Back in the day, beach snobs referred to it as “the armpit of Florida,” that stretch of 100 gulf-front miles where the state segues from vertical to horizontal. In these days of PR spins and kinder awareness for environmental diversity, we Floridians call it the Big Bend, while PR folks have dubbed it the Nature Coast.
No matter what you call it, the marshy-mellow lay, from roughly Cedar Key northward to St. Marks, remains a secret known only to those who have discovered that its treasures more than compensate for its lack of beaches.
This tour will follow the side roads off Highway 98 to enumerate reasons — scalloping, historic digs, spring waters, and butterfly migrations, to name a few — for the intrepid to leave the Florida path more traveled.
But, before I get started, let me share where I was coming from on my most recent escape to the Big Bend. It was March in Florida. Considerably south of Big Bend, 2022 was proving to be the year that balanced out the visitation stats COVID-19 had skewed. Once Grapefruit League baseball returned, the Fort Myers area, host to two teams, screamed “escape” in my ear. Then, I remembered sweet little Steinhatchee, funky Cedar Key, the amazing nature of sparkling spring waters, and the anonymity of spaces between. That’s where I pointed my GPS.
Note that I have been hosted on a couple of trips to Big Bend. All opinions are my own.
1. Spring Forth From Old Town
Once upon a time, springs defined the Florida holiday experience — known for their year-round warm waters and healthful benefits. North Florida is full of them. Two low-key natural ones gurgle minutes south of Old Town on Highway 98, also known as Highway 19 and Alternate 27.
Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs State Parks both offer high-magnitude springs that hover at 72 degrees (Fahrenheit) for a refreshing swim in any season. Trails and boardwalks travel through ancient, mysterious cypress forest. Paddling, freshwater fishing, and camping round out the recreational amenities.
True to its name, Manatee Springs headlines Florida manatees, especially in the cold months when they seek warmth. The gentle marine giants make cameo appearances at Fanning Springs, too. If you don’t have time to swerve off for a state park nature fix in Old Town, at the very least stop at the roadside park on the Suwannee River for an eyeful of old Florida beauty.
2. Get Down Upon The Suwannee
The first time I visited Manatee Springs State Park, we canoed in from a houseboat anchored on the Suwannee River. It was the middle of summer, and my bare feet against the boat’s aluminum bottom immediately registered the drop in temperature as we crossed the invisible line between river and spring.
Houseboats may be the most famed aspect of tourism in the town of Suwannee, which lies at the mouth of the eponymous river as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It makes for a primal escape. A houseboat getaway on the Suwanee is where prehistoric gulf sturgeons leap savagely, alligators poke up their eyes at the water’s surface, primitive wildcat sounds emit out of the early morning fog, and wall-to-wall trees line the wide waters.
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge preserves the deep past with 53,000 acres of thick and primordial magnolia, pine, and cypress forest decorated with tinsels of Spanish moss and clumps of mistletoe. Gateway Marina rents houseboats for trips up river. They’re square, clunky, and old-fashioned, but they feel just right for this trip back in time.
3. Steinhatchee Fishing Frenzy
Hugging the shores of the Steinhatchee River as it dumps into the gulf, the town of Steinhatchee thrives on its fisheries. High season comes as scalloping charters take visitors by the boatload into grass flats to don snorkel gear and pluck bay scallops off the bay floor for the sweetest dinner you can imagine. Charter captains, scallop shuckers, and cook-your-catch restaurants reach peak activity from June 15 through Labor Day. Unlike southern Florida destinations, summer is busiest. All year-long, fishing — particularly for redfish, trout, and sheepshead — stays active, but more so on weekends and in the warmer summer months.
On our recent visit, my husband chartered with Captain Connor McKinnon of Chase-N-Fish Charters out of Sea Hag Marina, the two-street town’s biggest such operation. They brought home their limit of redfish and trout, plus one surprise flounder.
We had part of the catch cooked up at Kathi’s Krab Shack, one of a handful of local seafood places where other local catches like mullet, catfish, oysters, and shrimp make up the menus — old-school, Florida-style with salad bars, breaded preparation, and unfancy settings. Fiddler’s Restaurant and Roy’s Restaurant are two longtime favorites right on the river. Fiddler’s is known for its live music and party scene. And there you have it, the summation of a Steinhatchee getaway: fish, eat, drink.
Pro Tip: You’ll probably want to sleep at some point. I recommend Steinhatchee Landing because it feels like a quiet community all to its own. Away from the fishing frenzy, it’s fashioned with Victorian-style cottages and homes decorated in camellias and azaleas.
