Florida has approximately 1,350 miles of coastline, the second-most of any state in the country. Only Alaska has more. But considering the climate differences, I think it is safe to say that Florida has the most “vacation coastline” of any state in the country.
So when I learned that our weekend destination is nicknamed “The Forgotten Coast”, my first thought was, how on earth could that be appropriate for ANY section of the Florida coastline? But after spending a few days exploring, I have to agree that this stretch of coastline IS very different from what I expected and from any other part of Florida that I have visited. But I don’t agree that it should be forgotten. On the contrary, I enjoyed my time there immensely, and I’m looking forward to visiting again someday.
Coming from our home base on Florida’s central Gulf coast (aka the “Nature Coast”), we drove north to the timber town of Perry and then headed west on Highway 98 along the Florida panhandle, passing through Taylor, Wakulla, and Franklin counties and encountering towns such as St. Marks, Carabelle, Apalachicola, and Port Saint Joe.
I had never been to this part of Florida, but I thought I knew what to expect – isn’t the entire Florida panhandle a series of crowded “Spring Break”-style beaches? In a word, NO. The eastern section of the panhandle is heavily forested, and the coastline itself varies between marshes and sandy beaches. To me, it called to mind the shorelines in Maine or Washington State more than it did any other section of the Florida coast that I have visited.
Several important rivers flow into the Gulf here, including the Aucilla, the Wakulla, the St. Marks, the Ochlockonee and the Apalachicola. As a result, there has long been an active human presence in the area. We found many opportunities to learn about the history of the area from the Paleo-Indian times through early settlement, the Industrial revolution, the Civil War, World War II and on into the present.
On the Aucilla River, we learned about the unique features of Florida’s “blackwater” rivers that helps preserve artifacts such as arrow heads and bison and mammoth bones and teeth. And we learned that it is foolish to have your car washed the day before you drive down miles of dusty dirt roads to a remote boat launch.
At the site of the Fort San Marcos De Apalache, we learned about the history of the strategic corner of land at the junction of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers. Since the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500’s, this marshy corner of wilderness has been fought over by the Spanish, the English, the Native Americans, the Confederates, the Yankees, and a variety of pirates. On my visit, possession of the area was contested by a swarm of deer flies, with the result that I fled the battlefield, guide maps fluttering in the wind, while the deer flies chased me all the way to my car.
At Apalachicola and Port Saint Joe, we learned about early industries in the area, which revolved around the products of the sea and of the woodlands. We also learned about the rail and shipping transportation networks that developed to distribute these products to the world.
The ports at Apalachicola and at Port Saint Joe were especially influential. In fact, the story goes that the businessmen of Port Saint Joe were responsible for a modification in the time zone line between the Eastern and Central Time Zones. Originally, the time zone line ran down the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico, with clocks on the west side of the river reading one hour earlier than clocks on the right side of the river. The businessmen of Port Saint Joe, which is some distance west of the Apalachicola River, found this inconvenient in their shipping and business dealings, and successfully lobbied to have the time zone line looped westward along the coast to move their town from the Central Time Zone to the Eastern Time Zone.
At Carabelle Beach, we learned about Camp Gordon Johnston, which trained amphibious soldiers for the landings at Normandy Beach on D-Day in World War II. It was sobering to think that these very beaches were used to prepare all those young soldiers, many of whom gave their lives for our freedom and never returned to these beautiful shores.
In addition to their historical significance, the rivers, forests, and shorelines of this area also provide critical habitat for a wide variety of animals and plants, and many areas are protected as state or national forests, refuges, or parks.
At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, we learned about the many different habitat zones ranging from the open water to the uplands inshore. On another visit, I would like to walk the nature trails with my nature books and binoculars (and bug spray!) and try to identify some of the plants and animals that live here. On this visit, the highlight was spotting an alligator in the wild (only the third I have seen since moving here). This one was strategically placed in the pond directly behind the “Warning – Alligators” sign.
To reach St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, we traveled past Cape San Blas and down the very long and narrow peninsula, with vistas of the Gulf on one side and the Bay on the other. On the Gulf side, I got to wiggle my toes in the soft white sand while taking picture after picture of the beach with its breaking waves beautifully colored in shades of blue and aqua. On the bay side, we were amazed at all of the fish jumping in the knee-high waters close to shore. And I was fascinated by the geography of the cape, the peninsula, and the bay. I kept comparing it in my mind to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where I was born. I would love to spend more time there exploring and enjoying the natural beauty of the park.
Of course all of that sightseeing and fresh air worked up quite an appetite! The area is famous for fresh seafood, especially shrimp and oysters, and we definitely took advantage of that. There were plenty of other tastes to experience as well, and we had fun visiting a variety of local eateries. But for me, the food-and-beverage highlight of the trip was the Apalachicola Black-Bottomed Coffee at the Apalachicola Coffee Company. This decadent dessert in a glass was constructed by pouring a big puddle of chocolate syrup in the bottom, adding a heaping scoop of chocolate gelato, filling with iced coffee, and then piling on as much whipped cream as possible. This is just the basic recipe – your drink could be customized with different syrups and gelato flavors. My version included caramel syrup and caramel gelato. That drink alone will pull me back again and again!
As the weekend drew to a close, it was hard to believe how much we had experienced in such a short time. And there were so many things that we did not have time to check out! Next time, we told ourselves, because one thing is for sure, the “Forgotten Coast” will not be forgotten by us!
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