Category Archives: North Florida

Seeking Seclusion? Try Dog Island!

Dog Island is Private, but Not Exclusive

Dog Island, off the coast of the Florida panhandle, is a favorite spot of mine. In fact, it may hold the #1 position, so prepare to return with me, time and again, because one entry will never be enough.

Our trip to the island was not without adventure. Our start was delayed by a half hour and rush hour traffic in Tampa is never fun, but we’d cleared the area by 7:45 am so we missed the worst of it. The fog near Gainesville was almost cozy, like driving through clouds, which is what it is, I suppose. Watching it roll off the horse pastures in Ocala reminded me of my stays with country cousins, those primeval mornings when you half expect an ancient mastodon to appear in the mist. It was a day filled with anticipation reaching fruition.

Our innocence was shattered when I reached for my wallet to pay for our breakfast in Gainesville. It wasn’t there. I looked on the seat. I looked under the table. I looked on the floor of the restaurant. My panic rising, I told my husband what was wrong and hurried to the car to search while he paid the bill.

It wasn’t in the car. Either I’d dropped it (or it was stolen) at a rest stop or I’d left it at home. As we hurriedly back-tracked to the last rest stop (over an hour south), I frantically called our youngest son, who called back to affirm that the wallet was indeed in my everyday purse and the money and cards were safe. We didn’t have the debit card, but we did have a couple of credit cards in my husband’s wallet, so we decided we had enough to push on. We wouldn’t be spending anything while we were on island anyway, so there wasn’t any need for a cash advance from the bank before we boarded the ferry.

We found the ferry on Marine Street in Carrabelle without incident. Parking is free and your car will be safe. Our water taxi captain, Russell (Rusty) Cahoon 850-697-8909, ferried us over. His fee fluctuates with the cost of fuel, but he divides the cost, depending on how many are riding.

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The six mile ride across the bay was rough, but Rusty’s boat was good-sized and sturdy and he is supremely confident in his boating skills, informing me that he is the last one to evacuate people out when a hurricane threatens. It was as exciting as an air boat ride.

 

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We were staying at the Pelican Inn (we reserved through owner Jane: 1-800-451-5294) and were met by manager Terry Cannon (850-697-4710), who took us to the Inn. Rates were not cheap ($150 per night, slightly less for longer stays) but not outrageous and after all, guests do have an entire island to enjoy!

 

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For now, I leave you on the docks. Next week, we’ll explore the Dog Island beach!

Mexico Beach, a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola

From Destination Weddings to Family Vacations, Mexico Beach is a Quieter Alternative to Pensacola, But That Doesn’t Mean it’s Boring There

Pensacola is a popular and fun place to visit, don’t get me wrong. But this blog is about the lesser known spaces in our state, the kind of place where a visitor can catch his or her breath and slow down a little. That doesn’t have to equate to “boring”, however.

Mexico Beach is family-oriented but is also a popular locale for destination weddings. Less prone to rip tides, the beach also boasts a good-sized turtle-nesting habitat. Located on Northwest Florida’s gulf shore between Port St. Joe and Panama City, it, too, boasts the white sugar sands of Florida’s fame. The City of Mexico Beach maintains four beach parks, each accessed by wooden walkovers that spare vegetation from being trampled.

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Pets are not allowed on Mexico Beach within the three miles city limit, so if you want to bring Fido to the seashore, nearby St. Joe Beach would be a better choice. Yoga classes are held on the beach during season and fishing tournaments, music festivals, and triathlon events are held throughout the year.

We passed a sign that said “trailers for sale or rent” as we wound our way along the coastline, and found a room at the El Governor Hotel. That evening, we enjoyed another oyster dinner and then a walk on the beach:

Our room was quite comfortable and very reasonably priced. Other lodging choices included an inn, numerous rental agencies and privately owned properties, and a couple of campgrounds and RV parks; one offers cabins, as well.

The dolphin fed on an abundant supply of fish:

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The birds are almost as hard to photograph as the dolphin (you’d think they’d learn to stay still!):

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Where the river reaches the beach:

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I love the 3-D Bird-of-Paradise detail on this building because it reminds me of Miami Beach:

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My husband tried to talk me into moving to the area. He wants to rent a store in downtown historic Apalachicola and he will build things and I will sell them and that’s how we’ll pay for my medical bills. On weekends, I’ll look for shells to make necklaces to keep him in beer money:

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Ah, dreams! Hope there’ll be enough shells:

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Sunset on the beach:

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I turned off the noisy a/c and opened the doors and let the waves lull me to sleep. It took me back to my childhood, when I wanted the windows open on summer nights, the rhythm of the waves keeping me company, rocking me to sleep. “I am here,” they tell me, “Constant. Fluid. Relax. Hear the pattern. Find the rhythm. I am comfort.”

