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Battle of the Best-Kept Secrets

Sunday, January 19, 2003

You say you've never heard of St. Joe Bay and Charlotte Harbor? Neither had we. Marketers tout the two laid-back coastal areas as the "best-kept secrets" in Florida, undervisited places with great natural beauty. We paid a visit to each to see what all the talk (or lack thereof) is about -- and how they measure up.

Gulf County, Fla., is compact, largely devoid of people and -- with beaches so perfect that any number of travel story clichés could describe them -- one of the most beautiful spots in the United States that you're likely to encounter.

Here are a few things that Gulf County, Fla., is not.

It's not Panama City, that Gomorrah of daiquiri huts, wet T-shirt contests and Waffle Houses an hour west on the Panhandle.

It's not Apalachicola, the vibrant fishing community 25 miles east that's replete with inns dripping in gingerbread and streets lined with boutiques and cafes.

And it's most definitely not a "best-kept secret." A few years ago, perhaps. But now it's more of a pretty-well-kept secret, as builders have descended upon the county -- or at least on its waterfront along the Gulf of Mexico and St. Joseph Bay -- like buzzards on road kill (which, incidentally, you can also see here). "For Sale" signs compete for attention with hand-painted placards for fishing charters and canoe rentals, and realty companies outnumber decent restaurants.

It might just be another Outer Banks in the making. But let's hope not.

Three, maybe four, cars speed by the gates of the Old Saltworks Cabins on Cape San Blas, the primary (some might say only) reason to venture to this neck of the "Forgotten Coast." That's what marketers have dubbed the stretch from even more obscure Mexico Beach eastward to Apalachicola and St. George Island. Gulf County sits in the middle, with the cape jutting out from its southeasternmost tip like an upraised arm; the cabins are just about where the limb would receive its smallpox vaccination.

"I used to live in Atlanta, so I know what crowded roads are like. You know why I moved down here?" says Old Saltworks owner Lannie Blair, a bear of a guy fighting a nasty cold. He gestures through a thick knot of pines and palms toward Cape San Blas Road, now silent. "This is our idea of heavy traffic."

It's a cloudless Saturday afternoon, with the temperature a nippy -- at least for these parts -- 55. Perfect for a visiting northerner, subarctic for the locals. "Winter is a good season to be here . . . it's real peaceful," Blair says. "We actually forget how to talk to one another. We just point and grunt."

Before long, he points and grunts me toward my home for the next two nights: a bayfront cabin with two bedrooms, kitchen, screened-in porch and deck wrapped around a towering pine. Other cabins sit nearby, but all I can see from my windows are fantail palms, tree trunks and St. Joe Bay. The tab: $49 a night.

During the Civil War, the Confederates used a pond on the property to distill salt, which was used for preserving meat and tanning leather; in 1862, the saltworks were destroyed by cannon fire. Blair's Web site runs with the story, promising the easily transported that "you can almost smell the gun powder."

Not quite. Instead, my nostrils fill with fumes from Arizona Chemical, an industrial eyesore located in county seat Port St. Joe across the bay. Though the stench dissipates rapidly, I spend the rest of my visit debating whether a persistent, albeit slight, odeur in the air is from the plant or the bay slime.

With only two incorporated towns (ultra-bland Port St. Joe on the coast and Wewahitchka 25 endless miles inland), Gulf County is a quick study. I drive north to Wewahitchka, where rare, sweet Tupelo honey is harvested for two short weeks each spring. I'd never heard of the stuff either. Still, Van Morrison rhapsodized over it in "Tupelo Honey," and Peter Fonda nearly won an Oscar playing a beekeeper in search of it in "Ulee's Gold."

Back near the cape, I heed Blair's advice and stop at the Indian Pass Trading Post & Raw Bar, which may be the worst-kept secret in this best-kept secret. It's one of those hideaways that tourists run to for a little local flavor, the result being that families from Jersey end up chatting with each other about how their vacations are going.

I'm in luck, though. This local hangout, a former filling station, is full of locals.

A half-dozen old salts snicker and smoke in one corner, while friends gather at tables and suck down platters of oysters and beer out of plastic cups. Everyone knows everyone. A woman clutching a dachshund sits at the counter with her husband, who's grilling a couple of guys in hunting camouflage. I dig into a mound of baked oysters and steamed shrimp, happily gooping up my hands as I watch a football game on the tube.

It's all so . . . Florida.

The sun has set and the temperature is plunging as I return to the cabin. There'll be frost on the car in the morning, but I don't mind. I wrap in a blanket and hunker down on the dock outside my door, listening as the rising tide laps against the pier. After the last of three shooting stars scuttles across the sky, I head to bed, sleeping more soundly than I have in months.

