The Forgotten Coast of Florida’s Panhandle

Published – The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

New Orleanians were some of the first to adopt the sugar sands and warm emerald waters of the Florida Panhandle for their vacation destinations, and the nostalgic love for the “old Florida” with her rustic waterfront dining and quiet walks along the Gulf of Mexico still resonates. The 70’s and 80’s were the early heydays of development on this coast, with families making the short three – to four-hour run in the summer along the Gulf Coast along with area high-schoolers and collegiates who notoriously caravanned east for their spring breaks. The first major condo developments exploded in Pensacola and later followed in Destin, and today the Panhandle is largely an expanse of homes and beachfront condominium towers whose height has been known to create micro-climates of fog by forcing moist tropical air from the Gulf into the cooler levels of the atmosphere.

The Florida of yesteryear still exists, but one has to drive a bit further to escape the endless tracts of mini-malls and chain restaurants to just east of Panama City, to find the charming towns of Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and Apalachicola that seem to have held onto rustic, old Florida. Home to charter captain’s and oystermen that fish the still pristine waters of St. Josephs and Apalachicola Bay, their Florida is still likely the one that Jimmy Buffett dreams about.

Known as the Forgotten Coast, much of this land was owned by the lumber developer, the St. Joe Company – and much of it still is. Apalachicola was founded in 1831, and is filled with the mossy oak trees and the Southern architecture common throughout historic Gulf Coast towns like Ocean Springs, Mississippi or Fairhope, Alabama. Mainly familiar to New Orleanians as the furthest town east marked under hurricane watches for the Northern Gulf Coast, Apalachicola and the Forgotten Coast are coming alive as a refuge for those seeking activities beyond a week of lying on the beaches in the sun and listening to classic rock, but prefer to spice up their time with water sports, fishing and strolls through historic and charming towns with no traffic and away from the bustle of fast food joints and loud bars.

Bookended by Mexico Beach with her beachfront cottages and the stately homes on the windswept barrier island of St. George which was recently ranked as the 3rd most beautiful beach in the U.S., the clear waters of St. Joseph’s Bay are home to one of the most unique and unknown activities on the Gulf Coast – bay scalloping. Only surviving on this small stretch of the Florida Gulf Coast from Port St. Joe to Cedar Key, these pristine and shallow bay waters come alive with Floridians in late June donning snorkels, flippers and mesh bags to search for these culinary treasures amongst the turtle grass beds and scattering rays. After long afternoons swimming in the Gulf waters, families and friends get together for scallop feasts on the beaches or back porches with most lightly breaded and seasoned and then flash fried. Similar to an oyster in that it is a mollusk, bay scallops are more muscular because of their ability to actually swim and their meat is lean and firm. They have a very delicate, sweet flavor and as such cooking methods should be light. More inventive dishes have been making the rounds in the past decades with scallops served in ceviche or lightly broiled and served in beautiful salads and even sliders.

St. Joseph’s Bay is ideal for this family friendly and tasty adventure whether on kayaks, paddleboards or even jetskiis. Local charters will also provide SNUBA gear and goggles for longer underwater foraging. The true natives will tell you that bay scallops are best raw right out of the shell with the beautiful water and the white sands of the barrier islands within sight, but many area restaurants will prepare your fresh catch and simply charge a “corkage” fee for preparing your feast. Harvesting of bay scallops is strictly controlled and no commercial activities are allowed with the one exception for recreational boaters and individuals who wade from shore with dip nets, and this has led to a time honored cultural institution on this stretch of Florida’s coastline.

Port St. Joe and Apalachicola both offer full service marinas and are available to the more adventurous who prefer to transit their own boats for their Florida adventures and are lined with joints for fried conch fritters and grouper baskets and your favorite adult beverage. Local musicians play on the decks while the servers sling dozens of fresh Apalachicola Bay oysters to the local charter captains swapping their salty tales while sipping on the local brews. These are all perfectly walkable towns filled with art galleries and coffee shops, with barely a chain restaurant in sight.

The Forgotten Coast is perfectly named for this stretch of the Panhandle that harkens back to the Florida of our past, and with undiscovered institutions such as bay scalloping, it mixes in plenty of new opportunities to get you and your kids and friends out on the water – and know that you have earned your dinner and that slight sunburn as the sun sets over the Gulf.

~ More Photos of Florida’s Forgotten Coast and scalloping HERE.

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