We breathe deeply, driving the long bridge from the mainland to St. George Island. A welcome change--pressures fading--rolls over us. Where the span arches over the ship channel we rubberneck to take in the barrier island's 30-mile sweep and the trip's first gander at the Gulf of Mexico.
Just on St. George, a compact district holds a handful of restaurants, stores for sundries, gifts, and fuel, and realty offices for vacation rentals. These will come in handy soon, but we breeze past them for now. We've arrived too early to claim our cottage for the week, so we turn east and head for the beach.
We find plenty of sand at St. George Island State Park with 9 miles of beach at isle's end. The park has campgrounds, nature trails, salt marshes, boardwalks, and bathhouses, but the best activity is staking out a stretch of sand for ourselves. Pull offs spaced along the road fit only a few cars each, scattering the population. Through breaks in the high dunes, we spot families flying kites, casting lines, building castles, donning snorkel gear, and resting in umbrella shade. Soon we see an empty pull off and spill out of the car, glad to be here.
Later we retreat with our first blushes of sunburn, pick up keys to our beach house, and haul luggage inside. Most of St. George remains uncrowded, with stilt-top homes fronting the water or standing one or two rows back. There's elbowroom and not a high-rise in sight.
Stocking the kitchen with groceries, we cook family-style meals, venturing out to restaurants occasionally. Finni's Grill & Bar and the Blue Parrot Oceanfront Cafe satisfy with laid-back service, beach decks, thatched cabanas, and affordable, unpretentious seafood served in plastic baskets. Oyster Cove Seafood Bar & Grill and Island Oasis also warrant return visits. Juice & Java By The Sea serves gourmet coffees and smoothies good for pick-me-ups.
Sometime during the week we'll link up with Journeys of St. George Island. We might all pile into Capt. Jeanni McMillan's powerboat or paddle kayaks for her guided tour of nearby St. Vincent Island, a national wildlife refuge.
But mostly we play around on the beach gathering shells, passing a ball, riding breakers, reading, tuning in to a radio station, and gazing out to sea. Spared the rapid growth that has altered other parts of the Panhandle, St. George remains tailormade for low-key escapes. At week's end, crossing that long bridge to the mainland, we say goodbye. But only until next time.
For more information: Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, 99 Market Street, Apalachicola, FL 32320; (850) 653-9419 or www.baynavigator.com.
Directions: St. George Island lies 60 miles southeast of Panama City and 70 miles southwest of Tallahassee; from U.S. 98 just east of Apalachicola, turn south on State 300.
This article is from the May 2001 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.