White sandy beaches wrap the Florida panhandle’s meandering shoreline from Pensacola to Apalachicola like a warm, fuzzy blanket. Locals affectionately and, perhaps longingly, call this place “The Forgotten Coast.” But if you spend a few days here, I promise you will remember it forever.
Located on U.S. Highway 98 just a few hours east of Destin and Panama City Beach, with their shoulder-to-shoulder towering condominiums and bustling seaside attractions, is another world that harkens back to a time and place when life flowed at the pace of Tupelo honey and where leisure isn’t defined by bright lights, deafening noise (considered by some to be music), and non-stop, adrenaline-drenched activity.
Picture-postcard towns and villages with names like Port Saint Joe, Carrabelle, and Mexico Beach tenaciously cling to the coastline as you drive along Florida’s picturesque Big Bend Scenic Highway. As I slowed to pass through the sleepy little town of East Port (pop. 2337), I almost missed the sign that points south to the six-mile-long Bryant G. Patton Bridge that will carry me to my destination: Saint George Island.
Long before early European explorers “discovered” the island and exercised their proclivity to assign a name to anything and everything, early man visited the area. As long ago as 5000 years, nomadic peoples accessed the rich Apalachicola estuary which empties into the 246,000-acre Apalachicola Bay. Archaeologists have discovered “middens,” or trash mounds, containing evidence that these people tapped the estuary’s prodigious oyster beds as their own personal seafood store. That practice continues today. The Apalachicola estuary is the second-largest Estuarine Research Reserve Systems in the USA. Weathered oyster men labor daily to land some 2,300,000 pounds of oysters annually from this resilient oyster fishery.
All along the island, massive sand dunes have piled up over the ages as winds swept in from the Gulf of Mexico, feeding their growth. The United States Army used these natural formations to train troops at Camp Gordon Johnston to prepare them for combat in World War Two. Many of these majestic dunes are preserved today in the nine-mile-long Saint George Island State Park which encompasses nearly 2000 acres on the eastern edge of the island.
Twenty-two-mile-long St. George Island was one of Florida’s last barrier islands to be inhabited. Its well-planned growth and development has made it a vacation destination of choice for many of us who have “discovered” this Forgotten Coast. St. George Island (or SGI in acronym-speak) serves up something on its twelve-month menu for practically every taste. From smiling snowbirds whose ready enigmatic grins you can only guess at . . . and envied frenetic, flat-bellied spring breakers . . . to summer-vacationing families with mommies and daddies endlessly shepherding tomato-red tots along the endless beaches, every square inch of which is capable of yielding some sand-encrusted treasure whose destiny will be to share shelf space with Hot Wheels or Barbie dolls.
In addition to the three “S’s” (sunning, shelling, and swimming), the waters that surround St. George Island offer some of Florida’s best sport fishing. Invest a little time and energy and you might be rewarded with a catch that includes red fish, pompano, flounder, or snapper. Supper solved.
Sail and power boat rentals are available for the more intrepid adventurers. Also available are sea kayaks and SUP’s, a wonderful vernacular I heard from the youthful aficionados using stand-up paddle boards. I had seen them for the first time a few years ago on a vacation in Hawaii.
Take a sunset stroll along any of the rows of creamy pastel beachfront homes and you will enjoy reading the quaint but catchy names their owners proudly display on hand-painted signs out front: Bikini Bottom, Isle Be Back, Heron Now, Seaesta, and M’Ocean Approved. And over there on the end, there’s my favorite one of all: For Rent.