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‘Forgotten Coast’ a treasure

Gulf area offers secluded beaches and fresh seafood

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APALACHICOLA, Fla. — More Mobile than Miami and more New Orleans than Naples, Florida's laid-back "Forgotten Coast" on the Gulf of Mexico entices with a mix of colorful history, seafood fresh off the boat, fine fishing and untrampled beaches.

Despite its sugar-white sands and down-home dining, the eastern stretch of the Florida Panhandle from Alligator Point to Port St. Joe is a remnant of Old Florida relatively undiscovered by the tourist hordes that flock to Panama City and Destin to the west.

In the early '90s, civic leaders in Apalachicola and other coastal communities in the area dubbed the region "Florida's Forgotten Coast." The delights of the area were perhaps the best-kept secret in Florida.

Now, however, the word is getting out. Men's Journal in its August issue lists Apalachicola among "our 10 favorite towns for holing up and living right."

U.S. 98, the Forgotten Coast's main drag, snakes between the Gulf of Mexico and lush, protected pine forests and swampland. The Apalachicola, Carrabelle and St. Marks Rivers meet the salty Gulf to form a brackish paradise for oysters, shrimp and fish between the mainland and the barrier islands of St. George, St. Vincent and Dog Island.

St. George is connected to the mainland by a bridge and the speed limit is strictly enforced to protect rare birds that swirl overhead and nest underneath.

The island has a number of beachfront motel rooms, cottages and homes available for rent by the week or month. Prices drop significantly in the winter since, unlike farther south, this part of Florida gets cold. Beaches are wide and flat, and restaurants like the Blue Parrot are only a short drive or walk away.

There are only a few houses on Dog Island, just east of St. George. It's reachable only by a ferry, which plies the sound a few times a day.

St. Vincent Island, to the west of St. George, is entirely a wildlife preserve, served by several guide services. Or, you can rent a boat to get there.

Alligator Point offers only a private campground and local residences, many of which are for rent.

Working west on 98, the town of Carrabelle is mainly a fishing hamlet and marina center with quick access to nearby Dog Island.

Carrabelle Beach, just west of town, is a popular spot for the area's residents, though the parking lot can get crowded on weekends and holidays. Best to spend your beach time on St. George Island or at Cape San Blas, farther west.

Another stop on the way west is Eastpoint, marked by the dozens of oyster boats that dot the waterfront. Eastpoint is the entry for the bridge to St. George Island.

Apalachicola is a historic working fishing village on the west side of the Apalachicola River. In recent years, many of the town's old homes have been increasingly restored by new residents and "snowbirds." This makes for a delightful self-guided tour from the restored Gibson Inn hotel, the Coombs House bed-and-breakfast or other spots.

But while the tourist trade increases, Apalachicola is still very much a fishing and oystering town.

With the redevelopment has come excellent dining for the newer residents accustomed to having a wider choice of restaurants in larger cities.

Any trip to the coast focuses on the beach, and nearby Cape San Blas is the spot. While providing plenty of homes and townhouses for rent, the Cape also offers plenty of seaside seclusion. Even in mid-summer, beachgoers can often look for a mile in either direction and see less than a half-dozen others. Aaaaah. Ideal for finishing that trashy beach novel.

Once on the Cape, you're closing in on the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Stephen Leatherman of Florida International University, who annually publishes a list of the world's best beaches, has ranked the St. Joseph beach as the best in the continental United States for the year 2000.

The park has cottages for rent and other amenities. Boats and other gear are available for rent or sale just outside the park gates. Basic groceries and supplies are available on the Cape as well, though a stop at the Piggly-Wiggly in Apalachicola is advised for those needing more extensive provisioning. The wine selection is excellent.

Leaving the Cape and back on C-30, you'll pass a series of businesses offering tours of St. Joseph's Bay, which separates the Cape from Port St. Joe. This pristine bay features excellent fishing and scalloping, as well as water that can be Caribbean-clear in some months.

Port St. Joe, the county seat of Gulf County, is a small town in transition. For generations, the town's only real industry was the local paper mill. But the mill is permanently closed and the smell is gone, making for a gorgeous seaside town that looks out over the bay.

All in all, Florida's Forgotten Coast offers the relaxation, privacy and slow pace of a nearly extinct Old Florida, while including the excellent dining and services of the more urban areas. But it might not last long, given the increasing numbers of new beachfront property owners streaming into the region from Atlanta, Birmingham and other inland cities.

Go enjoy. You can say you were there Back When.