Friday, March 15, 2013

Winter Sojourn 2013 - New Smyrna Beach and The Forgotten Coast

After camping for 15 days, it was back to more space and modern conveniences.  At New Smyrna Beach we had a house rented that was right off the beach near the Canaveral National Seashore.  I chose New Smyrna Beach because it was close to Daytona and I wanted to be there during Race Week.  New Smyrna Beach is very developed with lots of mid-rise condo’s all along the beach.

New Smyrna Beach
The beach stretches for over 30 miles from Ponce Inlet down to Cape Canaveral.  You can drive on the upper 6 miles of the beach but after that the beach gets narrow and the sand soft.  As beaches go, I didn’t care for it.  In fact, I didn’t care for the whole area.  It was too developed and sprawling.  You had to drive miles to get anywhere.  The only good part was that there were several nice attractions nearby that were an easy drive from where we stayed.

During race week, we spent a day at Daytona International Speedway watching the Daytona 500 Qualifying Races.  It was a really nice day.  Anne went with me to see her first Nascar race and we had a great time enjoying all the sights, sounds, and smells of that are part of a race.

We went down the Canaveral National Seashore a few times.  It was only a mile from our house and we got to enjoy the lengthy unspoiled barrier island beach.  It’s a place where we could see what the Florida Atlantic shore line looked like before all the development.  The Seashore consists of 24 miles of beach and a large coastal lagoon.  We spent our time at the Apollo Beach section.
Apollo Beach

We also went down to the Merritt Island National  Wildlife Refuge, which is outside of Titusville.  Both the Canaveral Seashore and Merritt Island Refuge were established to buffer the NASA complex at Cape Canaveral.  The refuge has a wonderful 7 mile wildlife loop road thru a coastal lagoon.  We saw lots of birds and a few alligators on the drive.
We also took a day trip over to Blue Springs State Park near Orange City.  Blue Springs is one to the top places to see manatees.  The manatees spend the winter in the spring run because of the warm consistent water temperatures.  The day we visited there had to be close to 100 manatees in the spring.  The water was crystal clear, which made it very easy to observe them.  I had never seen so many manatees.  The park has a nice boardwalk along the the spring run that offers several spots to view the manatees.

Manatees at Blue Springs State Park

Lastly, we spent an afternoon at the New Smyrna Dunes County Park which is at the northern end of the  beach up near Ponce Inlet.  This is a lovely park with a 1.5 mile boardwalk thru the dunes out to the beach opposite Ponce Inlet.

The day trips were fun, but our 3 week stay was about 2 weeks too long.  The weather was mostly cool with temps in the mid to upper 60’s. Nice, but not great beach weather.

Our departure day finally came and we packed up and headed to the Panhandle for another camping trip.  It was over 350 miles to our first stop and I decided to split the drive up over 2 days.  The first day we made it to Fanning Springs with a stop at Manatee Springs State Park. I was hoping to see more manatees, but recent rains had caused very high water from the Suwanee River to back up into the spring and turned the water cloudy.  We saw a couple of manatees but overall we were disappointed.  We spent the night nearby at a nice county campground called Otter Springs Park and Campground.  It was very well maintained and we got to see a wedding that took place in the campground while we were there.
Boardwalk at Manatee Springs State Park
From Fanning Springs, we took Route 98 west all the way over to Apalachicola.  This section of road is nice but very desolate until we got to the coast near St Marks.  Along the way, I noticed there were lots of churches and places of worship along the road.  It seemed like we saw more churches than homes or businesses.  This must be a very religious part of Florida.  Within a one block section of the town of Perry I counted 5 churches, with 3 being Baptist.  Some were just a couple of houses from each other.  Along the way there was the Church of God Baptist Church, Lighthouse Baptist Church, the Panacea Holiest Church, Life and Praise Assembly of God, Haven House Mission Church, and the New Life Deliverance Temple just to name a few.

Carrabelle Beach

Shrimp Boats in Apalachicola
We made it out to the gulf at Carrabelle where Route 98 hugs the water all the way to Apalachicola.  It’s a very scenic road.  We spent a little bit of time in Apalach, as the locals call it. I showed Anne the Catholic Church were I had spent the night several years ago waiting out a tornado warning on one of my Bike Florida trips. Apalachicola is a nice small sleepy little town that is the oyster capital of Florida.  It looks like it could be in a scene right out of the movie Forrest Gump.

Along the way, we took some time to visit St Georges Island, which is 4 miles off the coast of Apalachicola.  There’s a bridge out to the island.  We spent an afternoon visiting St Georges Island State Park on the eastern end of the island.  Its another lovely state park with beautiful stretches of white sand beaches and dunes.

One destination was St. Josephs Peninsula State Park.  The peninsula hangs out into the Gulf of Mexico.  This section of Florida very sparse and remote.  They call it The Forgotten Coast.  The nearest town is 20 miles away.  Its not heavily developed and businesses are few and far between.  Cell service is spotty and forget about wi-fi or mobile data access.  It reminded me of the Outer Banks and Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia.  Since it sits so far out into the water, St Josephs Peninsula is subject to some harsh weather.  While we were there, the wind blew a constant 20 knots.  It was sunny but cool.  The beaches were lovely with miles of white sugar type sand and large dunes, but the red flags was up the whole time warning of hazardous water conditions.

Campsite at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

 The State Park campground was nice.  We stayed in the Gulf Breeze section (it was more like the Gulf “gale” section while we were there), which is right behind the dunes of the beach facing the open gulf.   The other section, Shady Pines, was in a protected hammock away from the beach. Both are nice facilities.   The northern most 7 miles of the state park is a wilderness preserve which you can hike into but allows no vehicle access.   If you looking for a nice remote beach destination, with miles of white sand beaches away from civilization, St Joseph Peninsula is a place to go.

Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico
 Up next, Santa Rosa Island and the trip home.

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