Nature calls in Gulf County. Loudly, incessantly. Like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," it won't be ignored.

For the anglers, there's deep-sea, pier, bay, beach and freshwater fishing. On the tip of the cape at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, birders have indexed more than 340 species. The St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, accessible only by boat, is home to sea turtles, snakes, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Outfitters offer snorkeling and diving jaunts from the Port St. Joe Marina.

And then there are the beaches.

Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, crowned the state park's pearly shoreline the best in America last year -- and that includes Hawaii. Say what you will about the guy (somehow, he's turned body-surfing into a full-time gig), his annual survey is highly regarded and energetically promoted.

I can't say I disagree with him. Remember those silky white granules Dad poured into the sandbox at the start of each summer? These beaches are covered in 'em, and there's no family cat to confuse it with Kitty Litter.

The 2,500-acre park is bounded by the gulf and St. Joe Bay, and while you can drive to one beach (a beaut, of course), the crème de la crème is evidently at the peninsula's tip in a wilderness preserve -- a seven-mile hike from the parking area. Let me know what it's like, will you?

I tramp for about a mile on packed sand in the preserve, my eyes smarting from the blinding opalescence of the beach and its undulating dunes. I'm alone most of the way until I see an interloper approaching. On my beach.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" she says as we cross paths. She's the third person to make that observation today.

Down the coast at the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, I'm alone again, naturally. The light itself, out of service since 1996, is nothing to look at, but I've been told the shelling is excellent, and it is. I walk and stoop along the beach, and worry.

Sometime in the future, there's going to be a very bad day here, with round-the-clock Weather Channel coverage, Jim Cantore holding onto a tree, bumper-to-bumper traffic bound for Wewahitchka. Last year, the region was brushed by Tropical Storm Isidore and recovered quickly. But this is the fifth lighthouse on the cape, with storms wiping out most of the others. Elsewhere, rock walls are holding back the surf from the main road, and at one point the cape is so narrow the bay and the gulf almost touch.

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. Tomorrow is another day, and I want to go canoeing. Blair has a few boats lying near my cabin, but to get into the bay I'd have to wade about 100 yards through low-tide muck. No way. I stop at Scallop Cove, a tin-roofed gas station, grocery store and rental center near the state park.

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" the clerk chirps. Though I had to step over a canoe to get inside, I ask if she knows anyplace that offers boat rentals. I would have rolled my eyes at the dope. She chooses to smile. Ten minutes and $25 later, I'm pushing off from the dock behind the store.

I paddle the bay for hours, blessed with no wind and abundant sunshine. The silence is so complete I can hear ducks frolicking -- but can't see them. Below, I survey horseshoe crabs, starfish, conch, scallops. Lots and lots of scallops.

It's getting late, but not too late to tail the eagle that's been circling overhead. Eagles don't like pretzel nubs, do they? I never find out. The icon alights on a piece of driftwood in water too shallow to navigate. A stare-off ensues, but I blink first and head to the dock.

This time, like those ubiquitous bulldozers on the cape, I'm the interloper. Just the way it should be.

WHERE TO STAY: You'd think there'd be more options, but the lack of hotels just adds to the area's charm. Instead, many visitors opt to rent a house for the week ($1,000 and up isn't uncommon). Check with the tourism office (see below) for rental agencies.

Short-termers may want to check out the Old Saltworks Cabins (1085 Cape San Blas Rd., 850-229-6097, http://www.oldsaltworks.com/). The guestbook in my cabin warned of a warm-weather mosquito plague, but it didn't seem to ruin too many vacations. All units have kitchens or kitchenettes; the gulf is a hop across the road. Rates from $34 in winter, $59 in summer. Nearby, Whispering Pines (1177 Cape San Blas Rd., 850-227-7252, www.capesanblas.com/whispine)offers three bayside cabins, each with two bedrooms, kitchen and screened-in porch. Rates start at $75. Reserve well in advance to nab one of the eight secluded cabins in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park; from $55. To book: 800-326-3521, http://www.reserveamerica.com/.

If you must wake up to muffins and coffee, consider the Turtle Beach Inn (140 Painted Pony Rd., 850-229-9366, http://www.turtlebeachinn.com/), which is about as chic as this area gets. The inn sits a few hundred yards from the gulf on Indian Pass. All rooms have private entrances and baths; rates from $140, including breakfast. Other B&Bs include the Cape San Blas Inn (4950 Cape San Blas Rd., 800-315-1965, http://www.cape%20sanblasinn.com/), with five rooms from $130.

