The Shore Thing


(c) 2011

Mary Shedden, Tampa Bay Tribune, August 11, 2011

Finding a satisfying coastal vacation spot can be a challenge for Tampa Bay-area residents.

We're so spoiled by our own nationally-recognized beaches.

First, there's convenience. What's the point of driving for hours, when a day at the shore is as close for us as the office or the mall?

And then there's the snob factor. Any local who has wiggled toes at Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park or Dunedin's Caledesi Island knows what a top beach looks and feels like. All others will be compared thusly.

But these jaunts to local shores don't offer a true getaway. You're driving the same roads traveled during rush hour, and remain way too close to that pile of dirty laundry at home and the dripping faucet that needs fixing. Shoot, the boss may be sunning in a Speedo on the beach towel next to you.

A not-too-distant option is St. George Island, a part of Florida's aptly named Forgotten Coast in the Panhandle. A five-hour drive from Tampa, this vacation outpost is notable for its distance from office complexes, interstates and megamalls. The closest Wal-Mart is 90 minutes away.

More than a third of this narrow 28-mile long island, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola Bay, is undeveloped, and home to the Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park.

In May that park's nine-mile beach (five miles of which are only accessible by foot) earned a high-profile accolade as No. 6 on Stephen ("Dr. Beach") Leatherman's Top 10 Beaches in America. That's the same list that tapped Fort De Soto as the nation's best in 2005 and Caledesi in 2008.


(c) 2011

Outside the park, St. George Island's "built-up" portions don't include a building higher than three stories. And most of those are rental homes, from unpretentious cottages on stilts to modern vacation villas made to sleep several families. Nearly all are equipped with all the necessary comforts, such as full kitchens, cable television and high speed Wi-Fi access.

The only franchise you'll see on the island? A tiny Subway sandwich shop.

"It's a simple way of life down here," says Elaine Rosenthal, executive director of the island's tallest structure, the 74-foot-high St. George Lighthouse Museum. "If you have to have department stores and movie theaters, this is not the place for you."

The island's remote location in Franklin County, population 11,549, helps keep away the crowds, as does its lone connection to the mainland, a 4.2-mile bridge. Reports put the number of permanent island residents at about 1,000; the birds and sea life far outnumber the humans.

St. George Island's tourist population comes year-round, many from southeastern states. Though the island's west end includes a small gated community with a private airstrip, most everyone drives there, as evidenced by the variety of license plates parked at the rental homes.

While the island is busiest during summer months, traffic is steady during the winter, when snow birds and bird watchers migrate to the Panhandle.

The cost of a week on the island is as varied as the accommodations available. In September, a weeklong stay in a tent at the state park runs $168, while seven days at a beachfront, eight-bedroom villa at the west end's gated Plantation community will cost $6,205. Nearly all the rental properties are managed by a handful of agencies that provide detailed information online.

St. George Island has become a home away from home for many families, who have returned to the same rental for years, said Alice Collins, who has owned Collins Vacation Rentals since 1973. She's seen children who grow up vacationing on the island return with their own children.

"They love that they have their own special place to go to," she says.

The white, soft-sand beach is the island's calling card, and is notably less crowded than any of the Tampa Bay area beaches. Families have ample room to sunbathe and build sandcastles without losing track of their little ones. And, outside of the state park, dogs are allowed on the beach, where they can frolic in the sand and water with their owners.

Repeat visitors learn the island's unspoken code to respectfully coexist with all creatures, human and otherwise. There's plenty of room on the beach for a comfortable blend of beach bums and fishermen. Schools of fish and dolphins often are so close, paddleboarders and kayakers can float alongside.

It's the same bayside, just a few blocks across the narrow island. In the same Apalachicola Bay where lifelong oystermen make a living, fishing fans will discover a bountiful population of redfish, flounder, trout and smelt. It's not unheard of to see young hammerhead sharks caught by sunset anglers at the island's old bridge-turned-fishing pier.

Getting around on St. George doesn't require a car. Some vacationers bring bicycles or golf carts, or rent them once they arrive. Wide walking and bike paths cover nearly the entire island, making travel safe for all ages.

While there are small grocery and convenience stores, they are pricy and limited. Fresh seafood is obviously easy to get, but places like The Marketplace also feature a full butcher's case of meats.

The ability to bring everyone together to eat, though, is what makes renting a home better than a hotel, Collins says.

"They want to go fishing, bring it back, clean it up and fix it for dinner," she says.

Those who choose to go out will find a handful of restaurants, from pizza places to full menus. Live music on the island is usually outdoors, and has the expected Margaritaville flavor, but with a dash of down South.

Eddie Teach's Raw Bar is one of a handful of bars, and cold beer and oysters are served at wooden picnic tables set just yards from the bay. When live bands perform, the tables tend to double as dancing perches for the bar's owner and vacationers.

Rosnethal said there's something special about a place where visitors and residents mingle so easily. She herself moved to the island full time about a decade ago after visiting for years.

"It's a real community here," she says.

Collins adds that many repeat visitors feel the same way. Though they visit just once a year, the island has become a home where they can really get away. Bird-watching and stargazing replace the hustle and bustle of real life.

"Some people say they don't tell anybody where they go, so it doesn't get crowded," Collins says. "They feel like it's their own place."



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