Abandon your type-A personality and prepare to unwind on Highway 98. This is the Forgotten Coast, where a slow drive, a beautiful sunset and sipping a cold beer on the back porch is the most excitement you’ll want to have in one day.
The Forgotten Coast begins at the town of St. Marks and ends at Port St. Joe, with notable stops being Carrabelle, Apalachicola, St. George Island, and Cape San Blas along the way. Coming from South Florida, we began the drive at Perry, Florida, where we turned East onto Coastal Highway 98.
The “Forgotten Coast” drive will take about two hours from St. Marks to Port St. Joe. We suggest adding several hours for exploring. This coast’s name will quickly become obvious. Dense forests, sparsely populated areas and noticeably light traffic on this two-lane road will lull you into a trance at the beginning of the drive. You might actually forget that you are still in Florida.
That is sort of what happened back in the 1990’s when Florida’s tourism bureaus and visitor information guides clearly overlooked the area in favor of the highly developed tourists towns of Panama City and Destin which make up the Emerald Coast. Some locals kicked up a fuss, dubbed it the Forgotten Coast and the name caught on.
The towns along the route of the Forgotten Coast have a voice that is distinctively their own, and you will not find a high rise condo or stretch of densely clustered hotels anywhere along this largely unspoiled coastline. What you will see is a spattering of B&B’s, a few quaint motels and a wide range of independently owned rental properties mixed among centuries old oyster houses, busy marinas and dilapidated fish shacks. Do not be fooled. Some of the worst looking places serve up the best fried seafood and topless oysters you will find in Florida. After all, this area produces over 90% of Florida’s oyster supply and the freshness of it’s seafood is an undisputed fact.
St. Marks Lighthouse Refuge State Park
Our first stop along the Forgotten Coast was St. Marks Refuge and Lighthouse. This 70,000 acre state park is a nature lover’s dream, with biking, hiking and walking trails encompassing it’s 45 miles of coastline. There are a number of overlooks for viewing the salt marshes and wildlife habitats, and easy access to the Bay is great for kayak and paddle board enthusiasts.
As an amateur photographer, I cannot imagine a prettier place to explore through the lens of a camera. Photography is “an officially designated use” of this park, and you can visit their dedicated photography club page here. To learn more about St. Marks Refuge and Lighthouse, visit their website.
As you travel past St. Marks and Panacea, the forest gives way to bay views and marshy vistas as you head into Carrabelle. This area is pretty much the step-child to the county seat, Apalachicola, just a few miles away, but it does have its own variety of charm. An active marina, several seafood restaurants, a military museum, the world’s smallest police station and plenty of outdoor activities will keep you busy here.
Carrabelle is also home to the beautiful St. James Bay Club, a golf resort and residential community. We have stayed here on several occasions and highly recommend their cottage and condo accommodations. This resort is a short drive from Tallahassee, which is the capitol of Florida.
Tallahassee deserves its own dedicated blog post, and we will write about it soon. In the meanwhile, if you choose to begin your road trip of the coast in Tallahassee, we strongly suggest a visit to the Museum of Florida History and the State Capitol building for starters.
Worlds Smallest Police Station and discarded oyster shells
Next on our list of destinations and where we stayed for one night is Apalachicola. This beautiful little town sits on the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County, Florida. The sparsely populated city has an interesting maritime history and boasts a number of beautifully maintained historic homes and buildings throughout the town. It is also home to one of the most popular seafood festivals in the region; now in its 54th year. In recent years it has emerged as a tourist destination that attracts art and nature lovers, photographers, and as always, sports fishermen. While we love taking photos and exploring art galleries, the purpose of this stop was clearly to enjoy its most famous natural resource – oysters!
Apalachicola River and the Bay estuaries are vital to the economy of this region. According to Apalachicola River Keeper, this area “supports a 7 Billion dollar seafood industry in the Gulf of Mexico” that is constantly in peril. The region is dependent on fresh water that flows from the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers at the Georgia/Florida boarder. Fresh water mixed with salt water from the Gulf creates the perfect habitat for growing Florida’s oyster crop. Too much or too little fresh water affects the salinity and size of the oysters.
Apalachicola Bay oysters are well known for their briny flavor and that is exactly what consumers expect. That expectation is met at many local establishments including Up the Creek Raw Bar, where we enjoyed a full tray of oysters on the half shell. Our oysters were served cold, with a side of spicy cocktail sauce and saltine crackers, just the way we like them. Watching fishing boats return with their “catch of the day” was a special treat at this bay side establishment.
