This year we decided to vacation on St. George Island, off of Florida’s Gulf Coast near the mouth of the Apalachicola River.
I’m a big fan of Gulf beaches because of their sugar-white sand and crystal-clear waters, and I’m a fan of beaches on the panhandle because of their relatively close location to East Tennessee (as opposed to St. Pete Beach or similar beaches further down the coast). I’m not too snobby to rub elbows with fellow rednecks in the Redneck Riviera.
On the first day of last year’s vacation in Panama City Beach, I swore I’d never go back. Spending more time in stand-still traffic than moving from point A to point B is not my cup of tea. PCB has exploded in growth in the past 10 years, much like the other panhandle beaches, and become way too crowded for my liking. By the end of that week a year ago, I had reconsidered. Still, when it came time to book this year’s trip, I decided to shoot for somewhere less crowded.
That’s where St. George Island came in. I figured it was time to try somewhere along the Forgotten Coast. This peaceful section of Florida coast features the same (almost) sugar-white sands and crystal-clear waters as Pensacola and Destin and PCB, but without the traffic headaches and crowds. As I researched, SGI repeatedly came up. I asked a few friends who had vacationed there whether it was worth the trip, and the answer was unanimous: Yes.
I had a little extra motivation for trying a vacation along the Forgotten Coast. It’s relatively unknown, compared to the more touristy locales further west. Obviously not completely unknown; tens of thousands of people vacation at SGI each year. But contrast that with places like PCB, where anything that can be written about the place has been written a million times.
So away we went, bypassing Atlanta, skirting Columbus and driving directly through the middle of Tate’s Hell State Forest, until we arrived at Eastport by way of the Big Bend Scenic Byway. From there, it’s a 4-mile drive across Florida’s third-longest bridge to St. George Island.
The first thing you see when you arrive at St. George Island — besides the lighthouse and the water tower that stand sentry over the island, of course — is a run-down Piggly Wiggly Express (one of just two grocery stores on the island) and a few other fairly dilapidated buildings. It immediately becomes apparent that there’s nothing ritzy or glamorous about SGI.
The second thing you notice is just how many houses there are packed on the island. The island is generally wider on its west side — as much as a mile across at one location — and narrows as you drive east. So here, where the bridge connects the island to the mainland, there are quite a few more homes than on either end of the island. They seem to be packed into every nook and cranny, although they’re somewhat more sparse the further east you go along the island.
One shop-owner told me that there are 1,000 homes on the island. I don’t know how he knows that for certain; chances are he doesn’t. But Census data says there are 1,152 households on the island and a population of 2,934 — meaning it’s smaller than my hometown of Oneida. During the spring and summer months, the population of the island is transient — mostly tourists coming and going. Most residents — even those with multi-million-dollar homes — rent out their digs during the tourism season.
The island itself is a 28-mile-long barrier island, but only a portion of it is populated. Nine miles of it on the eastern side is an uninhabited state park. The westernmost tip of the island is also uninhabited, while a portion of the west side is made up of The Plantation — a high-end gated community containing some of the most expensive homes on the Gulf Coast.
There are some very, very nice homes on SGI, and some homes that are very average. All of them, of course, cost more than you or I can afford. Real estate here is said to be the most expensive to obtain of any island along the Florida coast.
If you’re renting a vacation home on St. George Island, you have your choice of beach-front homes, bay-front homes, or something in between. A couple of miles to the east of the island’s entry point, the island becomes narrow enough that there aren’t many “in between” homes. Near its widest point, though, there are homes that front neither the Gulf nor the bay. I’m not sure that would make for a very pleasurable vacation.
To save a few hundred dollars, and to be closer to good fishing, we chose to go bay-front.
Fortunately, we were a couple of miles east of the bridge, and by that point the island is narrow enough that it’s only a five-minute walk from the beach to the bay, meaning that we could easily walk from our home to the beach. That’s a good thing, because public beach access points are few and far between at SGI. And because there are no beach access points, there is no parking. From the main road at the end of our driveway, you could see both the Gulf and the bay.
Apalachicola Bay is called one of the most important estuaries in the southeastern U.S. It is teeming with marine life, and is known as the oyster capital of the world. Millions of oysters are pulled from the bay’s shallow waters and consumed by seafood-lovers throughout the eastern U.S.
Vacationing on the bay has its advantages. Although you can’t sit on the porch and listen to the surf, you can watch the sun set from the end of a secluded pier, and that’s pretty exceptional in its own right.
Watch: the sun sinks over the St. George Island Bridge, as seen from the pier.
