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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

A Sandy Crown

St. George Island passes on The Best in America designation, but it still is Number 1 in my book

Photo of St. George Island State Park Beach by Kristen K. Tucker

Before I could put pen to paper – and implore you to hurry to visit the Best Beach in America – Dr. Beach lifted the sandy crown from St. George Island, Florida, and named a new beach for 2024-25. (It’s in Hawaii!)

I visited St. George Island, which held the prestigious honor for 2023-24, as April turned to May. While a different beach has been named – beaches typically earn the honor only once – I promise that if you visit St. George Island even as it passes on its Best Beach crown, you will be as wowed as I was.

First things first – about the beaches and the good doctor himself. Dr. Beach – Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman – is a professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost beach experts. On his website, in naming, specifically, St. George Island State Park Beach, he wrote:

Photo by Kristen K. Tucker

“This long barrier island, far from urban areas, is a favorite destination for beachgoers, anglers and bird watchers as nature abounds. Besides swimming in crystal-clear water, I enjoy beachcombing and shelling. While St. George Island suffered a big hit in 2018 by Hurricane Michael, the area has substantially recovered, especially the sugary fine, white sand beach. There is much to explore at this serene 1,962-acre park.”

St. George Island is located a short drive from both Tallahassee and Panama City Beach, situated along the Florida Panhandle. From Apalachicola on the mainland, access the island by crossing Florida’s third-longest bridge, the 4-mile-long Bryant Patton Memorial Bridge. While my family has driven to the Florida Panhandle or Alabama’s Gulf Coast for years, I flew Delta Air Lines from Evansville through Atlanta, Georgia, to Tallahassee for this trip. If you’re driving from Evansville, expect about 11 hours. Those who beat a trail to 30A, the panhandle’s well-trod tourist destination, during spring break know that drive takes about nine and a half hours. Trust me, especially if you’ve grown a bit tired of 30A and how it is a lot nowadays, the extra 90 minutes to St. George Island is worth it.

St. George Island is 28 miles long and no wider than one mile at any one point. You can take in the sunrise on one side of the island and the sunset on the other. On the south edge are the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and on the north side is Apalachicola Bay, one of the best angling locations in the southeastern U.S.

Photo of Beach Foam Baby by Kristen K. Tucker

You won’t find high-rises on St. George Island, with its fewer than 1,000 full-time residents. Accommodations are largely freestanding rentals, such as the more than 300 properties offered by the matriarch of the island, Alice Collins, who, along with the island itself, celebrated her business’ 50th anniversary in 2023. What a year it was for “Miss Alice” and her team: Dr. Beach naming SGI American’s Best Beach and celebrating 50 years of bringing folks to St. George Island.

I stayed in Beach Foam Baby, a large, well-equipped four-bedroom (which could sleep at least 10) property with beach views situated just a one-minute walk to the beach. This unit was on stilts, providing a large area for recreation underneath game tables, seating, outdoor cooking) and sunbathing by the pool. Bikes were included, as were multiple beach chairs and umbrellas. While navigating stairs was necessary in this unit, many properties are built with elevators.

Photo of Chef Ian Williams-prepared gourmet meal by Kristen K. Tucker

Beach Foam Baby is centrally located on the island. Here’s a quick lay of the land. The center of the island has more of a beach town feel. It is anchored by the St. George Island lighthouse, multiple eateries and small stores, and a playground. The eastern end of the island is the Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park, offering nine miles of undeveloped white sand beach. Toward the western end of the island is the Bob Sikes Cut, a channel sliced into the island by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1954 to allow fishing fleets and other vessels to access the Gulf of Mexico from the bay side. About five miles east from the cut is the entrance to The Plantation, a gated community that has brought more than a few celebrities to St. George Island. Here, about 100 homeowners consider The Plantation their primary residence. About half of the 500 single-family homes are available for rent. Collins Vacation Rentals offers many luxury units within The Plantation, including the spectacular Lazy Gator, where our group of nearly 20 enjoyed a farewell dinner prepared by private chef Ian Williams of Your Table! Your Chef! bespoke dining experiences.

And about the celebrities. Miss Alice recounts earlier days on St. George Island when country crooner and Kentucky native Tom T. Hall would be dropped off on the island by his bus driver to fish.

“You don’t recognize people here,” Miss Alice says. “You can have a CEO and a fisherman sitting at a bar, and they’re still talking.”

Photo of Italian oysters from Mango Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill by Kristen K. Tucker

So where do both the CEOs and the fishermen eat? Save for a lone Subway sandwich store, you won’t find chain restaurants or fast food on the island. Plan to eat local for your stay. Mango Mike’s Sports Bar & Grill is a large, open-air, tiki-themed family-friendly restaurant with an outdoor deck. Staff serve oysters raw on the half shell as well as baked at least nine different ways, including the Italian with green olives, olive oil, prosciutto, and parmesan cheese.

Mango Mike’s sister restaurant is The Beach Pit, which has been combining Texas-style barbecue (they smoke their own meats onsite) with fresh seafood for more than 25 years. While locals rave about the pulled pork and smoked turkey breast, I had the blacked grouper sandwich, which did not disappoint. Dine inside or out on the screened-in, dog-friendly patio.

Paddy’s Raw Bar is surrounded by the beauty of the bay and calls itself a Sunny Place for Shady People. Patrons come for the live music (unless the University of Alabama is playing football), farm-raised Apalachicola oysters and locally caught seafood, and dog-friendly atmosphere with even a special menu for pooches.

Blue Parrot Oceanfront Café has the distinction of being the only beachfront restaurant on the island. A St. George Island staple, the Blue Parrot offers fresh seafood, steaks and chicken, burgers, appetizers, sandwiches, soups, salads, oysters (of course), and homemade desserts. The outside tiki bar serves beer, wine, and specialty drinks. Want to see what St. George Island looks like today? The island’s internet-famous webcam is located at the Blue Parrot.

Photo of the St. George Island lighthouse provided by Collins Vacation Rentals

So, what else is there to do on this beautiful island paradise? Getting out on the water is a great way to see the island. Hire St. George Island Charters to take you out – to fish or just to sightsee.  Our group went out on a nice charter, and the captain took us to the cut, where we collected shells on Little St. George Island.

Others in the travel group took kayaks and stand-up paddle boards in the bay, with the guidance of Fortunas Family Charters and Island Fit.

I now have visited St. George Island twice, and I am certain I will return. The next time you’re tempted to do the familiar – beat a trail down I-65 South to the popular Florida Panhandle destinations along 30A – consider tacking on just a bit more time to your drive to discover one of Florida’s unspoiled wonders – St. George Island.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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