Monday, April 16, 2018

St. George Island on the Florida panhandle

St. George is a 22-mile barrier island on the Gulf Coast, just south of Apalachicola. Connected to the mainland by a 4 mile bridge, the island is less crowded than some of the other Florida panhandle barrier islands, but every bit as beautiful, with its stunning beaches and clear blue water. My last visit to the area was over 10 years ago during a family reunion; we vacationed on Cape San Blas (on the opposite side of the point from St. George Island) and explored St. Vincent and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges, as well as the St. Joseph peninsula. My memories of the beaches are of white sands and clear, sparkling water with the nearby marshes & unique scrub forests offering unique wildlife viewing, while the towns of Apalachicola and Port St. Joe featured mouthwatering seafood and laid-back Florida hospitality without the crowds of the western FL shoreline.

St. George Island Lighthouse

The bridge to St. George crosses Apalachicola Bay straight to the middle of the island, the Cape St. George Light cheerfully greeting visitors from the Gulf shore. This central portion is where the majority of restaurants and a couple of hotels are located. The scenery and atmosphere were as I expected; despite being spring break season, the crowds and traffic were nowhere near the level of the Pensacola and Panama City area beaches.

Easter eggs, beach-style

The southern ¼ of the island is a part of the St. George Plantation, a private recreational community that has multiple vacation homes for rent. We spent Easter with family and friends, emerging to the beach for shelling and swimming forays, and to hunt sand crabs with flashlight by the light of the full moon. We often saw dolphins headed along the shore, and great blue herons stalked the coast in search of a meal.

Boys + flashlights + nighttime = adventure

The north 1/3 of the island is St. George Island State Park, one of a dozen Florida state parks along the panhandle coastline. Nine miles of pristine beach with majestic dunes, bay forest, sandy coves and salt marshes await exploration. The main drive only takes you halfway into the park; the remainder is accessed by bicycle or on foot on a series of hiking trails, boardwalks and the beach. Pack a lunch and take advantage of one of the multiple picnic pavilions. Not only can you cook up burgers on one of the grills, but the pavilions offer a rest from boogie boarding & shelling, and shade from the midday sun.

Great blue heron

Canoeing and kayaking are favorite activities in the shallow Apalachicola Bay, but my preferred form of recreation to experience the bay on this trip was eating. Apalachicola Bay oysters represent 90% of Florida’s oyster harvest and are renowned for their size and taste. Apalachicola is the last place in the US where, by law, wild oysters are still harvested by tongs from small boats. The brackish waters in the bay that allow the local wildlife (including oysters) to thrive are a result of the rivers that empty into the bay: the Chattahoochee flows along the Alabama-Georgia state line, the Flint River and the Ochlockonee River runs through Georgia, and Apalachicola River in Florida (which is actually the Flint and Chattahoochee together). Together they drain a watershed of over 20,000 square miles, but over the last decade the growing water shortage in the Atlanta metro area led to additional water diverted from the Chattahoochee; the result was a three-state legal fight over water rights and the tragic decline of oysters in the Bay. Although the populations are slowly recovering, the delicate balance of fresh water and saltwater in the Bay is surely to be an issue in the future as the Southeast’s thirst for water grows. (For a more in-depth read about the Apalachicola Bay oysters, here’s an article on Eater)

Raw oysters and shrimp at Paddy's Raw Bar

If sunning, beach-combing, swimming, fishing and birding aren’t enough to keep you occupied on St. George, there are multiple nearby destinations to keep you busy for weeks.
  • I highly recommend a stop at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve on the mainland just across the bridge in Eastpoint (which I’ll be writing a separate post about in the near future): 90 acres on the Sound, complete with wonderful exhibits in the Nature Center, ½ mile of boardwalks, and Millender Park with picnic pavilions and beach access.
  • The Cape St. George Lighthouse is one of four lighthouses on Florida’s Forgotten Coast Lighthouse Driving Tour. 
  • St. Marks and St. Vincent Wildlife Refuges offer wildlife viewing opportunities and educational programming. 
  • The nearby towns of Apalachicola and Carrabelle have their own unique charm and offerings. Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest have hiking, camping, fishing, horse & ATV trails. 
  • A little further is Wakulla Springs State Park, famous from movies such as Tarzan and Creature of the Black Lagoon, but a Panhandle gem with its spring-fed lake, historic Lodge and ranger-led riverboat tours.

However you just might be content in settling in with a good book while the kids spend their time in the surf and sand. Whatever floats your boat, St. George seemingly has it all; I’m sure we’ll not allow another 10 years to pass before our next visit to the area.

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