Early morning, Mexico Beach (put yer shades on):

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We’ll come back to this area, because there is more to see: horseback riding on the beach at Cape San Blas, buying Tupelo honey in Wewahitchka, as well as touring antebellum homes and spelunking in Marianna. Our list is long and our state is big. Next time, we head to a new area, but we’ll come back to this area. Everyone always does, once they’ve visited.

St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

St. Marks, Yesterday and Today

Twenty-five miles south of Tallahassee, St. Marks is a small fishing community located in Florida’s Big Bend where the St. Marks River and the Wakulla River converge. The Gulf port on the Apalachee Bay was first developed by Spanish explorers in the 17th century who built a fort that played an important role during the Civil War.

The fort’s foundation is located within the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. Bicyclists and horseback riders enjoy the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail State Park, a sixteen mile long trail that finishes on the St. Marks waterfront. Some believe the fort’s tower once held torches to guide boats safely, which would make it the site of the first lighthouse in the country.

The current lighthouse, St. Marks Light, was built in 1828. It is interesting to note that construction costs for the lighthouse exceeded the allocated $6,000 budget by more than $5,000. Even worse, the first one was rejected because it had hollow walls (you’d think someone would have caught that), so the lighthouse was rebuilt and it was put into use by 1830. Hmmm…a project that costs twice as much as predicted, poorly planned, and poorly executed? Yep. It was a government job! Time and erosion took its inevitable toll and a new lighthouse was built further inland in 1842.

St. Mark’s NWR and Wakulla Springs State Park draw visitors from all states and is popular with birders. The area’s ecosystem ranges from saltwater estuaries and bracken marshes to swamps and forest.

Boating and fishing are big here, of course, so arranging a fishing charter or contacting an outfitter is easy.  Lodging accommodations range from trailer parks to inns (there are various motels and hotels in nearby towns, as well). The Shell Island Fish Camp, located directly on the Wakulla River, offers accommodations that range from motel, cabins (2 bedrooms, kitchen and bath), tents, campers, and a limited number of RV campsites with water, electric, and dump station. A full service marina provides boat rentals and boat repairs.

The Sweet Magnolia Inn Bed and Breakfast offers a slightly different ambience. Its history as a general store, boarding house, brothel, church, city hall, possible bootleg warehouse, hotel, and hurricane shelter offer up many a story on a warm summer night. In its current dress, the B&B stays true to its roots, right down to a fishpond built in the shape of Florida, including the keys.

A vintage shot of my mother, in her first year of college, 1948. She’s the one closest to the shrimping boat:

Mom #9

And St. Marks today:

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We enjoyed our visit and would go again for a more in depth exploration of the area.

A quick note for those who are leaving me notes regarding the website hosting. My tech guru is currently out of the country. When he gets back, I’ll show him your notes and get feedback. In the meantime, thanks for your interest and positive comments (they are very much appreciated!) and please be patient. I will respond to them when I can.

 

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

The Florida panhandle has seen its share of storm damage. Tropical storms aren’t usually too much trouble for a Floridian, but hurricanes can be relentlessly unforgiving. As one man said, “You hunker down and ride out the wind, hoping you don’t lose everything, grateful for what’s left.” As hard hit as it seems to get year after year, I simply cannot resist going back time and again to drink in the Florida of my youth, when people stopped to do a favor and roadside stands promised just one delectable temptation at a time.

Of course, once we round the bend, our mouths start watering for oysters, so we spend a lovely morning of shopping in Apalachicola, stop for an oyster po’boy lunch and then we head west again to visit the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but then again, this park is an eyeful.

The park is on the very end of a finger of land that protects the mainland. The waters are clear, blue and not prone to riptides because of the peninsula’s protection. Nine and a half miles of snow-white sand welcomes the beach crowd on the Gulf side and bayside accommodates the boaters with some interesting accesses into the grass flats and coves that carve out the landscape.

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There is a tiny “museum” of fossilized specimens of days gone by; some, sadly, has been taken, since there is seldom an attendant on duty. There is a concession stand, but I’ve never bought anything there, since I was far too busy discovering wildlife along the 6 mile access-by-permission-only wilderness trail (there are two other, shorter, hiking trails with public access).

Here you will find the usual oceanfront recreations: a wide variety of boating and camping choices, fishing, snorkeling, and swimming, along with fishing, biking, and hiking. Or you can choose your spot on the ten miles of white sand beach, in 2002 named as the best beach in the nation by none other than Gainesville’s Dr. Beach (Dr. Steven Leatherman), who issues a new list each year. There are public restrooms and cold-water shower facilities for day guests, hot water facilities in the campgrounds for overnight guests (although day guests can sometimes receive special permission to use the camp showers).

We want to return to the St. Joseph State Park and rent one of their “cabins”: small, tidy, furnished stand-alone cottages that sit right on the water’s edge. The units have kitchens equipped with basic cooking and dining utensils, seasonal gas fireplaces, heat & A/C, and, of course, bathrooms. There is no TV, internet service, or telephone ,and cell phone reception is poor. The price sure was reasonable: $100 per night, $650 for the week. Each cabin sleeps up to six people.

