if you are catching trout, whiting, mackerel, or even cobia. Mexico Beach has a pier for angling possibilities, and charter boats are available for offshore fishing and sight-seeing.
The town has historical ties to early Spanish explorers and settlements. Pirates are said to have walked these beaches, leaving buried treasure, legends say, and a mysterious fort hidden somewhere beneath the shifting dunes.
Residents like to think of Mexico Beach as a “quiet alternative.” It is a non-commercialized town that calms the spirit yet at the same time offers an abundance of activities.
The U.S. 98 Bypass
If you stay on U.S. 98 and continue east, you’ll bypass some great stops “” St. Joseph Peninsula, Cape San Blas, and Indian Pass. To make sure you don’t miss them, just outside of Port St. Joe take State Route 30 south; that way, you can continue along the coastline to Cape San Blas and Indian Pass, both of which have boat ramps, public beaches, and campgrounds. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park has an excellent campground with access to some of the state’s most beautiful beaches on one side and boating in St. Joseph’s Bay on the other. The bay’s shallow waters are alive with a variety of marine life such as bay scallops; hermit, fiddler, and horseshoe crabs; and octopi.
At the heart of the Forgotten Coast is Apalachicola, which sits on the bay of the same name. This is a town with no beaches. Fishing, sight-seeing, nature watching, and antiquing are the popular leisure activities here, with ample opportunities for pursuing them all. Apalachicola Bay is lined with marinas and fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. Rest awhile and take a charter boat for sight-seeing or fishing.
The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve encompasses more than 246,000 acres in Apalachicola Bay. It’s the largest reserve of its kind in the United States. An educational center there offers exhibits of local plants, birds, and fish. Several easily accessible trails at the reserve are available, as are opportunities for fishing and boating.
St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge is a 12,490-acre undeveloped barrier island located just offshore from the mouth of the Apalachicola River. Accessible only by boat or canoe, St. Vincent provides sanctuary for a number of endangered and threatened species. Bald eagles nest in pines near the freshwater lakes and marshes. Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore to nest on the pristine beaches. Indigo snakes inhabit gopher tortoise burrows in the dunes. Wood storks and peregrine falcons stop there during their migrations.
Excellent restaurants and numerous antiques shops are scattered along the main streets of Apalachicola, and interesting buildings can be seen throughout its historical district. Many fine old homes and buildings date back to the 1830s. A scenic walking tour of the town acquaints visitors with sites such as cotton warehouses that stored the city’s abundant cash crop during the 1800s and stately antebellum homes nestled amid magnolias. A tour map is available at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce office and visitors center on Commerce Street.
Chestnut Street Cemetery is one of the more significant cemeteries on the Gulf Coast. It was established in 1831 and the headstones help tell the history of Apalachicola. It is located along U.S. 98 “” the main street through town.
Another important part of the town’s history is revealed at John Gorrie Museum State Park. Inside is a replica of the ice machine patented in 1851 by physician John Gorrie. He built the device in an attempt to cool the rooms of patients suffering from yellow fever. His invention later became the basis for the ice industry and modern air conditioning.
St. George Island
After leaving Apalachicola via the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge, U.S. 98 passes through Eastpoint, a small fishing village noted for its seafood houses and oyster boats. In the center of Eastpoint, take a southerly turn onto State Route 300 to St. George Island, located just across the bay from historic Apalachicola.
St. George Island offers the area’s choicest beach vacation accommodations. This 29-mile-long piece of real estate is no wider than a mile at its broadest point, providing easy access to both the seafood-rich waters of Apalachicola Bay and the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At the eastern end of the island is St. George State Park, which occupies 1,962 acres. The park has eight miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes and is a combination of sandy coves, salt marshes, and shady pine and oak forests. Camping facilities are available at the state park (electric and water hookups only), and a full-service campground is located on the bay side of the island.