WHERE TO EAT: Again, not a surfeit of choices, but the Indian Pass Trading Post & Raw Bar (8391 Hwy. C30A) makes up for it. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but go in anyway (actually, it doesn't look like much inside, either). Grab your own brewski from the fridge and order at the counter. Oysters -- raw, steamed, baked -- are the house specialty, but everything I tried was great. Dinner for two, with a few beers, is about $30.

Other choices include Butler's (287 Butler Bay), with a killer bay view, decent seafood, great service and zero ambiance. Dinner for two, including wine, is $40. Lunch entrees and sandwiches at the Dockside Café (Port St. Joe Marina) start at $4.95; dinner, including crab-stuffed grouper, begins at $12.95. If you're in lodging with a kitchen, there's a new Piggly Wiggly in downtown Port St. Joe.

WHAT TO DO: For your beach fix, look no further than St. Joseph Peninsula State Park (850-227-1327, www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/district1/stjoseph; $3.25 per car), with nature-trailing, bird-watching, kite-flying and, of course, gulf-swimming. For $10 round trip, take the pontoon boat at the end of Indian Pass to the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Caution: The island has no facilities. Details: 850-229-1065, http://www.stvincentisland.com/.

Numerous places rent kayaks and canoes for exploring St. Joe Bay. I went with Scallop Cove (4310 Cape San Blas Rd., 850-227-7557), which charges $25 for a half-day canoe rental and has a grocery store for snacks and water. At the Port St. Joe Marina, anglers, snorkelers and divers will find an array of outfitters, including Seahorse Water Safaris (850-227-1099); snorkeling trips from $25, dive charters from $50.

INFORMATION: Gulf County Tourism Development Council, 800-482-GULF, http://www.visitgulf.com/. For a guide to the entire " Forgotten Coast," including festival, lodging and restaurant options, check out http://www.forgottencoastline.com/.

-- John Deiner

Alligators. Bald eagles. "Bison roaming the cypress preserves." The brochure I'm unfolding is full of deep-in-the-forest discovery. But is quiet Charlotte Harbor in fact Florida's state secret?

Could be. Tell someone you are heading down there, to Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda across the bay, and they will think that you are talking about a different part of the South.

Charlotte, North Carolina? No, uh uh.

Port of Charleston? Florida, I said. FLORIDA.

A few non-classified Charlotte Harbor facts: The harbor itself, which doesn't get any deeper than about 20 feet, is carved out of Florida's Gulf Coast between Sarasota and Naples. It includes one of the state's biggest estuaries. And after taking a shine to it and deciding to start a colony here in 1513, Ponce de Leon had the bad luck to be hit in the thigh by an arrow fired by a Calusa Indian, develop gangrene and die.

This early blow to settlement led to a long-term lack of development and eventual protection, through Charlotte Harbor and state aquatic preserves, of what locals realized were some of the most unspoiled mangrove forests and barrier islands (including Don Pedro Island and Manasota Key) you could find.

Small shreds of recognition came to Charlotte Harbor, thanks to the Miss Florida Teen Pageant, which strutted here every year, and the Texas Rangers baseball team, who played their spring training games in Port Charlotte. But both have recently left town, and nobody is complaining about a slightly emptier calendar.

You can get to beaches from here, like nearby Englewood on Cape Haze Peninsula, but this is not a sun-and-sand minded area in the usual Florida way. Birdwatching, wading in marsh grass, canoeing (the Charlotte Harbor media release is etched on a paddle) -- these are the ways that locals make use of the water.

That, and strolling along its edge in pretty spots like Punta Gorda's manicured Gilchrist Park, where the palms are as tall as L.A. trees but have sculpted trunks that you have to look at twice, since they're textured like papier-mache, or expertly wrapped rolls of Ace bandages.

Of all the things you can do here, the one that grabs my attention and won't let go is the idea of taking a swamp buggy tour through a huge, privately owned mass of prairie land, cypress swamps and palmetto woods located near Punta Gorda.

Known as Babcock Wilderness Adventures, this 90,000-acre spread is, in fact, a working ranch where real live cowboys and cur dogs chase after herds of Angus cattle, where you can try to get a glimpse of rare, free-roaming American bison, and where the Babcock family raises alligators for "hides and meat." The swamp buggy itself is a school bus with the top half sheared off -- one that the Babcocks have spray-painted in blotches of Army camouflage and outfitted with an African Queen cloth canopy.

