The annual beach trip is a tradition many families look forward to each year.
Sometimes it becomes necessary for the clan to find a new place for the excursion because they've outgrown the old cottage or perhaps the beach they used to frequent has become too overrun with development. If the latter is the case for you and your family, consider Florida's St. George Island.
Located along a still relatively pristine stretch of the Gulf coast in the Panhandle, St. George is a 22-mile-long barrier island where the historic lighthouse is the tallest structure in sight and only a handful of mom-and-pop businesses exist in a small central business district. The rest of the island is filled out by a large state park and vacation rental homes.
The beach is broad and flat and contains fine white sand peppered with seashells and sand dollars and backed by a vegetated dune area heavily populated with high sea oats waving in the breeze.
A toll-free, five-mile bridge connects the island to the mainland, crossing over Apalachicola Bay, where oyster beds flourish. Boats ply the shallow waters hauling the popular mollusk to local markets, restaurants and seafood processing plants in nearby Apalachicola and Eastpoint.
Life on St. George moves at a slower pace than many beach destinations you might be familiar with. Spring break is more of a family-oriented affair instead of being geared toward college students. You won't find raucous beach clubs with MTV cameras rolling on these sands. The nightlife is limited to a couple of bars featuring live music or karaoke contests.
For sporting and nature enthusiasts, there's plenty to do other than play on the beach. The lack of development -- not only on the island but the rest of mainland Franklin County as well -- makes for a nature lover's dream.
One of the reasons the area is so pristine is because it is boxed in by protected forests and wildlife reserves. On a kayaking trip in the sound or a hike through a slash pine forest you're bound to spot plenty of wildlife, including waterfowl, migrating birds, maybe even a bald eagle or two, as well as curious dolphins exploring the bay.
One memorable way to experience St. George Island is off-shore on an adventure cruise.
Journeys of St. George Island (www.sgislandjourneys.com) is a tour and boating company based on the island, so you won't have to cross the bridge to get on board. The company offers guided fishing and sightseeing trips into the bay and the Gulf. On a sightseeing trip you might stop on an uninhabited barrier island or an exposed sandbar to collect seashells, or see wild bottle-nose dolphins stage an impromptu show in the boat's wake.
The company also rents boats and kayaks if you choose to go it alone.
For short side trips head to Apalachicola for shopping, dining and gawking at historic architecture; Carrabelle to get the feel of a sleepy Florida fishing village from yesteryear; and Bald Point State Park, a major staging area for migratory birds before they make the long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
The narrow, secluded peninsula of Alligator Point next to Bald Point State Park is lined with rental houses, making it another option for families seeking other off-the-radar beach accommodations.
Where to stay
There are a couple of motel-style inns on St. George Island, but it's best for families to rent a house for a week or a weekend. Collins Vacation Rentals and Resort Vacation Properties are two companies that have been renting to vacationers for years, and both have a wide array of options and price ranges to choose from.
Alice Collins, president and owner of Collins Vacation Rentals, is a longtime resident of St. George and a fount of knowledge about the area and its history, so be sure to chat her up about more than rental property. For houses on Alligator Point, Harbor Point Realty has more than 30 rentals available on the peninsula.
Collins Vacation Rentals. 1-800-683-9776, www.collinsvacationrentals.com.
Resort Vacation Properties. 1-877-272-8206, www.resortvacationproperties.com.
Harbor Point Realty. 1-877-774-8671, www.harborpointrealty.com.
Where to eat
Captain Snook's. Family-run establishment serving just-off-the-boat seafood on the bay in Eastpoint, across the bridge from St. George. Even the side dishes are made fresh daily; nothing from a can at this roadside restaurant in an unassuming dock house. Good seafood dining is easy to come by in the area, but Captain Snook's falls into the "don't miss" category. Seafood dinners, $8.99-$17.99. 500 E. Highway 98, Eastpoint. 850-670-1515.
Harry A's. Longtime restaurant and bar on St. George where the walls are filled with memorabilia, the courtyard has nightly entertainment and there's even a makeshift library in an old phone booth near the front entrance. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day. Entrees, sandwiches and baskets, $7.99-$25.99. 28 W. Bayshore Drive, St. George Island. 850-927-3400, www.harryasrestaurant.com.
St. George Island Visitor Center & Lighthouse Museum. 2 E. Gulf Beach Drive, St. George Island. 850-927-7744, www.seestgeorgeisland.com.
Franklin County Tourist Development Council. 1-866-914-2068, www.anaturalescape.com.