In September 2016, a friend and I set off to explore the coastal panhandle from Panama City Beach east to the quaint fishing community of St. Marks, then south to Steinhatchee.
With Hurricane Michael set to impact the area sometime tomorrow, I was reminded of that remarkable trip – and the beauty of Florida’s Forgotten Coast. . .
Originally published September 2016:
How about we ease off government and politics for a minute and have a little adventure to clear our mind, eh?
Last weekend, my best friend of 50 years and I took off on a lark.
Just bugged out.
I threw a comfortable pair of shorts, a well-worn fishing shirt, and my toothbrush in a Goruck SD-15 rucksack, packed the Yeti Hopper with a half-case of iced-down Tecate and a few soft drinks, filled up with a full tank of freedom then pointed the SUV northwest.
Our loose mission was to explore Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” – roughly the undeveloped area between Mexico Beach on the Gulf of Mexico to St. Marks on Apalachee Bay – see the sights along the way and assess the damage from Hurricane Hermine.
Our trip to the panhandle took us around Jacksonville on I-295, through Orange Park, then west on the terribly monotonous I-10. Once past Tallahassee, and a few miles west of Marianna, we steered south on Highway 231 through Alford and Youngstown, not much more than dips in the road – dots on the map, really.
The drive along 231 was very reminiscent of some of the back-roads I’ve traveled in my native east Tennessee – collapsing clapboard buildings, an occasional pecan orchard, and rural frontage dotted with small roadside vendors selling local honey, homemade quilts, and hanging dried gourd birdhouses.
We spent Saturday night in Panama City – a tacky, slightly down-at-the-heels beachside “resort” community which reminded me a whole lot of Daytona Beach.
A town that is obviously facing some of the same issues we experience here.
For instance, one of the first things you notice driving south over the causeway – because its literally all you can see – is the colossal, monolithic masonry wall that is the 765 unit Laketown Warf condominiums.
This immense structure looks like one of those massive collective housing projects from the former Soviet Union – gray, bland, and so incredibly vast it completely obscures everything around it.
So big that the tourists that inhabit it look like ants crawling along its dreadful exterior catwalks.
Interestingly, the history of the project is not unlike what we routinely experience here: A big-talking, ego-maniacal developer rides into town fancying himself a southern-fried Donald Trump, throws money around until he gets what he wants, then goes broke mid-stream.
Eventually, someone else comes along and fashions, on-the-cheap, a toned-down version of the Bellagio-style opulence the original speculator promised everyone was coming before he went bankrupt and fled back to the outskirts of Destin.
The developer – a shameless self-promoter named Jerry L. Wallace – even published an autobiography entitled, “Dealmaker: A Billionaire’s Blueprint for Success” in which he refers to himself as the “consummate dealmaker,” a “pioneer and trendsetter,” etc.
Unfortunately, the book had to be reissued when Forbes reported that Wallace’s actual net worth was substantially south of a billion dollars. . .
Like any good “tell ‘em what they want to hear” speculative developer, Wallace countered that the book’s re-release was simply to generate “a broader appeal.”
As for Panama City Beach, the extreme density of beachfront development, rundown goofy golf links, cheap t-shirt stores, a smattering of theme hotels and a few weird Styrofoam sculpted gift shops stand shoulder-to-shoulder making it impossible to see the beach, or even the wide expanse of the Gulf, until you get a glimpse driving past one of the small public beach walkovers with even smaller public parking areas.
We’re here. L.A. – Lower Alabama – the original “Redneck Riviera.”
What they don’t have is a lack of occupancy. Things are booming in PCB, even after Labor Day.
After several attempts to find a room on the beach – which were selling for $185 per night with a two-night minimum – we found that the beachside was almost completely sold out, so, we found a comfortable chain hotel approximately 15-minutes inland.
I’m not sure what they’re doing right, but I suspect Panama City’s close proximity to south Alabama and Georgia is the difference between here and there. Most of the visitors we saw hailed from the deep south and families with small children made up the bulk of a very diverse demographic who appeared to be spending freely at the hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops both on and off Front Beach Road.
We stopped at a sprawling restaurant just off the main tourist drag called Angelo’s Steak Pit for a couple of drinks, a huge 32-ounce Porterhouse, and a thick Ribeye of dubious pedigree. Let’s just say when you leave a steakhouse lamenting, “Something’s up? Was that beef?” Seriously. You’re in for a long evening. . .
On Sunday morning we got up early on Central Time and began moving east along US Route 98, the longest US road in Florida, stretching along the southern coast of the panhandle with some of the most spectacular views in the state.