Over the past couple of days, there's been almost a foot of rain here, and flooding has now reached the Babcock Wilderness Adventures visitors booth. Still, about 15 of us board the buggy and wait while our guide, Dick Friedrichs, gets clearance from tour director Steve Tutko to push off.

"You can go ahead and drive over the sluiceway today," assures Steve. "The water's come down since last night."

"You sure?" asks Dick.

"Well, go slow," says Steve. "But you'll make it."

As gears grind and we rumble into the bush, everyone points at white-tailed deer, egrets and another kind of bird splashing around in lake-size puddles. "Alligators! Over there!" shouts a man sitting in front of me, and now I see them: dark-gray sculpted logs and, just behind them in some tall grass, a flash of reddish feathers.

"That turkey better watch out for those alligators!" warns Dick over the mike. At that instant, one of the reptiles does make a jerky, almost mechanical lurch toward the bird, and it flutters, squawks and gets away on foot.

Dick is busy explaining that we have sighted a rare Osceola turkey when he's forced to jam on the brakes. A very large, brown, woolly animal with pointy horns is blocking the buggy. Bison! Since we've interrupted his nap, this road hog refuses to budge until Dick taps him with the bumper and he lets out a powerful snort -- allowing just enough room for us to squeeze by.

More wildlife up ahead. We see a 250-pound wild pig, which looks extremely formidable despite a hair-loss problem around its pinkish ears and neck. Dick tells us that these were brought to Florida by the Spanish conquistadors and, although no one asks, that they "taste like regular pork."

We get through the locally famous Telegraph Swamp without incident. It's spongier than any place I've seen, and is called this because the telegraph lines from Punta Gorda to Havana, Cuba, had to be routed around it. But when the buggy finally does try to forge across the sluiceway at the top of the dam, we get marooned in the surging current about a third of the way across.

For a minute, it really feels as if we're stuck here. The tires are spinning, and there's a brief but scary sense of flotation. Everyone breathes again when, after mumbling about our predicament, Dick finds some traction and the buggy flumes its way to dry land on the other side.

Safely back to base, we're invited to the Babcocks' Gator Shack Restaurant to taste some deep-fried alligator nuggets. "Quite chewy," says Nigel Yates of Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, and I have to agree. His mom, Jean Yates, takes a bite and decides that it is "savory, like a good rumpsteak."

Whether or not Charlotte Harbor is Florida's true secret, exploring secluded areas and staring at wild animals and birds seems to be the prime attraction. This is one reason why I decide to head up into Diamondback rattlesnake country near Punta Gorda to meet 91-year-old Bill Haast and his wife, Nancy, who operate Miami Serpentarium Laboratories from out of their home.

Haast never graduated from high school, and the laboratories look, from the outside, like a regular ranch house. Still, I'm told that he and Nancy are the nation's largest producer of snake venom for scientific study and pharmaceutical use, and that, if you make an appointment, you can watch them milking the poison out of various snakes.

"The rattlers are on the move this time of year," says Nancy cheerily, letting me in the front door and leading me through a foyer full of snake statues, snake needlepoint and framed reptile-related citations. "The neighbors call us when they see a snake and we come and get it."

Haast is dressed in white medical garb and looks amazingly fit -- despite his age and the fact that he's survived exactly 170 poisonous bites. We tramp around the property, looking for rattlers and trying to avoid volcano-like sand mounds that, I am informed, are fire-ant hills. "If you put your foot in there," warns Haast, "in seconds, they'll be stinging you up to your knees." From here on, I treat them like land mines, treading gingerly, expecting to feel ants with every footstep.

No ant bites or outdoor snakes today, but back in the lab, Haast is happy to wrestle out a tricolored coral snake, a Malayan pit viper, a cottonmouth and an ugly 15-year-old Chinese cobra flashing what looks like the CBS-eye logo on the back of its swollen hood.

Next comes a three-year-old Eastern Diamondback Rattler -- the largest American poisonous snake -- and as Haast grips its neck, he lets me feel the smooth, patterned skin and hear up close the ominous and bitterly angry bean-bag shake of the tail. I let go before he milks venom out of it by massaging it over a cloth-covered cup, but get a view of the unretracted fangs. They are as big as bobcat claws: curved, knifelike and deathly white.

It's early evening, and a hazy sunset is starting to spread itself out along the harbor edge. I need a break from snakes and fire ants and Osceola turkeys, and have wandered down to the docks at Punta Gorda's Fishermen's Village -- a former fish processing plant that's been converted into a rustic shopping mall full of seafood restaurants and stray cats.