When the tide is out, hermit crabs can be found by the dozens along the exposed sandy shoreline and the ankle-deep waters of the bay. A few blue crabs can be seen as well. When the tide is in, fish bite well in the bay. We caught mostly pinfish — a bait fish — and a good-sized redfish, but our neighbors told us they routinely catch sea trout and other species from the piers. We weren’t willing to splurge on expensive plastic baits and stuck to using cut bait (shrimp and squid), which didn’t work as well.
The crabs and fish are just the start of the wildlife and marine life that can be found on the bay side. We watched dolphins swim in the bay from our back deck, saw tree frogs, snakes (including a cottonmouth — that’ll make you think twice about walking the path to the pier in the dark!) and a variety of other wildlife.
Unfortunately, the wilder side of SGI isn’t always pleasant. I know better than to cram my foot into shoes that have set outside in a subtropical climate, and I shook my shoes before putting them on every day of the week — except Thursday evening. And a scorpion that had crawled inside gave me a painful reminder of why you should shake out your shoes . . . right on the little piggy that had roast beef for supper.
Being on the bay side means being in actual forests, which means you hear the frogs and the Gulf insects at night. Unfortunately, it also means there’s less sea breeze and way more insects, especially mosquitoes.
The Beaches of SGI
The bay is great, and one of the things that makes St. George Island unique, but let’s face it: if we’re here, we came because we’re drawn to the beach. Everyone knows Florida’s Gulf beaches are great, so how do the beaches of SGI stack up?
The sand above the high-tide line is just as sugary-white as you’d expect to find anywhere else on the Gulf of Mexico. The water isn’t as clear as you’ll find in Destin or PCB, but it’s still brilliant when the surf is calm. However, there’s much more shell litter along SGI’s beaches than further west — great if you’re a beach-comber looking for shells, but the debris does color the sand. It’s not as bad as the beaches on the Atlantic side, but it’s bad enough.
But the shells and the slightly less aesthetic sand is only a minor drawback. St. George Island’s beaches are routinely ranked among the nation’s Top 10 beaches, and have been as high as No. 3 according to Dr. Beach. That’s no small honor.
The reason? The people — or, rather, the lack thereof.
It isn’t just a lack of the high rises that muddy the scene at the more touristy beaches along the Gulf that makes SGI’s beaches appealing. It’s the fact that they aren’t crowded — at all.
Okay, that isn’t necessarily true for the entire beach. Closer to the central part of the island, where the restaurants are located and where there are more homes, the beaches are significantly more crowded. But even there, the most crowded afternoons on the beach can’t begin to compare to the resort beaches at PCB and Destin, where people are stacked four rows deep.
And if the beaches along the inhabited part of SGI are too crowded for you, there’s always the state park on the island’s east end. There, you’re guaranteed to find a patch of beach where there is literally no one in sight. And there’s something to be said for an unspoiled beach that features dunes and sea oats as the backdrop rather than people’s back porches. It costs $6 for an average-sized family to get in (and $4 for an individual), but that’s a small price to pay for solitude. The state park also attracts birders and features a campground, along with picnicking facilities.
Another thing that makes SGI’s beaches attractive is the marine life. It’s more abundant than the more popular beaches further along the panhandle. Although only the most fortunate will see them, loggerhead sea turtles are very popular here, emerging from the sea to lay their eggs on the beach. For that reason, residents and guests are required to keep their porch lights off at night to avoid confusing the newly hatched turtles who are trying to find their way to the water. Sand castles have to be torn down before leaving, and any items left on the beach overnight are confiscated.
Sea gulls are a staple on any beach, of course, and there are lots of them at SGI, where they’re tame enough to eat from your hand if you’re patient enough to earn their trust.
Dolphins are plentiful here. We watched dolphins every day on the beach. And I’m not talking about dolphins far from shore, but dolphins that were swimming in schools of four or more just a couple hundred feet from the beach.
Another form of marine life that you’ll find in abundance at SGI is blue crabs — they’re fun to eat, and much funner to watch as night falls than the sand crabs that are prevalent on every beach. They are more prevalent some evenings than others. On one night in particular, hundreds emerged from the surf along the beach as the sun set. With a net and a bucket and a little bit of work, we could’ve eaten like kings.
Sleepy and Laid-Back
Island life is supposed to be laid-back, and that’s certainly true of St. George Island. I mentioned that there’s nothing ritzy or glamorous about this place, and that’s true. In fact, if I had to use a single word to describe SGI, it would be this: sleepy. The Blue Parrot, the island’s only beach-front restaurant and its most popular gathering place, closes up shop at 9 p.m., just after the sun sets over the bay.
