Weekender: Northern Gulf Coast, Florida

Weekender: Northern Gulf Coast, Florida

Frédéric Lagrange

Frédéric Lagrange

<p>Frédéric Lagrange</p>
Frédéric Lagrange

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.


WHERE TO STAY

Gibson Inn 51 Ave. C, Apalachicola; 850/653-2191, fax 850/653-3521; doubles from $75. A 30-room 1907 inn overflowing with marvelous Apalach atmosphere, it's also a steal. Where else could you find tassel-fringed poster beds, black cypress beams, rockers on the porch—not to mention plenty of elbowroom—at this price?The prime downtown location puts you within seconds of galleries, eateries, and lazy bay-side neighborhoods. The inn's Old Florida, post-and-beam design isn't even marred by an elevator (you climb the flared cypress staircase to the third floor). Sip drinks on a balcony, where you have a clear shot of the bay.

Coombs House Inn 80 Sixth St., Apalachicola; 850/653-9199, fax 850/653-2785; doubles from $79. Thanks to a furious renovation last decade, the 1905 Coombs House is easily the area's most elegant lodging. Black cedar and tiger oak gleam in the foyer of the two-story, butter-yellow Victorian; in the parlor, you can sit on a French settee while your breakfast is served on Italian glassware. Former Miami decorator Lynn Wilson, who owns the inn with her husband, Bill Spohrer, chose classic Oriental rugs and damask and chintz bedspreads in all nine rooms. Splurge for the one with a Jacuzzi tub and an Indonesian four-poster.

Wakulla Springs Lodge 550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs State Park; 850/224-5950, fax 850/561-7251; doubles from $69 weekdays, from $79 weekends. Admittedly, the miles of marble and masonry are a tad austere. Yet it's tough to resist the whimsical juxtaposition of Deco and Spanish Mission plopped down beside the swamp. And there's nothing quite like strolling through the great lobby lavished with pink marble and European folk art, only to find a couple of alligators out back (not to worry; there's a fence between the guests and gators). The 27-room lodge was concocted in the 1930's by well-traveled financier Edward Ball (a man, no doubt, with a fine sense of swamp humor), who said Wakulla was the most serene place he'd ever encountered. Sit beneath the magnolias, alongside green-and-gold springs, and watch the mullet and manatees dance in the water.

Sweet Magnolia Bed & Breakfast Inn 803 Port Leon Dr., St. Marks; 850/925-7670, fax 850/925-0569; doubles from $85, including breakfast. This five-year-old surprise in St. Marks won't win any style awards (silk magnolias line the staircase), but it will charm you with touches like wine and cheese at check-in, a garden with a koi-filled pond, and seven spacious bedrooms stocked with novels and the latest issue of Southern Living. There's also the prospect of a dinner cruise aboard the inn's Sea House One, a 65-foot boat that plies the St. Marks River, where manatees are easily spotted (three-hour dinner cruise, with five-course meal, $70 for two).

Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast 810 Third St., Cedar Key; 877/543-5051 or 352/543-5050, fax 352/543-8070; doubles from $75. As comfortable as it gets in Cedar Key. The lawn in front of this 1880's house is long, the garden is shaded by a 400-year-old live oak, and the yellow pine walls still seep with century-old turpentine. But that's not to suggest a rustic B&B. The seven rooms come with plush terry robes and details such as French floor lamps and marble-front dressers. Tom Cruise has stayed in room 1, but ask for Jack's Room and you'll get a suite with rose-patterned stained glass and an antique apothecary collection.

Sawgrass Motel Dock St., above the Sawgrass Gallery, Cedar Key; 352/543-5007; doubles from $70. The "motel" is a pair of rooms above an art gallery, both as spiffed up as can be. The doors are tangerine, the bed cushions Key lime, the tables ruby red. There's no pool, ice machine, or front desk (check in at the gallery), but both rooms have a mini-fridge, and restaurants and stores are but steps away. Settle into a second-floor balcony rocking chair with a view of the sea, and it's as if the whole island of Cedar Key lies at your feet.