4. Toes In The Sand At Keaton Beach
Although many of the towns in the Big Bend have “beach” in their names, don’t be thinking you’ll find Sanibel Island sand and shells there. No ma’am! (That’s how everyone addresses a woman here — you’re in the Deep South as you head north in Florida.)
Horseshoe Beach, Deckle Beach, Adams Beach: They may sound alluring, and certainly the drive to these outposts boasts its own fine brand of pineland and marsh scenery with backroad isolation rewards. But don’t get your hopes up.
Keaton Beach is the one exception, and I suspect it’s man-made, but Hodges Park has bona fide sand and palm trees nestled among the marshes that surround it. Like Steinhatchee and most of the communities in this crook of coastline, everyone has a boat parked or docked at their steeply stilted homes right on the water.
No signs let you know you will find a public beach at the end of the drive off Route 361, about 17 miles north of Steinhatchee. Again, just suspecting here, but I get the feeling the community wants to keep it their little secret. The one “restaurant” that was a staple for years, Keaton Beach Hot Dog Stand, has disappeared. A playground, a picnic shelter, and a pristine gulf view make up for it in the amenities department.
5. Hitting The Outback Of Big Bend Wildlife Management Area
The state-preserved lands of Big Bend Wildlife Management Area (WMA) stretch in five parcels along the coastline between Horseshoe Beach and St. Marks. One day, we drove for a good half hour between Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach before we saw another vehicle, so, “off the beaten path” is no exaggeration. A number of offshoot roads, paved and unpaved, take you deep into wildlife habitats to trails and basic facilities.
Part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, Big Bend WMA attracts the binocs-wielding crowd. Hagen’s Cove near Keaton Beach is especially popular, thanks to its observation tower and picnicking facilities. You can truly go au naturelle here, where the small patch of unaugmented sands has a clothing-optional reputation.
Other popular pastimes include kayaking, fishing, crabbing, and, in season, hunting. The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail stretches 105 miles along the shoreline. Inland, fields of wildflowers attract a number of butterfly species including swallowtails and gossamer-wingeds.
Pro Tip: Bring a scope to Hagen’s Cove on an incoming tide to spot shorebirds and wading birds in the shallows.
6. History And Nature In St. Marks
You reach the pinnacle of butterfly-watching at St. Marks, particularly known for its migrating fall monarch populations. Wing-watchers also see queen, American painted beauty, and gulf fritillary varieties, in addition to bald eagles, wood storks, swallowtails, and 270 other bird species. Alligators, white-tailed deer, river otters, and bobcats also occupy the 83,000-plus-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
A port of import through the centuries, St. Marks is home to a historic lighthouse, built in 1830, that stands within the refuge. Dipping further back in time, San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park dates back to 1528 and the landing of conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez with his 300 men. Spanish, Apalachee Indian, British, Confederate, and American forces have occupied the fort through the years, and visitors can tour remnants of their occupation.
Pro Tip: Although climbing the light tower at St. Marks is not allowed, you can tour the keeper’s house every Tuesday, first Friday, and the following Saturday of each month. There is an additional $2 fee per person for ages 12 and older.
7. Old And Clammy (In A Good Way) In Cedar Key
“I don’t suppose you have any vacancies,” I prompted the lady behind the desk on a busy pirate invasion weekend in December. She hauled out a scrapbook-sized bound book and, with two hands, opened it to the day’s date. Like in an old movie, she scanned the columns with her pointer finger, stopping on a square that had been whited out. My heart skipped. A cancellation, just as we’d hoped. She showed us to room 24, opening the lock with a real key. There was no computerized reservation system and no key cards at Island Hotel. Sigh!
Like Cedar Key as a whole, the Island Hotel bed and breakfast inn is stuck in another era, pre-internet. In fact, the island’s history begins with the most basic of computing instruments: the pencil. As its name hints, the island was once covered with red cedar trees, eventually decimated by the Eberhardt Faber Pencil Company back in the 19th century.
Today, the island’s economy depends on tourism and its art scene; and farmed clams and its restaurant scene. A straight shot 59 miles southwest of Gainesville, it gets its share of University of Florida weekenders, but typically, its handful of commercial district streets lined with restaurants, galleries, and shops stand relatively undiscovered. The archipelago’s main island also offers a couple of historic museums, fishing charters, and the best clam chowder I’ve ever eaten at Steamers Clam Bar & Grill on Dock Street, Cedar Key’s buzzy waterfront strip.
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