There are only nine restaurants on the island, and not all of them are restaurants. One is an ice cream shop, one is a pizza parlor, one is a raw bar with a limited menu other than oysters. If you’re looking for great dining experiences, SGI isn’t for you.
There are only a couple of grocery stores on the island. But if it’s fresh seafood you want, you’re in luck. There is plenty of that. A couple of guys sell from their truck, and they’re highly regarded.
If you constantly be on the go, St. George Island isn’t for you. On Trip Advisor, the island draws 5-star reviews from people who say there’s nothing to do here, and 1-star reviews from people who say there’s nothing to do. That’s both an allure and a detraction, depending on who you ask.
I’m a creature of habit when I’m on vacation, and my habits are very simple. I sleep in, have breakfast, pack a cooler and head to the beach, where I stay until late afternoon, when I head back home for a shower before finding someplace to eat supper. To that end, SGI suited me perfectly. But there’s no miniature golf here (although there is an 18-hole course just across the bay in Eastport), no water parks, no parasailing. The closest McDonald’s is an hour and a half away and the nearest Walmart is two hours away. There’s a Piggly Wiggly and a CVS Pharmacy across the bay in Apalachicola, where you’ll also find a Burger King. But that’s just about the only franchises you’ll find within a 30-minute drive, besides a Subway shop both on the island and in Apalachicola.
While the main roads of SGI are paved, most of the island’s streets are not. Many residents and visitors alike prefer golf carts as their primary method of travel, and bike rentals are popular on the island (a paved bike path runs the length of the island’s inhabited section).
St. George Island truly embodies Kenny Chesney’s popular song — No shoes, no shirt, no problems.
In addition to modern conveniences of shopping and entertainment, one thing you might not find much of on SGI is hospitality. Islanders always have a reputation of being a little different, and St. George Island is no exception. From bait shop owners to restaurant owners to convenience store owners, the natives are somewhere between nonchalant and standoffish. Some are just plain rude. Bait shop owners are reluctant to answer questions about fishing tips. At one outfitter shop, when I had returned to the store because I forgot an item and laid it on the counter, the cashier — obviously annoyed — said, “Damn.” She did.
The attitude of the locals apparently precedes them. A waitress in Apalachicola just grinned knowingly and said, “The island? Yes, they’re like that.” It isn’t a deal-breaker if you’re looking for a vacation spot. Like many places (including in my native home of Oneida), the locals here are leery of tourists. It’s just interesting that so many whose businesses cater to tourists — and, indeed, rely on tourists — behave in such a way.
Perhaps the most unique thing about St. George Island is its lighthouse. When Apalachicola was becoming an important shipping port in the 1830s, the need arose for a lighthouse, and it was built just offshore on what is now Little St. George Island. (The island was mapped as one solid island in the 1830s, but just 50 years later was mapped as several separate islands after erosion broke them apart.)
Continuing erosion threatened the lighthouse until it finally collapsed amid a tropical storm in October 2005. It was rebuilt on the bigger St. George Island and is now protected as a tourist attraction. For $5, you can climb to the top and have a look around the island.
In the old days, the light keeper — who was paid $600 per year by Congress — had to light the lamp at sundown and make sure that it stayed lit until sunrise, climbing the stairs to trim the wick every four hours so that the globe would not become smoked up and foggy. Oil was carried up the stairs in small containers.
Across the Bay
If you vacation at St. George Island, chances are you’re going to head into Apalachicola a few times — perhaps daily. The groceries are cheaper here, the food is better here, and this is where you’ll find unique shopping experiences.
To say that historic downtown Apalachicola is unique is an understatement. It is one of the South’s quaintest towns, and one that is well worth the visit.
One of the most unique things about Apalachicola is the Chestnut Street Cemetery, which dates back to the early 19th Century. The cemetery looks like a scene straight out of some movie, with moss-covered trees draping it and shadows spread long over it as the sun sets. Here, Confederate dead are buried, along with shipwreck victims and early settlers who succumbed to yellow fever.
This is “Old Florida” at its finest, and it is in many ways a throwback to the Old South.
When I vacation, I don’t do the high-dollar touristy things. I might snorkel and I might play a round of miniature golf, but that’s about it. My budget is mostly spent on food. Because I like to eat no matter where I am, but also because I like to explore the local flavors. I’m a big fan of seafood, and while Red Lobster will do in Knoxville, Tenn., frozen just isn’t the same as fresh. Not even close. So once a year, I get a chance to go to the coast and eat like God intended men to eat. And I try to take advantage of that.