At the marina, I get to talking to Capt. Ralph Allen, who operates the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing boats, and he agrees to take me out on the water even though it's late and a chilly wind has kicked up.

Allen knows his birds and, once we motor out, points to a kingfisher, some brown pelicans and a yellow-crowned night heron. At one point there's a quiet splash and Allen calls out "Manatee!" But all I can see is a hippopotamus snout before the animal thrashes and disappears.

Once he knows I am interested, Allen maneuvers the boat into the shallows where we can reach out to the exposed roots of mangrove trees, home to a few hanging oysters, and to barnacles and floating seeds and leaves.

There is only a patch of sky now, framed with bony branches, directly above the boat. Allen has steered us into a hidden mangrove "creek" that has no visible mouth.

This is the place where locals come to fish. The place that is his own. But he has shown it to me and so, for the moment, it is mine, too.

There is the puttering of the motor. The pulsing of crickets. And suddenly, there in the almost-dark, I grin.

Telegraph Swamp, eat your heart out. Snakes and American bison, take note. I have found it: the secret creek inside the very heart of Florida's best-kept secret.

And I am in no hurry to leave.

Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about kayaking New York harbor.

WHERE TO STAY: One of the few small-scale inns in a sea of Charlotte Harbor motels and hotels, Virginia House Bed & Breakfast (233 Harvey St., Punta Gorda, 941-575-8841, www.charlottebiz.com/virginiahs.htm) is a charming, friendly and -- since there is a separate guest entrance -- relatively private alternative to the plate-glass windows and long drab hallways of the usual chains. Rates: $75-$100. Sea Cove Motel (25000 E. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 941-639-0060) is right on the water and is owned by a fastidious German couple, the Leyezas -- which may be part of the reason it's so cheerful and spanking clean. Rates: $38-$65. Best Western Waterfront (300 Retta Esplanade, Punta Gorda, 800-525-1022, www.bestwestern.com/waterfront) has the best chunk of hotel real estate in town, with sweeping water views from many of its rooms. Step outside and you're in Gilchrist Park, Punta Gorda's stretch of palms and winding paths along the harbor. Rates: $69-$120.

WHERE TO EAT: There's no sign out front, but if you find the pumpkin-colored house on tiny Sullivan Street in Punta Gorda, you've found the Perfect Caper (320 Sullivan), a smart little bistro with a sleek sense of design and some of the area's best food. Chef Jeanie Roland is clever with dishes, like the blue-nose bass with ginger shallot sauce, but not gimmicky; and husband James Roland will help you navigate the menu and feel like a regular here, even if you're not. Entrees start at $19.

The oldest restaurant in Charlotte County, Waldo's Bistro (139 W. Marion, Punta Gorda), started out in 1929 as Fred's Quick Lunch but is now a sit-down spot listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to regional fare, Waldo's serves some Caribbean-style dishes, such as "Barbados Flying Fish, served with Pigeon Peas and Rice, Cou-Cou Bread and Plantains." Entrees start at $14.95.

Ask locals where to eat and they will give you directions to Port Charlotte's Cap'n and the Cowboy (2200 Kings Hwy., Maple Leaf Plaza) a roadside place that divides its focus between western-style grilled steaks and seafood. My favorite dish was an appetizer, Florida chili, which was less spicy but more interesting than the Texas stuff. Entrees start at $11.95.

WHAT TO DO: A swamp-buggy nature tour at Babcock Wilderness Adventures (8000 State Road 31, Punta Gorda, 800-500-5583, http://www.babcockwilderness.com/) is a great way to get a close look at alligators, bison and other exotic animals while riding through just about every type of local habitat: palmetto and pine woods, cypress swamps, marshes and prairie. Tours are offered daily and reservations are required.

Sightseeing boats docked at Fishermen's Village on West Retta Esplanade in Punta Gorda offer harbor tours and sunset cruises. King Fisher Fleet (1200 W. Retta Esplanade, 941-639-0969, http://www.kingfisherfleet.com/) charges $9.50 for an afternoon tour; the schedule varies seasonally and reservations are recommended.

Although Miami Serpentarium Laboratories (34879 Washington Loop Rd., Punta Gorda, 941-639-8888) is not an "attraction" in the usual sense, if you call co-owner Nancy Haast in advance, and are polite, she and her reptile-expert husband, Bill, will permit you to stand by quietly as poisonous snakes (including local diamondback rattlers) are milked for their venom. If you're lucky, you may get to pet one, too.

NFORMATION: Charlotte County Visitors Bureau, 888-4PUR-FLA, http://www.pureflorida.com/.

-- Peter Mandel

© 2003 The Washington Post Company