We started our Winter 2019 visit to Florida on the eastern side of the panhandle. We made these reservations 11 months ago, as that is how far in advance you have to plan for winter in Florida. We intended to explore the Forgotten Coast which we were not able to see last winter.
Our hearts were heavy as we watched the devastating Hurricane Michael head straight for our destinations We were lucky enough that every place we had reserved survived and was able to get up and running within a month of the storm.
We also changed our approach this year and headed straight down I-75 rather than explore the “ice belt”. We arrived in Florida 2 ½ days after leaving – during a perfect weather window and just ahead of winter storm Diego that left a ton of ice and snow in the southeast. Angels were watching over our trip this year, for sure.
Our first stop was Panacea which is on the Ochlockonee Bay. Holiday Campground and RV park sits right on the bay with a number of back in water front sites. They were still doing some work to fix their damage. They are mostly seasonal campers, with the water front sites for transients. The staff were very nice as were the other campers we met. We made friends with Lil’ Bit, a cute calico feral cat cared for by the residents. Seems like I’m always making a friend of some stray! We were able to explore Alligator Point, which was demolished by the storm. And this was our first view into the power of the hurricane and the devastation it left behind.
Our next stop was Eastpoint, which we used as our base for exploring the Apalachicola, St George and Port St Johns areas. The extent of the hurricane damage increased as we headed west. Roads were being repaired, old waterfront businesses destroyed, houses damaged and debris everywhere. The state parks on both St. George and Port St Joe were closed indefinitely.
Apalachicola is the Oyster headquarters for Florida. We were able to visit the quaint town and few times. The small shops and restaurants were happy to have visitors, as the town has not seen the same level of tourism as is typical for this time of year.
Our campground, Coastline RV, is more like a resort. We had a waterfront view (on the road as well). We saw the most amazing sunrises from our patio. We were almost the only one here for a while. There was the occasional one nighter but no one was staying for any length of time until January. The sister park, which is more like a campground, just down the street, had far more visitors. The bathhouse here is like any 4 star hotel spa and the staff are very accommodating. We even had a Thursday night happy hour in the rec hall where we met a family from Minnesota, now full timing across the US with their teenage children. We also met a family of 5 traveling in a converted school bus who had just returned from a trip in Africa. We are finding that there is an entire community of home schoolers who are giving their children the experience of a lifetime as they travel the US and the globe.
We took the truck as far west as Port St. Joe, and the damage and wreckage from the storm brought me to tears. Houses blown apart as if a bomb exploded. Vacant lots now occupied where businesses used to thrive. We saw a beautiful church whose roof was completely missing, but whose stained glass windows had been spared, I’m sure because of the parish’s work to cover them with boards. The debris and wreckage hauled to the sides of the streets were a testimony to the amount of destruction and the magnitude of work still remaining to clean up and get back to normal. We canceled our plans to continue to Mexico Beach, where Michael made landfall, because I was too emotional. I don’t know how they survived but signs everywhere showed the area’s commitment and fortitude to not let Michael win.
The seafood in Apalachicola and Port St Joes is the best we’ve had for a long time. Apalachicola is Florida’s oyster capital. The hurricane destroyed the oyster beds so oysters were being imported daily from Texas. It will take probably 3 years for the beds to replenish and for the fishing industry to come back to normal. I found this article interesting as it tells the story of the struggle to maintain the local oyster industry.
LINK: Florida’s Oyster Challenge
Our next stop was near Destin, so leaving the sleepy Forgotten Coast meant more traffic and more congestion. We took the route through the Apalachicola Forest and as we approached north of Panama City the devastation to the forest was immense. Trees standing like broken toothpicks. We tried to get pictures but the iPhone was simply not able to capture the complete destruction of parts of the forest.
After a couple weeks in Destin area, we will head around the Big Bend to Sarasota. While we love the Destin area, returning to Apalachicola is definitely on a future itinerary.