WHERE TO EAT

Owl Café 15 Ave. D, Apalachicola; 850/653-9888; dinner for two $60. Rightly considered the finest dining in Apalach, the corner café with Brazilian cherrywood floors and crayons on the tables does cosmic wonders with simple seafood. Oysters come fried crackling-crisp with mustard sauce, or tossed in balsamic-horseradish dressing and nestled in baby greens. You might also consider the black grouper with artichoke hearts, capers, and roasted garlic; or the Thai-marinated flounder fried in rice flour, crisp on the outside, steamy inside.

Tamara's Café Floridita 17 Ave. E, Apalachicola; 850/653-4111; dinner for two $50. Tamara Suarez took a leap of culinary faith when she introduced Latin flavors to this Old South riviera. The consensus?Locals can't get enough of her Cuban black bean soup and crab-stuffed grouper with mango chutney. Suarez insists on a fiesta atmosphere—mango-colored tablecloths, brilliant Venezuelan fish crafted from foil, a hammered copper bar—and she makes regular rounds to ensure that everyone is eating their way to a satisfying siesta.

Sharon's Place 420 Hwy. 98, Eastpoint; 850/670-8646; lunch for two $15. Sharon Shiver is a straight seafood shooter—there are no unpronounceable sauces or Williams Sonoma flatware here. An order of steamed oysters comes piled in a Styrofoam cup, the fried shrimp in a plastic basket. Sit in a booth inside, or out back on the deck overlooking the oyster beds and river. If you order something from land—say, the chicken and dumplings—the gulls won't pester you as much.

Angelo's Hwy. 98, Panacea; 850/984-5168; dinner for two $40. Anyone homesick for Florida seafood houses from the 1960's will go mad for this place. From its classic location at the foot of a bridge, you can sit on raw-wood rockers and look out across coppery Ochlockonee Bay. Inside, the dining room is simple and clamorous, the seafood caught within hours of landing on your plate (owner Angelo Petrandis is a fishing fiend, by the way) and priced (nearly) as if it's still the sixties. Everything's excellent, from the charbroiled octopus appetizer to the seafood cakes fattened with shrimp, crab, and scallops. If you want to "eat local," order the head-on bay shrimp, the sweetest you'll ever sink your teeth into.

Roy's Restaurant Hwy. 51, Steinhatchee; 352/498-5000; dinner for two $40. Ignore the square, squat concrete exterior. Inside, there's a dimly lit dining room that looks hungrily across the river. Go at sunset, when the scenes across the Steinhatchee are momentous: cypress trees blazing pink-orange, egrets still as statues, blankets of moss pulling at the dwindling light. Besides all this, Roy's is famous for startlingly fresh seafood platters, steaming stone-milled grits, and a salad bar where you can load up on Greek specialties like feta cheese and kalamata olives.


LOCAL FLAVOR

HALF-SHELL HOUNDS
We're late for a date with an oysterman and all he can say is, "Y'all need to get a couple of sticks." Sticks?

Saltine cracker sticks, he means. The stores in Apalachicola stock millions of Saltines, by the carton and by the single pack (which he calls "sticks"), knowing that oystering fools like us will need them when we get out on that blue bay and crack open a live one. My friend Ellen, a Chicago native, warns me that she's not eager to taste anything that's slippery and still quivering with life. I grew up on Florida's Gulf Coast but never got crazy about oysters either. But we figure we'll sample one out of respect for our captain, a third-generation Eastpointer named Fred Register, whose brown eyes light up when he talks about oysters.

Besides the tongs we need to pry the oysters from their beds, Register packs a culling iron (a metal rod for knocking the oysters apart), several croaker sacks, and a five-gallon plastic bucket with the bottom cut out. You put a sack in the bucket, making it a "bagging can," Register explains. When the bucket is full of oysters, you pull out the sack, throw it in the cooler, and start on another sack.

The three of us pile into Register's 24-foot boat, which he generally uses for commercial trips but sometimes takes out on private excursions for first-timers like us. As we sail out, Apalachicola Bay spreads wide beyond the bow like a benediction, a bowl of bluish shallows tufted with tiny whitecaps warmed by the panhandle sun. Anchoring at a local bar (oyster bar, that is) we can hear the soft cadence of clacking tongs. The bar bobs with the boats of a few dozen oysterers, come to tong the bottom in earnest.

