The Unforgettable Coast

Another edition of the Armchair Traveler In The Age of Covid. Let’s take a trip along Florida’s Forgotten Coast. An amazing collection of inlets, bays, rivers and swamps and tiny settlements that extend from the St. Marks National Wildlife Preserve to the bones of old Mexico Beach and beyond.

We’re talking your Creature Of The Black Lagoon, your Wakulla Volcano, and much, much more. Legends and fantasies are born here.

Shrimpers, oystermen, smugglers, pirates and vagabonds all converge on this forgotten shore.

I took this photo on the Ochlockonee River, which winds its way out of Tate’s Hell Swamp and empties into the Gulf, on the first morning of the Biden presidency. It seemed as good an omen as any.

You simply cannot walk the banks of this enchanted river without coming away with a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything.

The story goes that a St. Marks lighthouse keeper was so terrified of marauding Seminoles that he begged the lighthouse service to build him an escape boat. He was refused, but it turned out the lighthouse was so remote that even the Indians wouldn’t bother with it. Nearby Port Leon also suffered from disinterest.

I fell in love with this exquisite stretch of coast while leading five day bicycle tours that started in Port St. Joe and ended at Tallahassee.

On the first day of our tour we always cycled to Mexico Beach. It was a classic beach town seemingly preserved in its 1950’s-era roots. Unspoiled by modern condos and such. Unfortunately, hurricane Michael came to visit and tore little Mexico Beach to shreds.

Port St. Joseph had ambitions to be Florida’s state capital. But yellow fever and bad weather spoiled everything. Port St. Joe had to settle for the Florida Constitutional Museum as a consolation prize. But this small, lovely port town sheltered from the sea by a long, narrow peninsula is a joy to visit.

The charm of Apalachicola isn’t just that it was once the oyster capital of the world. The oystermen are largely gone now but Apalachicola lives on as a fishing village, culture and arts center, amazing eateries and too much history to recount here. Oh, and somebody invented air conditioning here, which is very cool.

Seriously, if it’s not in Apalachicola you don’t really need it.

If you blink you could miss Eastpoint altogether. But it is a vital Forgotten Coast link. It connects to Apalachicola via a five mile bridge and to St. George Island via a six mile span.

What’s not to like on St. George Island? Miles of pristine white sandy beaches and primeval wetlands on one end, and a classic beach town on the other. A great lighthouse and the Blue Parrot, one of the coolest cafes on the whole coast (great t-shirts too), smack dab in the middle.

Carrabell. A quirky little fishing village with a drinking problem. Also, the world’s smallest police station and a scowling pirate to make sure nobody gets out of hand.

Ochlockonee Bay is destination zero for seafood. Cycle across the long bridge for some amazing views.

You can hike for miles in the wilderness of Ochlockonee River State Park. And you really should. Also great camp sites.

Just up the road a bit is Sopchoppy. Home of the celebrated Worm Gruntin’ Festival. The Sopchoppy River winds right through town, and if that’s not something worth toasting I don’t know what is.

Ed Ball, the last of Florida’s robber barons, built his Xanadu on what is now Wakulla Springs State Park. You can stay in his lodge, swim in the springs (where they filmed the Creature Of The Black Lagoon, Seahunt and other classics)…

…and take a river cruise that’ll make you swear you are on the Amazon.

Every now and then the little town of St. Marks gets flooded out. But these are hardy folks and they don’t discourage easily. You can cycle from Tallahassee to St. Marks via rail-trail. Plus, the River Cafe.

The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge alone is worth the trip. Awesome birding, a lighthouse to die for and thousands of acres of water, swamps, and endless places to get lost in.

“Down the highway south I’ll go
Wewahitchka to Port Saint Joe
I’m gonna walk the beach with a pirate’s ghost
We’ll haunt that old Forgotten Coast.

“No ones gonna find me there
With my steel guitar and my rocking chair
Among the seafood shacks and oyster boats
Hide out on that Forgotten Coast.”

Joe McMurtry

Forgotten Coast

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