Although St. George Island is one of the more developed areas along the Forgotten Coast, you will see no high-rises, shopping malls, movie theaters, fast-food restaurants, or traffic lights. And generally, you’ll hear no noise, either. It is a good place to relax, to enjoy nature, to view fabulous sunsets, and to become “forgotten.” Charters for fishing, sight-seeing, nature cruises, and kayaking are offered on the island. A charter company called Journeys of St. George Island (850-927-3259, www.sgislandjourneys.com) tailors excursions to any need and preference, from short kayak tours to all-day boat trips to enjoy shelling, fishing, bird-watching, and dolphin-watching, and to glean a close-up view to the Cape St. George lighthouse.
Continue east along U.S. 98 from Eastpoint to Carrabelle Beach. This shoreline and the nearby barrier Dog Island were training grounds for American amphibious units during World War II. Camp Gordon Johnston Museum, located on Marine Street in Carrabelle, commemorates their wartime activities. (Phone 850-697-8575 or visit www.campgordonjohnston.com for more information.)
Carrabelle exemplifies the fishing village atmosphere of the Forgotten Coast. Charter boats are available for hire on which to pursue excellent bay or gulf fishing.
The Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce hosts the Riverfront Festival each April, which features artisans’ displays of paintings, pottery, wood carving, stained glass, and more, along with a seafood gumbo cook-off. Carrabelle also is the home of the “World’s Smallest Police Station” “” a telephone booth located on U.S. 98. A police cruiser is usually parked there to verify its location.
Just west of Carrabelle on the north side of U.S. 98 stands the Crooked River Lighthouse. This 103-foot-tall iron structure located along the mouth of the Crooked River and St. George Sound was built in 1895 and decommissioned in 1995. A sign along the highway notes its location, but it still can be easily missed. The lighthouse grounds are open to the public, but the lighthouse itself was closed for improvements at the time of this writing.
For the (almost) final third of the journey along the Forgotten Coast, U.S. 98 leads through Lanark Village and passes the turnoff to Alligator Point, site of Alligator Point KOA, before it crosses the Ochlockonee Bay. Situated on the bay at the base of the bridge along U.S. 98 is another campground, Holiday Park and Campground in Panacea.
Panacea is home to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, where visitors can observe seahorses, shrimp, rays, crabs, sea anemones, and many more living creatures. At any given time, the lab houses between 100 and 200 species. It specializes in invertebrates such as sponges, starfish, and more. (Phone 850-984-5297 or visit www.gulfspecimen.org for more information.)
From Panacea, U.S. 98 turns inland. You’ll be in St. Marks after an 18-mile drive, and shortly thereafter in Newport. Beyond the St. Marks River at Newport is the entrance to the main unit of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
A park headquarters and visitors center is open at the refuge daily, and a seven-mile drive travels from the visitors center to the historic St. Marks Lighthouse, built in 1831. Along the road to the lighthouse, you can make stops to observe wildlife. The refuge is well-known for a variety of creatures because of its varied habitat. Natural salt marshes, tidal flats, and freshwater impounds attract waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds. More than 300 avian species have been sighted there, and 98 species nest in the refuge. More than 2,500 American alligators also call the refuge home. The extensive pine woodlands offer food and cover for turkeys and whitetail deer as well.
Hikers who prefer short trails will want to use the treks near the visitors center and Headquarters Pond, as both are less than a half-mile long. More ambitious folks will want to try several longer trails, which range from five to 13 miles.
The Unforgettable Coast
Even though this 120-mile stretch of Florida coastline may have been omitted from some tourism maps, it offers a wonderful journey for travelers who wish to sample a different kind of Florida. Like the rest of the Sunshine State, it offers white sand beaches, plenty of opportunities for offshore and surf fishing, great places to shop (particularly for antiques), excellent restaurants, and cozy places to park a motorhome. But it does boast differences “” less traffic, less noise, and more peace and quiet. Forgotten? No. Maybe unforgettable.
Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce
Chamber Office and Visitor Center
122 Commerce St.
Apalachicola, FL 32320
Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Drawer DD
Carrabelle, FL 32322
Mexico Beach Community Development Council
P.O. Box 13382
Mexico Beach, FL 32410
Area information is also available at the following Web sites: