Some people call St. George Island, part of the Gulf Coast, “Florida like it used to be” in its golden era. I suppose that would be true if a Florida family vacation in the old days inlcuded sophisticated restaurants, gorgeous beachfront homes at affordable prices and plenty of cool watersports.
But I think what they really mean is that there are no high rise hotels, glitzy resorts, cheek-by-jowl condo complexes, and annoying traffic in this part of the Florida Panhandle.
St. George is a New, Better Version of Old Florida Family Vacations
The important things have stayed the same, though. There are still fresh oysters you can slurp hours or even minutes after they’ve been hauled in by the oystermen. You can still take a boat out for the day and fish in the Bay or Gulf for flounder, grouper, whiting, trout, or redfish and cook it for dinner that night. And when you stay on St. George Island, you still have miles of white sand beaches to yourself since it is 85% public land.
But the parts of ‘Florida like it use to be’ that are best to forget, like the tired mom and pop motels, have given way to quaint beach cottages and modern beach houses with swimming pools, hot tubs, and big screened porches. Restaurants still cook up the catch of the day — and you’ll still find fried oysters just about everywhere — but you’ll also find the bounty from the bay cooked up into lighter, more contemporary dishes.
To get oriented, imagine that St. George Island is a 28-mile-long barrier island with Appalachicola Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, and is connected to the mainland by a long bridge. A State Park occupies the eastern end of the island (with a beach recently named one of the best in the US), where you’ll find nine miles of undeveloped shoreline and hiking trails and boardwalks that reach across sand dunes, forests, coves and salt marshes. Birds migrating between North and Central or South America use the island as a stopover on their way; so, as you might expect, bird watching is popular here.
Thankfully cars are not allowed to drive on the beaches on St. George Island and it’s safe to walk on the beach or anywhere at night. For families whose members include furry companions, dogs and cats are welcome in most of the lodgings and on leashes at the beach.
Activities On and Around St. George Island
Of course swimming in the warm, calm Gulf waters, playing in the sand and hunting for seashells are top activities on St. George Island, but there are plenty of other things to do when you are ready to move off the beach.
There are miles of designated bike trails along the island so you don’t have to share the road with cars. Rent cruiser bikes for all ages in all sizes at Island Adventures (850-927-3655), Gulf Beach Drive East near the bridge.
Choose from bay or Gulf kayaking trips or river kayaking excursions – first-timers and experienced kayakers will find plenty to interest them. Fresh water paddle trips with Journey’s of St. George take you through black water creeks past cypress and tupelo trees or along a wildlife refuge filled with bald eagles and alligators; on salt water trips, you’ll paddle past dolphins, pelicans and heron.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
The latest water sport craze is easy to master and allows you to cruise atop the water standing on a sturdy surf board. Choose a day when it’s clear so you can see the horseshoe crabs mating or fish and sea turtles swimming below you. Island Outfitters and Journey’s of St. George can arrange it.
Special Kid’s-Only Excursions and Adventures
During the summer months, special kid’s-only excursions with Journey’s of St. George give parents a break and take kids from 5-16 on a variety of fun morning, afternoon and evening outings. Kids can head out on boat trips in search of dolphins, take fishing trips, go on swamp walks and more.
Pick from bay fishing, deep sea fishing, and river fishing and head out on a full or half-day guided fishing excursion. Captains usually clean the fish you catch so you can take it home and cook it. Special family-oriented trips are available thorugh Journey’s of St. George or you can head into Carrabelle and go out with an outfitter, such as Natural World Charters.
St. James Bay Resort in Carrabelle has an excellent 18-hole course that is an Audubon Signature Golf Course, which means it has been developed with Audubon’s guidance to preserve and provide wildlife habitat and protect natural resources.
Historic downtown Apalachicola features more than 20 fine art galleries, antique shops and clothing and gift boutiques. Plus there’s an ice cream parlor if you need to bribe the kids and an espresso shop to keep you fortified.
Eco-Friendly Excursions in Apalachicola
When you’ve had too much sun and need a cool afternoon break from the beach, the Estuarine is the place to visit. The reserve covers over 246,000 acres, but its indoor exhibition space gives visitors a chance to learn more about migratory birds, sea turtles and the other animals that live in an estuary.
Three big tanks dominate the place – one with creatures that live in fresh river water, like the pint-sized mud turtles; another filled with brackish water and creatures that make their home where the rivers meet the gulf, like the bright-eyed diamond back turtle; and a salt water tank with animals such as the Gulf Toadfish that makes loud croaking noises underwater.
There are plenty of hands-on exhibits and children are encouraged to touch everything in The Bay Discovery Room, such as skeletons of all kinds and sea turtle shells.
Trip Planning Details for St. George Island Florida Family Vacation
St. George Island has one small shopping area with a bank, grocery stores, restaurants and beach shops as you come off the bridge onto the island, but most people staying in one of the vacation homes do their grocery shopping before they arrive. Regional airports are just two hours away; Tallahassee to the north and Panama City to the west.
Three towns on the mainland are worth a visit: Apalachicola with its historic town center filled with interesting shops and excellent restaurants: Eastpoint with its new Estuarine Visitor’s Center: and Carrabelle, where three rivers connect with the Gulf and provide fantastic fishing.
For more Information about the region, check out the Franklin County Tourism Development Council website, called A Natural Escape or call them at 866/914-2068 so a staff member can help you plan your getaway.
Where to Stay & Eat on St. George Island, Florida
St. George Island offers a few small motels overlooking the beach as well as campsites at St. George Island State Park. But most people rent a vacation home – they range in size from small, simple cottages and townhomes to six-bedroom mansions. Many come with screened porches, private swimming pools, grills, fish cleaning areas, or children’s furniture. Because the island is so narrow, most homes are on or a very short walk from the beach or the bay or both.
Collins Vacation Rentals (800/683-9776) and Resort Vacation Properties (877/272-8206) have hundreds of rental properties in their inventory in all sizes and prices. Prices are lower here than comparable beachfront properties in other parts of Florida.
Restaurants in St. George are quite good. Fresh seafood is the most popular fare on the island, with oysters, shrimp, crab and fresh fish found on just about every menu. Boat captains in this part of the coast call restaurant chefs before they head out in their fishing boats to find out what the chef wants to cook that day – so you can be sure it’s fresh.
Since St. George is a small island, there are just a few restaurants, but check out the catch of the day at Harry A’s or the Blue Parrot Ocean Front Café, or try Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar or the Oyster Cove Restaurant.
Many more culinary options exist across the bridge in Appalachicola, Eastsound or Carrabelle.
Verandas Bistro in Appalachicola has half-size portions of just about everything on the menu for children; across the street, Tamaras Café Floridita features South American and Caribbean cuisine and has a special tapas menu on Wednesdays with small plates that perfect for kids.
The Fish Camp in Carrabelle is very casual and is perched along the scenic marshes of the Carrabelle River. Sit on its screen porch and enjoy a low country seafood boil.
Or dine on the deck for a view of the bay at Captain Snooks Seafood Restaurant in Eastpoint. We ordered Catpoint Cuppies (oysters with bacon bits, cheese and just because it was such a good name, but there are also classic seafood baskets and a variety of appetizers.
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