By far my favorite seafood is crab cakes. I like shrimp in any shape, form or fashion (insert Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba here, talking about the various ways to cook shrimp), and I like crab and lobster okay. I can eat oysters if they’re fried, and the same with scallops. Grouper is excellent and there aren’t many saltwater fishes that aren’t good eating. But crab cakes are the best. So on this trip, I determined to eat crab cakes every night to see where the best ones were located.
It’s hard to say. I had them fixed too many different ways.
My favorite food was also the least-expensive — at AJ’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill in Apalachicola.
AJ’s puts the “neighborhood” in Neighborhood Bar & Grill, because it’s truly located in the neighborhood. In fact, when we were driving in, I thought I was surely lost, because it was as far away from commercial zoned property as you can get.
If I’m being completely honest, I was more than a little apprehensive about AJ’s. It is billed as a soul-food restaurant (black restaurant) and it was located in an all-black neighborhood. But it came highly regarded, so we decided to give it a try. I’m not sure why I was so apprehensive. I was born and raised in all-white Scott County, Tenn. Perhaps that’s why. But, the truth is, there are many neighborhoods in all-white Scott County that would make outsiders feel more apprehensive than the black neighborhood of Apalachicola, if appearances are what we’re basing our fears on.
I was even more apprehensive when we entered to find ourselves the only diners in AJ’s. We were early on a Wednesday afternoon, but not that early — about 5 p.m.
Turns out, it was the best food of the trip. The crab cakes weren’t the best I’ve ever eaten (AJ’s is known more for its fried chicken and bread pudding than for its seafood, but it’s just a short distance from the docks, so I decided to give the crab cakes a try) but they were good. They were a little too thin, and not spicy enough, but they were lightly breaded — unlike the expensive tourist restaurants that bring you crab cakes that are mostly bread. Plus they were $9. I’m not sure how you can make a profit with $9 crab cakes (you can’t buy lump crab at Walmart for much cheaper than $9). I paid as much as $25 for the same entree elsewhere. The real deal, though, was the home fries — hand-sliced, hand-breaded and deep-fried just like my grandmother used to make them. Plus, our waitress was the friendliest person we encountered at any restaurant on the trip.
Like any good tourists, we tried out SGI’s lone beach-front dining spot, The Blue Parrot. Their crab cakes were very good. That was a bit of a surprise because those beach-front restaurants are usually known for their atmosphere, not the quality of their food, and the Parrot had only mixed reviews. Aside from the crab cakes, though, the food was just so-so. Not terrible, but not worth the price — which is usually the case at the beach-front joints.
Second-best food overall went to Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill in Apalachicola. It was billed as having the best crab cakes ever…they weren’t, but everything else was good. If there were two places I would go twice on the same trip, it would be AJ’s and Papa Joe’s.
I even had crab at BJ’s Pizza & Subs, the lone pizzeria on St. George Island. The pizza there was just so-so (it cost us $100 for a group of 8, which included pizza and appetizers…gotta love tourist pricing!), but I’d definitely go back for the crab bites.
Truthfully, though, we didn’t have any bad food on the trip…but that’s partly (mostly?) because I carefully research these places in advance and we avoid anywhere that gets negative reviews. So we skipped over a bunch of places that I might have otherwise tried.
You won’t find many glamorous-looking restaurants in SGI or Apalachicola. Most are local dives; true holes-in-the-wall. But like most of those types of places, they’re pretty darned good.
To Sum it Up
I took hundreds of pictures on this trip…maybe even thousands. But if I had to sum it up with just one, it would be one that I posted above.
If my goal was to avoid that bumper-to-bumper PCB traffic, this trip was a success. The most we ever had to set in traffic was waiting our turn at the four-way-stop that is the closest thing you’ll find to a stop light on St. George Island. There was no traffic. There were no crowded beaches. And I know of nowhere else you can find sunsets like this one while listening to the waves lap the dock, then take a five-minute walk across the dunes to the Gulf and be virtually guaranteed to see dolphins just off the beach while blue crabs crawl out of the surf.
If glitz and glamour and bright lights are your thing, if constant entertainment and an abundance of restaurants and night clubs are your thing, St. George Island isn’t for you. When I first drove onto the island and saw the run-down Piggly Wiggly and the houses nearly touching one another, I thought it wasn’t for me, either. But it isn’t hard to get hooked on the island life, especially when you have quaint, historic towns like Apalachicola just a 10-minute drive away. I can’t say I’ll be back next year, because I don’t know what next year holds in store, but I can say that I will be back again…maybe sooner than I think.