“In point-two miles, turn right,” says Samantha, the voice of my GPS. “Recalculating,” she states (again) as I drive past a road flanked by dense pine forest. Then, through a gap in the trees ahead, I see endless sky and below the horizon, a hint of water. “In point-three miles, tur—” Click. I give Samantha a rest. Coming out of North Florida’s Big Bend, I know I’m headed west as long as the water is to my left, so I hug the Gulf coast as I drive along U.S. 98.
My first stop is Apalachicola, a fishing village that rose to fame among foodies for its plump oysters. I figure a dozen of these local delights, plus a frosty pint of beer, will nicely refill my tank after hours of driving. To work up an appetite, I visit Tate’s Hell State Forest and trek a mile into the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail, stopping to gaze at a vista of an Evergladesian sea of grass. Thinking about those oysters again, I retrace my steps and head into town.
At Boss Oyster (apalachicolariverinn.com/boss.html), I’m amazed to find that there are 20 different ways to order oysters. The combo platter, allowing four different styles, proves right all who insisted I try these bivalves plucked from the bay the restaurant overlooks.
Checking in at the nearby Water Street Hotel & Marina (waterstreethotel.com), I’m surprised to discover that my suite is bigger than my apartment, even without the wraparound balcony facing the Apalachicola River. I look down and spot otters playing on a dock before I jaunt over to St. George Island for a bicycle ride into the state park and a stroll along a secluded beach that makes me feel as if I’m the first human ever to leave footprints on it.
I head to the historic downtown district for dinner at Verandas Restaurant and Wine Shop (verandasbistro.com). The cozy interior welcomes conversation, and I chat with Ronald and Kate from Ohio as I savor the local-caught cobia in Cajun sauce. Ronald raves about the scallops, Kate is enchanted by Apalachicola’s small-town charm, “You can sense the history they have with the water, and who even knows it’s here?”
After passing through a few small beach towns along 98, Panama City Beach looms large on the horizon. Lunch is zesty fish tacos at Hook’d Pier Bar & Grill (hookedpierbar.com) before a visit to St. Andrews State Park. By sunset, it’s just me walking along the beach and surfers catching waves.
With so much tasty seafood along this coast, I can’t resist the Boatyard Restaurant (boatyardclub.com). Creations from ahi-tuna nachos (not on the menu but always available) to Parmesan grouper cheeks are twists on local favorites. I rest sated at the luxe, 23-story Shores of Panama (shoresofpanamacitybeach.com), drifting off to the sound of the ocean.
Come morning, Brad from Adventures at Sea (watersportspc.com) boats us out to Shell Island. The white sands are the softest I’ve ever felt between my toes.
Headed west again, time seems to slow as I hit Scenic Highway 30A. I brake to gawk at the stark architecture of Alys Beach and Seaside. Settling into a cottage (cottagerentalagency.com) in Seaside, I stroll to the town center to mingle with locals. “Living here doesn’t feel like real life,” one claims. “The people and the places are just more relaxed.”
After days on the road, I could use a shave, and dinner at V Seagrove (vseagrove.com), 30A’s newest fine-dining spot, is a good excuse. The restaurant’s look is from South Beach, but the tripletail and other seafood is from the Gulf.
Before the long trek home, I squeeze in one last adventure: a kayak/hike through Western Lake and Grayton Beach State Park with Walco Eco Tours (walcoecotours.com). A fog rolls in, blending the sky with the huge white sand dunes (some as tall as houses), but it clears just in time for me to pack up the car, turn on the music and let Samantha guide me home.
Ready to take on your next road trip? Check out our Ultimate Florida Keys Road Trip Guide.