Picture of Brown Pelican was taken near the mouth of the Jackson River, Apalachicola, Fl.
Read Caption
Photo: Dile Brooks/My Shot
Picture of Brown Pelican was taken near the mouth of the Jackson River, Apalachicola, Fl.

Getting Lost on Florida’s “Forgotten” Coast

St. George Island, Fla., is in the middle of nowhere. And that’s the way they like it.

Why else would they call this area, along the northeastern part of Florida’s panhandle, the “forgotten” coast? It is remote, undeveloped and, at this time of year, no one’s here.

Oh, wait. I should have said, no tourists. Out in the flat-as-glass Apalachicola Bay every morning, we found dozens of oyster boats quietly harvesting the famous shellfish from the shallow sea floor.

They say it gets busy during the summer, but it’s a different kind of busy than frenetic Panama City, to the west, or St. Petersburg, the closest major city along the coast as you head southeast. Forgotten-coast busy means something else. It’s a little harder to find a parking spot at St. George Island State Park, but the beach remains subdued by Sunshine State standards. You might have a hard time getting a seat at Harry A’s or BJ’s around dinnertime on the weekends, but otherwise, they say, it’s more or less the same place all year round.

Our vacation rental looked out over the bay. The units on the other two sides were dark, their windows shuttered for the season. We watched the sun rise over the ocean in the morning as we sipped tea. (To find a strong cup of espresso, but you have to drive across two long bridges into Apalachicola to find it. It’s at the Cafe Con Leche.)

The biggest attraction on St. George, other than the state park and the ever-present oystermen, is the lighthouse. Back in 2005, the Cape St. George Lighthouse fell into the Gulf of Mexico. Preservationists rallied to save the 1852 landmark, and in late 2008, the reconstructed tower reopened. A new museum just next door is only a few weeks old.

We also swung by the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, to check out its recently opened exhibit (my daughter offers a tour of the fish tanks in the video below). It’s one of only 28 national estuarine research reserves nationwide, and you’ll leave with a much clearer picture of why areas like these are worth protecting.

In talking with the few year-round residents of St. George Island we met, it became clear that getting “forgotten” is a good thing in a place like Florida. Most of the coastal areas are overdeveloped, with high-rise hotels and condos competing for the best view of the gulf or the ocean. It’s fun for a few days of R&R, maybe — or maybe not.

In order to really appreciate the remoteness of the forgotten coast, you have to head inland, to the Apalachicola National Forest. On our last day, we did just that. Covering more than half a million acres, it’s the largest national forest in the state and true to its billing, it showed us what this place must have looked like before the area was settled.

At a remote campground (which at this time of year was abandoned), we ran into the only person we’d seen all day — a woman who worked at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base. She was looking for the lighthouse on St. George Island and had gotten lost along the way.

We stood at the edge of the bay, admiring the chocolate-milk colored water framed by seagrass, and I said to her, “Being lost isn’t so bad, is it?”

No, she said. Not here.

Elliott writes The Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience on his family travel blog, Away Is Home.