Across the East Bay bridge and through the sprawling Tyndall Air Force Base, home of the 325th Fighter Wing and First Air Force.
The base is bisected by Route 98, allowing interesting views of a variety of military infrastructure and glimpses of the flight line through the trees with gray fighter jets and expansive maintenance hangers; then farther along we pass a cool target drone launch site with UAV’s on pads in a tight semicircle facing aerial gunnery ranges over the Gulf of Mexico.
The easternmost sections of Tyndall AFB include long stretches of heavy pine scrub marked with ominous signs announcing “Ordnance Disposal Area – Keep Out.”
Along the way we stopped and explored the town of Port St. Joe – a small beach community that is doing it right – with charming shops in the historic downtown, ample parks and playgrounds, and a great public marina on St. Joseph Bay that bills itself as the ‘Friendliest Marina in Florida.”
I found a great fly rod and reel at Port St. Joe’s Bluewater Outfitters – a small, but overstocked, all-things-fishing shop centrally located in the Piggly-Wiggly Plaza.
Interestingly, it’s also where we did some gift-shopping for the wives at home. . .
Moving east, we toured Cape San Blas, a seventeen-mile strand on the barrier peninsula with considerable stretches of open, pet-friendly white sand beach culminating in the beautiful St. Joseph State Park and Bay Aquatic Preserve, known locally as “The Point.”
The area has a very casual, laid back feel populated by pastel rental homes, vacation bungalows and those weird geodesic domes, all built on stilts along beautiful Highway 30E.
We stopped at the Cape Trading Post, a small family-owned store offering a limited grocery selection, local souvenirs and a fully stocked liquor store with a very friendly staff, impeccably clean restrooms and cold refreshments.
Leaving the Cape’s thin spit of land, we observed an incredibly unique ecosystem that brought the slash pine scrub right up to the soft white sands of the Gulf of Mexico. Similar to what you would see on the banks of a freshwater lake in Central Florida.
We both agreed – well worth the drive.
We continued along the coast passing St. Vincent Sound and into the quaint village of Apalachicola, a community of 2,200 with that true “Old Florida” feel of a small coastal town.
Now, everyone has heard of Florida’s “Oyster Capital of the World.” But until you visit it’s hard to image just what a beautiful, unrefined pearl the City of Apalachicola truly is.
Remnants of the past are evident in the community’s beautiful Victorian homes and the shacks housing rough, hardworking oystermen and other maritime businesses operating along the expansive waterfront.
Apalachicola’s historic downtown, featuring small shops and fashionable boutiques, is an active participant of Florida’s Main Street Program, a technical assistance service managed by the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources.
Everywhere you look leaves the unmistakable impression that Apalachicola is intent on building their brand by fiercely protecting that which makes the area so unique. They are doing this by following the highly successful “Main Street” philosophy that has been so transformative in the City of Deland and elsewhere.
The Mayor of Americus, Georgia, Russell Thomas said of this collaborative effort, “For the longest time, we all waited for a white knight to ride into town and fix the problems. But the Main Street people made us realize that the only way to get it done right was to do it ourselves.”
After our windshield assessment of Apalachicola’s beautiful downtown and scenic neighborhoods, we stopped off at the Boss Oyster, a funky little seafood shack which, according to the menu, reassures that your oysters are chilled from “bay to belly.”
Incredibly, the menu offers oysters 29 ways – from Oyster St. George, featuring asparagus, garlic, shallots and Colby cheese, to Oyster Monterrey topped with hand-picked blue crab, sherry, and jack cheese.
Unfortunately, due to the effects of Hurricane Hermine, the Boss Oyster was serving only Louisiana oysters during our visit.
That said, we each had a bowl of some of the most exquisite oyster stew I’ve ever eaten with no less than a half-dozen of the tasty saltwater bivalves swimming in a luscious, heavy cream-based broth.
While my buddy enjoyed a dozen more steamed, I devoured a lightly dressed fried oyster Po-Boy washed down with a cold glass of proper sweet tea. The great food and scenic location made for a memorable lunch overlooking the beautiful Apalachee Bay at the western extent of the “Big Bend” coastline.
Apalachicola is one of those places that you simply can’t forget.
As we prepared to head across the bridge to Eastpoint and on to St. George Island, we took a quick look back for a nice hotel the girls would enjoy on our inevitable return to this unspoiled hideaway.
Next – Part II: St. George Lighthouse, Cold Beers in St. Marks, then south to Steinhatchee.