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We’ll return again one day, to build castles on the beach and watch them wash away with an incoming tide and a setting sun.

Oysters are King in Apalachicola

Apalachicola, King of the Forgotten Coast

We’d cancelled our reservations at the Gibson Inn for the murder mystery weekend in Apalachicola, mainly because the theme was football-based, which did not interest me. After we drove past it, we felt we’d made the right choice, since it sat right in the middle of town with traffic on all four sides. Great for shopping, but relaxing by the water would have required compromise. Instead, we chose the Apalachicola River Inn, which reminded me of a riverboat since the building sat out over the water.

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The view from the private balcony:

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That night, the reflection of a full moon shimmered over the still water as the buzz of distant insects played in the background, broken only by the splash of breeching mullet that landed with a plop.

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Early morning river commute:

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Later the same day:

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We’d had our complimentary drink in the bar the night before and took full advantage of the free breakfast the next morning. I ordered eggs over easy, shrimp and grits, and juice. Shrimp and grits sounds better than it is. I found it too spicy for early morning.

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The rest of the morning was spent in historical downtown Apalachicola. The art museum was closed (we tried on our way home, too, but they were still closed) so we just poked our heads in shops and galleries.

Naturally, we stopped at Boss Oyster for lunch:

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In fact, we had oysters, in one form or another at almost every meal during our too-short stay and we could not resist purchasing more to take back home. I don’t know why the Apalachicola bi-valves taste better than those harvested from other areas, but I assure you, the difference in taste as well as in size is remarkable.

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The town itself is quite beautiful with many historic homes and buildings, yet carries a certain ruggedness that only a true fishing village can. From the late 1800s to early 1900s, Apalachicola’s sponge trade was booming, helping it to grow into the third busiest port in the nation. Today, it might be less well known if not for its reputation as a source of superior oysters and shrimp. My husband offered to take me on a boat ride, but I thought the offer was rigged:

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After all, papa was a rollin’ stone:

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Funniest name I saw on a boat? “Breakin’ Wind”. I asked my husband if that was his boat, but he said it couldn’t be because the “Pain in the Butt” wasn’t moored close by!

We had a lot of fun in Apalachicola and I look forward to a return trip and more oysters. On my to-do list for our return visit: Fort Gasden in the Apalachicola National Forest, part of the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and a closer exploration of the islands that protect the Apalachicola Bay: Flag Island, Sand, St. Vincent Island, St. George Island, and Cape St. George Island.

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Slowing the Pace in Monticello, Florida

Slow Down and Relax in Monticello, Florida

Monticello (population around 2500) is a pretty little town and all traffic managed with one rotary and two blinking traffic lights. Have I mentioned how much I like north Florida? And small towns? The historic buildings were impressive and people would wave to you as they drove past, even the firemen in their fire truck! Most of the time, though, we’d drive for a long time before encountering traffic.

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We stayed at a quiet little bed & breakfast, but there are other options, as well, since Monticello is a mere 28 miles southeast of Tallahassee. Here one has a choice of several B&Bs, hotels, motels, a KOA campground, and all-inclusive resorts, such as the Honey Lake Resort Plantation & Spa in nearby Greenville. I’ve no idea why people want to run a Bed & Breakfast establishment. It ties you down for most weekends and most owners pack it in after a few years. There are easier ways to earn a living, not to mention those quirky old houses come with hefty maintenance costs. Can you imagine what liability insurance runs on these places?

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Have I mentioned that Monticello is also considered (at least by ABC TV) to be the most haunted small town in the U.S.? Make of it what you will. I look forward to a return trip to explore the area in depth, including the not-so-well-known, such as The Elizabeth School, an African American historical site, which is not open to the public, unfortunately, but there is another historical school in the area.

We spent our first day browsing through the storefronts: antiques, hardware, gift shops, luncheonettes, and oddly enough, considering the remote location, an opera house, considered to be haunted. Had a GREAT time shopping in antique stores until one saleswoman blew my fun. I’d set some things on her counter as I shopped and she was wrapping them up. I told her to wait because I might decide to put some things back and went back to browsing. Well, wouldn’t you know, she just HAD to sing out that I was up to $77.

“Just great,” I said, “Now why in the WORLD would you go and say that in front of my husband? Now I’m gonna have to stop.” She was laughing and apologized and when she told me she’d been married for 36 years, I told her she KNEW better! Whatever became of the sisterhood of secrets?

Thunder rolled that night, but I awoke to a sunny morning:

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We headed out later that morning to check out a piece of property that we’d heard about. We drove down miles and miles of red clay roads:

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Then we drove down more roads, equally as deserted:

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After a few wrong turns, we found our road and took our chances with ruts and wet clay:

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And found a quiet spot next to the water:

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Too soon, it was time to head the T-bird for home, with hopes of a return visit one day.