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Weekender: Northern Gulf Coast, Florida

Frédéric Lagrange

Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

If a single road sign could prepare you for the Gulf Coast, it would be this: here lies a Florida that nobody knows. Few Floridians, in fact, make it "all the way up" to these fiercely beautiful, boundless northern shores where time is still measured by the tides. So book a room in a gracious old inn, pack your sense of adventure, and get ready to find out what everyone else is missing.

Florida's northern Gulf Coast doesn't run from Cedar Key to Apalachicola; it trickles between the two towns, slipping in and out of slash pine woods, ghostly cypress swampland, and sands layered in watercolors when the sun shuts down. Along these unworldly stretches are flawless Florida shores, beaches where you won't see five people in a day, and rivers so still you can hear leaves float downstream — that's what old-timers say, at least. Realtors and other recent opportunists call it "the Forgotten Coast," and in a way they're right. It somehow got left behind in the flurry of Florida development — the madness of Miami and the Mouse. It remains suspended in a softer, simpler time, a time not too far removed from the Spanish conquest, when settlers slogged through the marsh to plant their missions and magnolia trees.

It goes without saying that you can't buy Dolce & Gabbana or Dries van Noten here, but you can pluck an oyster from a blue bay bed at sunrise and gig for flounder by moonlight. You can watch banded water snakes leap across cypress logs, and tricolor herons tiptoe around gators. You can swim in vine-draped, nameless pools where Tarzan episodes were shot and hunt for sea scallops in the warm, slurpy shallows off Steinhatchee.

If you visit the gallant old houses of St. George Island, you can watch the annual mullet toss, which brings everyone gulfside to see who can throw the fish the farthest.

Over on quiet Little St. George Island, spend the day hunting for Indian pottery or simply watching fiddler crabs crawl by. Says one Apalachicolan: "It's about as busy as the beach highway gets."

Set in the crook of Florida's panhandle, the yawn of coast between Apalachicola and Cedar Key is 195 miles long if you stick to the main roads (Routes 98 and 19). It's a stretch that bears little likeness to the hectic cities of central and southern Florida, and it can be lonesome driving. The side roads are even more desolate. Typically the only way in and out of a tiny hamlet, they hold promises of something haunting and hidden. Cases in point: the secluded sands at Carrabelle Beach, 17 miles east of Apalachicola, and adjacent Dog Island, which can be reached only by ferry. St. Marks lies just two miles off Route 98, on Route 363, but with no sign, you'd never know it. Steinhatchee, the scalloping capital of Florida, is a nine-mile jog down Route 51 (turn at the green boiled pnuts sign), and Cedar Key, the southern tip of the Gulf Coast, is 23 wide-open miles down Route 19 from Route 98.

The closest commercial airport is in Tallahassee, 15 miles inland from the mid-coast area. If you're headed to Cedar Key, try to get a flight into Gainesville; the ticket usually costs a little more and there are fewer flights, but this regional airport is only 57 miles away. Since distances between towns can be lengthy, a car is worth having, but you could easily laze away the weekend gazing at the Gulf of Mexico from Cedar Key or meditating on the sound of the gulls at Apalachicola.

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