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 Islandnow 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 owna 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 pointa whole 52 feet in elevation. Dock at sunset, when dolphins leap from purplish-pink waters against a vibrant sky.
Learn about the man who cooled down the world at the John Gorrie State Museum (46 Sixth St., Apalachicola; 850/653-9347; open ThursdayMonday 912 and 15; $1). Dr. Gorrie's 1851 compressed-gas contraptiondesigned to comfort his yellow fever patients in steamy weatherlaunched 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 fishthe 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 rightwild 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.