Where to Stay in Apalachicola
We booked a room well in advance at the Coombs House Inn, which is just a block off main street. The Gibson Inn, and Water Street Hotel are also on our list of recommendations, but the Coombs House was perfect for our one night stay. Our large second floor room in this 1905 home was quiet and very comfortable. The small bathroom, with its claw foot tub might be a bit of a challenge for some, but it worked for us.
Breakfast, which changes every day, is served in the formal dinning room from 8:00 am until 10:00. Our eggs and French toast, which was made to order, were served piping hot by a very pleasant young woman. Overall, we were impressed by the friendliness and competence of each of the staff members we met, from check-in to check-out. Genuine and charming are words that come to mind when evaluating our experience at the Coombs House Inn.
One could easily spend several days or a week exploring Apalachicola. We stopped here to take a break from our coastal road trip, as we hit the highlights of the Forgotten Coast. One highlight that cannot be overlooked is St. George Island. We rose early to take the fifteen minute drive from Apalachicola to St. George Island in time for sunrise. Being from South Florida, where the reflection of a sunrise stretches from horizon to shore, I was a bit skeptical that there would be much to see. The geography of Florida turns East to West along the Gulf of Mexico, completely changing not only the landscape but ones point of view as well. Hmmm….. you be the judge.
Over the years, the island has become heavily populated with rental properties, but it still has a certain natural charm that will bring you back time and again. The first thing you will notice is the pure white sand and clear blue water. This is the Gulf, which is known for its calm, gentle waves lapping at the shore. You can swim, snorkel, surf fish and paddle until your heart is content in these peaceful waters. Take a drive through St. George Island State Park to experience this barrier island in its most natural state.
This walkover is one of a few public beach access points along the beach. We happened to stumble onto it while searching for a public park in the dark! Obviously, our morning was not well planned. Sometimes lucky is better than a plan. You can click here to get a list of all public access points on the beach. Of course, the best way to gain access is to stay in a rental property. They come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges on both the gulf and bay sides of the island.
more from Apalachicola….
This public park and fishing pier is just a short walk from Coombs House Inn and downtown Apalachicola. Just one more thing to add to a long list of reasons why we love it here.
Port St. Joe and Cape San Blas
After leaving Apalachicola, we continued our drive along Highway 98, intending to spend part of the day at Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach. This is a working class town that has seen significant growth in recent years through its efforts to attract tourist. The Marina, downtown shops and a few restaurants provide entertainment for guests, but the main attraction is the beach. Unfortunately, the beach that I recall from my youth looked nothing like the one we saw this day. The usually clear, blue waters had a reddish/brown stain that was not at all inviting. We were told that this happens on occasion, depending on heavy rains and run-off from the bay. There were families swimming in the tea like waters, but I could not bring myself to enter, or even to take a picture. Gratefully, the water is not always brown, but it is disheartening to those who need to make vacation plans in advance.
Cape San Blas, which is a seventeen minute drive away, salvaged our day. Depart from Highway 98 at 30A to take this scenic drive to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. With the inviting Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, this is paradise found.
Cape San Blas has rental homes available, but to experience this little strip of land with the sea on one side and the bay on the other properly, you will want to visit St. Joseph Peninsula State Park with a tent, an RV, or just stay in one of the seven cabins they have available. This is truly the best of all worlds, with sunrise on the Bay, sunset on the ocean and easy living in between. With Port St. Joe and its great restaurants, marina and shopping just 17 beautiful minutes away you cannot go wrong.
Everything about this coast evokes a sense of calm and a simpler way of life. With it’s never ending vistas across Gulf waters and rivers of grass, stretching from St. Marks State Park and the lighthouse where we began our journey, to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park where we will end, embracing solitude becomes second nature.
Miles of unspoiled beaches, incredible sunrises and sunsets, balmy breezes, and an abundance of natural resources, make this coast the perfect place to get lost. Maybe being “forgotten” isn’t a bad thing.
our recommendations are unsolicited and reflect personal opinions based on our own experiences
Want to know more about Florida’s Coasts: Select Florida from the header of this Blog and click on Florida’s Coasts. Coming soon, the Emerald Coast.