The first time I try the tongs I come up empty-handed. Their 12-foot wooden poles are heavy and unwieldy, and I can't get a good grip on the muddy bottom. Register encourages me to let the water carry the weight of the poles. When Ellen takes a stab at it, she pulls up three scissorbill oysters. They glisten pearly silver in the sunlight and embody everything titillating about the sea: salt, new life, the vast, ineffable unknown.

Suddenly, I can't wait a second longer. I grab a shucking knife, put on a glove, and pry open an oyster (I never said my father didn't teach me proper shucking). Not even bothering with a Saltine, I simply put the shell to my lips and suck. The muscle is luscious—firm and soft, sweet and salty, all at the same time. I grab another, then another, until Register says it's only our first bar and maybe we should hold off for an official shore feast.

So I try to be patient, but I can't help myself. Both Ellen and I are eating as fast as we can shuck, abandoning all our reservations about what we'd earlier thought of as slimy mollusks. With or without Saltines—which are gone by now, anyway—each bite is ambrosial.

For private oystering trips, call Fred Register (850/697-4300), or book through Jeanni's Journeys (850/927-3259). Half-day charters are $225 for up to six people.

RULES FOR EATING RAW OYSTERS
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, if an oyster's alive in its shell and has been kept at or below 41 degrees, it's safe to eat. Since you don't know how they've been stored, don't buy oysters from roadside stands. When you go oystering, make sure it's with a licensed oysterman who knows the state-approved waters, and don't eat a freshly plucked mollusk if it's dead. If you have diabetes, a weak immune system, or a chronic liver, stomach, or blood disorder, don't eat raw oysters. They're just as good — sometimes better — when steamed, fried, or baked with garlic butter.

MISS JOY'S PLACE
"Most people who come to St. Marks are lost," says Joy Brown, explaining how errant travelers end up inside her Bo Lynn's Grocery & Meat Market (850 Port Leon Dr., St. Marks; 850/925-6156) to ask for directions. As the first "big" thing you see as you come into town (the Sweet Magnolia B&B and the petroleum plant that precede it are somewhat less inviting), it's the obvious place to stop. Locals simply call it Miss Joy's and claim that not even natives know as much about the Gulf Coast as this elegant immigrant from Georgia.

Brown bought the 1936 grocery from Bo Lynn's widow in 1965. Bo Lynn himself had drowned some years earlier, and now his wife was ailing. "I felt it best to keep the name," Brown says, "out of respect for Mrs. Lynn and for the town." She did install new gas pumps in the late 1970's, but hasn't changed a thing since. Meaning, just as in the old days, you'll have to come inside to pay after you pump your gas, which thrills Miss Joy.

"I have personal contact with all my customers, and that's what makes my job so pleasurable," she says. Her shock of blond hair is swept over to one side, her linen pants are crisp and white, her hands delicate but sure as they display to a shopper an antique butter mold with a country flower design. The antiques section inside the store isn't large (check out the kerosene pump that provided heat in the 1930's); neither are the grocery or hardware sections, where you can find fresh sweet potatoes and cold chocolate milk alongside the gardening gloves.

While Miss Joy tries to stock what locals need in a pinch (the closest standard-sized grocery is 15 miles away), she also aims to "let visitors know what amusements are here in St. Marks." They include the Shields Marina (97 Riverside Dr.; 850/925-6158) and the San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site (148 Old Fort Rd.; 850/925-6216). This 17th-century fort is set at land's end, a deeply atmospheric spot with wind-ruffled cypress swamps and sabal palms. (Keep an eye out for the occasional moccasin snake when strolling the boardwalk.)

If you're in the mood for smoked mullet, Miss Joy can tell you just the place: Posey's (55 Riverside Dr.; 850/925-6172), a blue-washed clapboard shack whose sign reads home of topless oysters and smoked mullet. The restaurant sits a few paces off the official center of St. Marks, where two roads and two rivers meet, and where lazy-eyed bluetick hounds snooze in the afternoon sun.

CRAB PICKIN'
A sign in Panacea jokes that you can "cea" the whole town in one glance, and it's nearly true. The bridge, two restaurants, a couple of motels, and Mashes Sand Food Store (get your live bait here) are all within eyeshot. What you don't see in plain view are the crab factories.

Ever since the late 1930's, Panacea has been the "blue crab capital of the world," with more than half a million pounds of crabmeat harvested and processed every year. But what makes it the capital isn't merely volume; it's the distinctive palate-altering taste of a Panacea blue crab, which sings with sweetness. The steamed meat is so tender it falls out of the shell in buttery folds.

Stop by My-Way Seafood (1249 Coastal Hwy.; 850/984-0164) and order some freshly picked and steamed crabmeat to be shipped back home ($40 to $60 for overnight delivery of 15 pounds). Rock Landing Seafood (12 Coastal Hwy.; 850/984-0010) sells picked crab as well as whole ones.


ON THE TARZAN TRAIL

People have different reasons for going to Wakulla Springs State Park. For some, it's the eccentric, 1930's marble and masonry lodge tucked beside a cypress swamp, or the prospect of spotting a Suwanee cooter (turtle). Others come to climb the tall dive tower and plunge headlong into a four-acre bowl of clear, anesthetizingly cold spring water.

For me it was the Tarzan Tree—a leafy mastodon of my childhood Saturday mornings. I would sit transfixed by my black-and-white TV screen and watch Johnny Weissmuller seize a vine as big around as an elephant's trunk, belt out his famous howl, and spirit himself into unfathomable forest. I wanted to know if the giant sabal palm tree that he swung from in that film was indeed a portal to the paradise I imagined. The captain of the state park riverboat assures me over the loudspeaker that it will be. The boat we're on is the 30-foot long Wood Duck, which looks like a relic from The African ueen, and I board it with only a dozen other visitors. Tourism isn't highly developed here, which isn't surprising, since the townspeople of Wakulla (pronounced "wah-cull-a") prefer to hide out in 3,000 acres of deep woods 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're gonna get y'all close to some gators, now," the captain says, as we nose up to a 10-footer dozing on a cypress log. His belly is soft and white and bulges with a freshly eaten bird. A few feet away, in a crook of river, the water churns with baby gators exuberant with new life. Around the next bend, eight Suwanee cooters are lined up on a log. The announcer calls it a "shell station." Hearty guffaws all around.

Wakulla is Creek Indian for "strange land and mysterious waters," and no one on board can argue with that. Shards of white clouds race overhead as we coil through cathedrals of cypress trees, with moss shrouding their limbs and yellow-crowned night herons picking through their bony, twisted roots. Hydrilla grass glows neon green, and pickerelweed sprays purple cotton-candy blossoms along the shore. The cypresses have grown here undisturbed for a thousand years, fed by springs from a huge underwater cave, supposedly the world's deepest at three miles. Ribbons of coppery blue are pumped up at the rate of 400,000 gallons per minute. Animal life is richly layered: streaked-neck turtles, tricolor herons, freshwater gars, limpkins, and a barred owl all pass by the boat in the course of two minutes. And though the setting may be extravagantly, unabashedly wild, the wildlife certainly isn't.

Take Henry, the pole-vaulting bass. Every time a glass-bottom boat cruises over the springs, the captain calls down (sings, actually) to the bass, and Henry swims across an old cypress pole some 25 feet beneath the surface. No one's sure why the fish does his dance for the tourists, but gifted Wakulla bass have discoed across the same underwater pole for six decades now.

As we chug along, a purple gallinule lands in a flurry of feathers beside the Wood Duck. The "water chicken" is frantically half-paddling, half-flying, trying to keep up. He detours when we scoot near a banded water snake wound up in damp moss, but the captain welcomes danger, steering the boat so close we stare right into snake eyes.

When we come upon a massive sabal palm, I ask the captain if this is in fact the official Tarzan Tree. He admits that he's not 100 percent positive; it seems a likely enough candidate, given its woolly mammoth trunk, its tangle of fat vines, and the way it fights its way out over the simmering slate river. But I feel a pang of disappointment not knowing if this is the tree. Then it hits me: it was never really about the tree. It was about finding paradise, and I had.

