When people think of Florida’s coastline on the Gulf of Mexico, they most often probably think of the panhandle resort towns or the large cities like Fort Myers, Naples, and Clearwater. However, there is a “lost coast,” often called the “Nature Coast,” of the Floridian Gulf as well, stretching the big bend of the state’s western geography from around the Apalachee Bay down to Crystal River. This region boasts few white sandy beaches of the type you’d find in the panhandle nor any big cities, but its marshlands are a haven for wildlife and a favorite destination for hunters and fishermen.
Towns are small by any standard, and the way of life revolves around the water. Towns such as Suwannee at the mouth of the river of the same name and Horseshoe Beach a bit further north are mainly of attraction to fishermen, both commercial and recreational. Cedar Key, further to the south yet still within the same general region, has built up a greater tourism enterprise than Suwannee or Horseshoe Beach with an emphasis on the typical tourist who wants a weekend away from home with good restaurants and bars and not just the serious fisherman who will spend his days on the water. Indeed, while Cedar Key offers plenty of options for restaurants, both Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach offer only one restaurant each. What you will find is plenty of fishing charters and fish camps: the lack of restaurants may well be directly related to the fact people are catching their own dinner.
Both Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach are a long drive from much of anything else. To get to Suwannee, you turn at the crossroads in Old Town, a small hamlet in the eastern portion of rural Dixie County. You head south through seemingly endless pine forest interrupted only now and then by small homesteads. At that, many of these homes look pretty new—they’re not farms left over from decades ago but obviously built by people who have bought a lot to build on in the desire for a quieter life. There are in fact very few signs of traditional farming: maybe one or two homes will we have a few calves in a field, but unlike most of northern Florida, beef operations are absent from the landscape. Timber production has always been the key industry here alongside fishing, and Cross City, the county seat of Dixie County, still has an economy based around timber.
When you get near the end of the long highway on its way to Suwannee, the landscape changes gently, with less pine and more open marshlands. Finally, you arrive at Suwannee itself. The town is mainly a matter of narrow streets fitted with small bridges crossing ample canals which have been constructed to allow homeowners to keep their boats at home instead of a central marina. Private homes compose most of the town, though some small condo and rental units also exist. Some homeowners live here year-round but many are vacation homes, and they range from very humble fishing cottages to expansive, modern affairs. Up in Horseshoe Beach, the contrast is even more direct, with some homes reaching bona fide mansion territory.
If you’re in Suwannee and not there to catch fish (or have sorry luck in catching any), Salt Creek Restaurant offers a good variety of fresh seafood and is located right on the water on Salt Creek. The chef will also cook your own catch for a fair price and serve it up with their home-style sides, which is a popular option here. They have a full bar, and watching the creek from their deck isn’t a bad way to spend an evening at all. Salt Creek actually runs north of the town of Suwannee, while the Suwannee River runs due south.
Most of the waterways you encounter in Suwannee are the aforementioned canals, though from 221st Avenue the Suwannee can be seen in all its glory. Outfitters such as Suwannee Guides and Outfitter offer a variety of services from fishing in the Gulf to canoe and kayak rentals for those more interested in exploring the river. The draw of fishing is clearly the big business; however, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, which takes up most of the land surrounding the town of Suwannee, offers great birding and general nature-viewing, so you don’t have to be a fisherman to enjoy this unique part of Florida.
The canals of Suwannee give the place a special flavor, especially combined with the ample subtropical vegetation and sight of boats moored nearly everywhere the eye can see. Rambling around on foot or bike, you feel like you’re on some small island in a balmy and remote corner of the world. In the evenings, the air teems with the sounds of insects and nightbirds, and lights, easily imagined as lanterns, dot patches of darkness through the trees. In any article about a faraway vacation spot, writers are tempted to say something like “time moves more slowly here,” but it really does feel like life moves at a different pace. The small size—a population of around 300—and small geographical expanse of the town means even though many owners only come to their vacation homes on weekends, everyone seems to know each other. Showing me around, my friend Eli, who has been coming here with his family for years to fish, would remark on who appeared to have bought a new boat or painted their house—or even who got a new dog. It’s that kind of place.
Horseshoe Beach takes as much of a drive as Suwannee does to reach, leaving from Cross City and cutting through pine forests and fields on a lonesome highway. The drive seems longer than it really is, and getting dinner or lunch in Cross City at the Cypress Inn or the Taste of Dixie Diner before embarking on your journey is a wise idea for the hungry. Both restaurants serve home-style Southern food—some of the best I’ve ever had, in fact.
When you reach Horseshoe Beach, after being promised by a roadside sign that it is the “home of great fishing and great sunsets” you’ll find it offers both. There doesn’t quite seem to be enough land for all the houses here, and some are pretty impressive—you get the idea that more so than Suwannee, a lot of people with decent money have built their second homes here, yet the community is not showy but quiet and peaceful, as well as very welcoming. There is a feeling with both Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach that the level of development and tourism attained is the level desired, and even local real estate agents are not dreaming of building towards vastly bigger things.
There is also a feeling of whimsy here, with a house designed to look like a pirate ship sitting near the water’s edge and many homes displaying odd decorations and nautical themes. As Horseshoe Beach is right on the Gulf, if you arrive in the evening at low tide you can spot a number of small islands out not far from land. Electrical lines snake across the water pole-by-pole to reach Bird and Cotton islands, both of which are inhabited but can only be accessed by private boat. Staring down into the thin strip of sand—to say there is a “beach” is to say there is a very slight one, not what you dream of as a beach per those of the panhandle beaches or the Atlantic—you’ll see tiny crabs pop in and out of their burrows and seabirds swoop down to land after circling overhead.
While many people who live or have weekend homes at Horseshoe Beach have their own boats for fishing, several charter services are in town, such as Up To the Limit Fishing Adventures, that can take you out for fishing in the Gulf and know where the fish bite, too. There’s also commercial fishing in town: the Florida Cracker Shrimp and Bait Company plies these waters for a commercial catch and one way or the other, everything here pretty much revolves around fishing. You’ll find local fishermen at the Trap Bar by the Marina late in the day or working on their boats. As in Suwannee, there’s a lot of pride in a local community that sustains itself the same way it has for generations.
There aren’t too many places in Florida in these days of rampant growth and tourism that still feel like the “real Florida,” but Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach are two places that totally embody this spirit in word and deed. They have the good fortune of also boasting some of the best Gulf of Mexico sunsets you’re ever likely to see and some pretty fine fishing as well. Anyone who wants to uncover Florida’s real water heritage would do well to drive on down.
View More Mike Walker Photos of Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach