Outside magazine, March 1997
Past the crowded tropical surf of the Keys, the celebrity-filled pastel hotels of South Miami Beach, and the imagineered theme parks of Orlando, an old-fashioned Huck Finn-style beach idyll can still be found in Florida. On the four barrier islands that shadow the panhandle, separating Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, life remains simple, unadulterated by an influx of tourists. On these sandy islands, you can walk barefoot along the beach for hours, paddle from one wildlife reserve to the next, or stick a fishing pole into the ground, cover your face with a straw hat, and nap while you wait for a pompano to bite.
St. George Island, the skinny, 27-mile-long gateway to the chain, is the only one of the four barrier islands connected to the mainland by a bridge. It's also the most developed, with single-family vacation homes and commercial developments covering almost two-thirds of its area. But its eastern tip remains pristine, protected by St. George Island State Park (904-927-2111), an 18-mile long stretch of shoreline. The best beach here is located only a quarter-mile south of the park's 60-site main campground ($10-$14 per night; reservations recommended) on the Gulf side of the island. The calm waters appeal to splashing children as well as serious snorkelers, while the hundreds of different seashells keep beachcombers bent over for hours. Surf fishermen cast here for trout, flounder, redfish, cobia, and king mackerel. St. George's Apalachicola Bay side is more popular with birders. On a typical March day, snowy plovers, an American oystercatcher, and even a black skimmer can all be glimpsed in the stands of pine and oak just inland from the beach.
To get from St. George to the other barrier islands, you'll need a boat. Jeanni's Journeys (904-927-3259) on St. George Island rents canoes ($25 per day), sea kayaks ($20), sailboards ($40), and sailboats ($60-$150). Captain Jeanni McMillan also guides tours (day trips, $35-$55 per adult) and provides charter boat services ($40 per hour) to all the barrier islands.
A 20-mile paddle southeast from St. George will bring kayakers to the sandy beaches and wildlife refuge of Cape St. George State Reserve. Once connected to the bigger island, Cape St. George was separated in 1954 by a manmade channel. Today, loggerhead sea turtles nest on the 28 miles of shoreline during the summer. The island also boasts a spooky, abandoned lighthouse to be explored. Camping at a primitive site on either end of the island is free, but call the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (904-653-8063) to learn about the island's campfire policies and other regulations.
To see the largest and most primitive of the barrier islands, paddle a half-mile northwest from Little St. George to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. This island's 12,000 acres are home to exotic sambar deer (weighing up to 800 pounds), their more-common whitetail relatives, feral hogs, and red wolves. The refuge, covering the entire island, is open only during daylight hours; there's no camping. But if you can carry a bike in your canoe, an 80-mile network of jeep trails crisscrosses the sands. Call the wildlife refuge at 904-653-8808 for a map. The island is closed for hunting during one week in December, January, and February.
To end a trip to the barrier islands in style, head back up past St. George State Park to Dog Island, last of the barriers. It's almost as empty and pristine as its two westernmost neighbors--but unlike them, it offers relatively luxurious accommodations at the Pelican Inn (doubles, $150; 800-451-5294), complete with warm showers and efficiency kitchens.