Wakulla Springs State Park, 550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs; 850/224-5950; 40-minute riverboat trips are $4.50 per person.


WHAT TO DO

Most visitors to the Gulf Coast come for two things: a warm ocean and life in low gear. To get the best out of the region, you don't have to do much more than stroll along the sand and dip your toes in the surf. If you're up for a bit more action, though, the Coast has plenty to offer.

oh, say, can you sea
Rent a 16-foot Carolina Skiff from Benign Boatworks and cruise up the Apalachicola and St. Marks rivers (317 Water St., Apalachicola; 850/653-8214; $50 for the first two hours, $15 for each additional hour; no credit cards). Besides the thrill of "running" your own boat (as locals say), you'll very likely spot alligators and hawks in the sweet magnolia trees, and houseboat "fish camps" where locals spend their weekends fishing and duck-hunting.

reel 'em in
Bottom-fish for grouper and snapper with the famous Three Cats of Carrabelle. Native Gulf Coast captains Gary Beebe and Bob Lee (the third "cat," Beebe's brother-in-law Allen Shiver, recently retired) are known not only for their fish-finding prowess, but for their graciousness. Chartered trips go anywhere from 5 to 30 hours, including a night on the boat. (Prices range from $450 for six people for five hours to $1,800 for four people for 30 hours; in Carrabelle, call Beebe at 850/697-3433 or Lee at 850/697-3795.)

islands in the stream
Look for seashells or simply settle into the deep white sand on deserted Little St. George Island—now you know how Florida felt 100 years ago, before it was built up with winter homes. Jeanni's Journeys (240 E. Third St., St. George Island; 850/927-3259) will take you over by motorboat or on a guided kayak trip, or you can kayak out on your own—a perfect way to enjoy the quiet solitude ($225 for a four-hour guided tour for up to six people; one-day sea kayak rental $55, canoe rental $25).

Check out the wild islands around Cedar Key aboard the canvas-topped Island Hopper (City Marina, Cedar Key; 352/543-5904; $12 per person). Native Americans lived here at least 1,000 years ago, but now only armies of ibis, egrets, osprey, cormorants, and pelicans populate the outer keys. The aptly named Seahorse Key (for its shape, not its inhabitants), once a Civil War prisoner camp, is the Gulf Coast's highest land point—a whole 52 feet in elevation. Dock at sunset, when dolphins leap from purplish-pink waters against a vibrant sky.

chill out
Learn about the man who cooled down the world at the John Gorrie State Museum (46 Sixth St., Apalachicola; 850/653-9347; open Thursday–Monday 9–12 and 1–5; $1). Dr. Gorrie's 1851 compressed-gas contraption—designed to comfort his yellow fever patients in steamy weather—launched refrigeration and air-conditioning and is, well, quite cool to look at. On a hot sticky Gulf Coast day, you'll thank Gorrie every time you step indoors.

Robinson & Sons Outfitters 94 Market St., Apalachicola; 850/653-9669. Stop here before heading out on the water to fish—the rubber wading boots and Orvis zip-off pants (the legs are removable at the thigh) may be just what you need. Or, if you're hunting trout in the shallows, consider picking up a copy of The Trout Book. The shop also carries Cherokee baskets imported from the Smokies to hold all your fishing gear.

Sea Witch Art Studio 1201 Riverside Dr., Steinhatchee; 352/498-0171. Owners Lani Kaub and Rudy Naus, both artists, team up at this roadside hangout to sell brightly painted driftwood, watercolors, glazed mugs, and even potted geraniums. Pick up a copy of Kaub's Historical Glimpse of Steinhatchee, which highlights the many nearby falls where villagers swim, barbecue, and wed.

Wild Women Gallery 490 Dock St., Cedar Key; 352/543-9888. Maybe the sign out front is right—wild women don't get the blues. They will, however, be tickled pink by the art sold at this eclectic shop: Witness the frolicking scenes on the hand-painted furniture, the glass mermaids dancing in the window, and the ceramic goddess (by a New York "spiritual artist") who glows by tea candle.

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