Tour Florida’s Panhandle on the Gulf Coast Drive

Between Panama City and Tallahassee, Florida’s Gulf Coast is sheltered by sandy barrier islands and isolated from points north by vast forests. The Florida boom has for the most part left this stretch of coast alone—left it to migrating shorebirds that find first landfall here in spring, to drowsy alligators, and to folks who’d rather enjoy an Apalachicola oyster than a night on the town.

1. St. Andrews State Park
Reached via Thomas Drive, which turns off Rte. 98 three miles west of Panama City, St. Andrews State Park is tucked between the Gulf of Mexico and a calm saltwater lagoon, gathering the diverse flavors of Northwest Florida into a single 1,000-acre package. Campers and day-trippers can explore steep sand dunes and immaculate beaches, dense pine woods, a freshwater lake, marshes teeming with herons and alligators, and a nature trail that snakes through a fascinating variety of wildlife habitats. Anglers who come to St. Andrews, whether for surf casting or fishing from the jetty, will be rewarded with an abundance of bluefish, bonito, redfish, dorado, flounder, perch, and Spanish mackerel.

For an escape even farther into the languid life of the Gulf Coast, visitors can travel by boat to nearby Shell Island. Awash with seashells—and refreshingly free of development—this barrier island, some seven miles of white sand and scrub forest, is a serene oasis where gentle breezes rustle the tawny-topped sea oats that anchor the shifting sands of the ever-shifting sand dunes.

2. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Return to Panama City and then head southeast on Rte. 98 to Rte. 30E and the St. Joseph Peninsula. Civilization seems to run out as the road crooks north from Cape San Blas toward St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Some two-thirds of this sanctuary is preserved as a wilderness area, where the brown pelicans swoop seaward and the beach belongs to horseshoe crabs and nesting sea turtles.

To the south and east of the peninsula, you’ll find St. Vincent Island (accessible by private boat), a fine place for savoring the music of windblown cabbage palms or viewing the great gangling wood storks that visit in summer.

3. Apalachicola
Returning to Rte. 98, the drive tools east into Apalachicola, where the law dictates that no building can be higher than three stories, making for a pleasantly human-scale town. The cotton business once reigned supreme here, and a pair of partially restored warehouses from that era still stand. Numerous other buildings have already been restored and now host antique shops and seafood restaurants serving the day’s catch from the bay. The town’s life today centers around its harbor, where oystermen haul in enormous harvests from the rich beds out in the bay. Along the old streets behind the waterfront, handsome Greek Revival homes eloquently recall prosperous Antebellum days. Some are now bed-and-breakfast inns, spots where visitors can stay.

Also here is the John Gorrie State Museum, where exhibits tell of a young doctor who, trying to keep yellow fever patients cool in the 1840s, invented the first mechanical icemaker and so laid the foundation for artificial cooling of the air. The air conditioner, of course, is now a Florida icon.

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4. St. George Island State Park
Continue east over the Gorrie Bridge from Apalachicola to Eastpoint, then angles south onto a bridge leading to St. George Island. The easternmost 2,000 acres of this spit of dunes and marshes that separates Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico has been set aside as a park—a boon not only to hikers, campers, anglers, and beach lovers, but to the shorebirds that depend on the undeveloped coastline as a resting place for their migration stopovers.

Willets, snowy plovers, least terns, and black skimmers are among the many kinds of birds that gather along the St. George beaches in spring and fall. The migration routes of some species extend all the way from Argentina and Brazil to the Arctic tundra of North America. The shorebirds that you see feeding on minute crustaceans and other tiny sea creatures can survive only if development-free way stations such as St. George Island survive as well.

5. Carrabelle
From its southernmost thrust into the Gulf at Apalachicola, the northwest Florida coastline arcs to the northeast. At easygoing Carrabelle, a celebrated local attraction is a telephone booth billed as the world’s smallest police station.

From Carrabelle’s impressive marina, charter boats head out into the gulf in search of tarpons, groupers, amberjacks, and red snappers. A little ferry also motors out to Dog Island, where 100 or so householders and an eight-room inn (bring your own food) share sand and serenity with a vast Nature Conservancy preserve.

6. Ochlockonee River State Park
Northeast of Carrabelle and some 10 miles inland from the Gulf on Rte. 319, you’ll arrive at the pine woods and oak thickets of Ochlockonee River State Park. The park provides a habitat for gray foxes, which, unlike their red cousins, can climb trees to get at fruit, nuts, and the occasional unlucky bird. Sharing the forests along the banks of the Ochlockonee River are bobcats, deer, alligators, and rare red-cockaded woodpeckers.

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