A Natural Paradise on the Forgotten Coast
by Hope S. Philbrick
If the word Florida brings to mind costumed characters skippingmerrily through themed attractions, long lines of sweaty folks waiting to board thrill rides, sticky-sweet snacks and retail shelves packed with logoed merchandise, it’s time to visit Florida’s panhandle. Also known as the Emerald Coast and the Forgotten Coast, the region boasts soft, white-sand beaches, rolling waves of greenish-turquoise water and a simple approach to life that may feel nostalgic and retro. This is authentic Florida, where the sights and sounds of nature dominate. And there’s no more perfect example than the small town of Carrabelle..
Carrabelle, Florida, population 11,000, approximately 325 miles from Atlanta, is the boating and fishing capital of the Forgotten Coast. Three rivers converge here and connect with the Gulf of Mexico, providing access to salt- and fresh-water fishing grounds—grouper, tarpon, redfish, snapper, amberjack, trout, cobia, shrimp and oysters are just a few common species.
Exploring the Great Outdoors
Of course, local menus serve up plenty of fresh-catch options that melt in your mouth with bright, just-reeled-in flavor. But perhaps you’d prefer to hook your own? Captain Chester Reese hosts sport-fishing excursions under the banner of Natural World Charters. From his 24-foot boat named Eagle—and, yes, you may spot a bald eagle or two swooping overhead some days—you can cast or troll in deep or shallow waters as suits your preference and, of course, seasonal weather and water conditions.
Captain Reese, a certified Florida Master Naturalist with 25 years’ experience working on the water, is the sort of person you might instantly consider a friend. Gregarious and chatty, he is eager to guide novice or experienced fishermen and shares many local stories while pointing out key sites en route to the best fishing spots. Reese’s anecdotes entertain while also revealing the character of the folks who live in the area, such as the sailor who abandoned a sinking ship only after realizing that even the scallops he’d netted were jumping overboard, or Adam Warwick, who rescued a 375-pound black bear from drowning in the Gulf of Mexico off Alligator Point.
For folks like me who prefer to leave fish (and bears) swimming peacefully undisturbed, Captain Reese also hosts ecotourism adventures. Explore the complex ecosystem linking the network of marsh, rivers, estuaries, sounds and the Gulf of Mexico on a custom boating tour where your itinerary might include stops to wiggle your toes in the sand while collecting shells on Dog Island, photograph birds and other wildlife, or whatever piques your interest. The waters support dolphins, sea turtles, alligators and dozens of birds including pelicans, egrets, roseate spoonbills, osprey and more. Each incoming and outgoing tide churns the water and alters the scenery. Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular. Don’t forget your digital camera!
Dog Island, a sandy, seven-mile stretch of land just three and a half miles offshore from Carrabelle, is accessible only by boat or small plane. Part of a chain of barrier islands, it’s a popular destination with Franklin County locals who anchor nearby and swim, snorkel or scramble ashore to picnic, hike, get some sun and play in the sand. While a few private homes and the rustic, eight-room Pelican Inn are located on Dog Island, most of this tranquil, 1,800-acre island is owned by the Nature Conservancy.
Dog Island is just one unspoiled haven near Carrabelle, since more than 80 percent of Franklin County has been designated as state or federal parks. Nearly 750,000 acres of public forest are available for hiking, trail-riding, birding or watching for wildlife. Encountering crowds is unlikely; odds are you won’t cross another person in the swampy forest.
According to local legend, a farmer named Cebe Tate ventured into the woods in 1875 to hunt down a panther that was killing his livestock. Lost for days, he was bitten by a snake and made it out alive just long enough to utter the words, “My name is Tate and I’ve been through hell!” The area now known as Tate’s Hell State Forest contains various ecosystems including coastal scrub, wet prairie, swamp and forest.
The forest houses creatures like the bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite, fox, black bear, gopher tortoise, red-shouldered hawk and red-cockaded woodpecker, as well as rare plants including orchids and dwarf cypress. Explore it all without the risk of getting lost with Lesley Cox, a certified green guide, Florida Master Naturalist and current president of the Carrabelle Lighthouse Association. Along a custom-guided trek or drive, she’ll point out flowers so tiny they might otherwise be overlooked. Her genial, upbeat approach makes learning fun.
If your idea of time in the great outdoors is a little less rustic, perhaps an afternoon spent at a local pub listening to live music while gazing at boats that drift in and out of view is more enticing. Or perhaps you’d prefer to play a round of golf at St. James Bay Golf Resort, the area’s only Audubon Signature Sanctuary golf course. Designed to challenge golfers of any ability level, the 18-hole championship course has an eco-friendly layout with wetlands and water hazards on every hole. The facility features a full driving range, chipping green, bunker, two putting greens and golf carts equipped with GPS systems. Drive along U.S. Highway 98 between St. James Golf Resort and Carrabelle’s public beach, and you’ll see the ocean on one side and trees on the other—there are no high-rise hotels, casinos or condominiums blocking the view. This is genuine Florida, a place to relax and breathe deep the salt-tinged air. One visit will redefine what Florida means to you. And you’ll be grateful for the reality check.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
Carrabelle Area Chamber of Commerce
Where to Stay
What to Do
Les Hassel Excursions with Lesley Cox
Natural World Charters with Captain Chester Reese