Around the Bend

Around the Bend
Words by Christine VanDyk

Before an interstate cut through the heart of Florida, vacationers arrived on two-lane highways that slipped in and out of small towns lit by the neon of drive-up motor courts.

Children fought over the window seat on long car rides, and folding the paper map incorrectly was only slightly less offensive than whatever shenanigans resulted in Dad having to “pull this car over.”

It was another day and another time. Vacations weren’t fodder for Instagram likes, and the absence of “top 10 things to do” lists only added to the wonder of not knowing what lay ahead. While we can never go back, a visit to the Big Bend of Florida might just make it feel like we did.

The Big Bend is what locals call the elbow of the Sunshine State—the curve that begins just above Tampa and traces an arc toward the northwest towns of the Gulf of Mexico. This is the forgotten coast even most Floridians have yet to discover. Simple and easy, it’s a place where true luxury is found in the stars you count at night—not in the ratings on the travel website.

Tarpon Springs

Soon after leaving the hustle and bustle of Tampa, you’ll stumble upon the small fishing village of Tarpon Springs. In the late 1800s, it drew sponge divers from the Greek Isles, soon becoming the largest Greek-American community in the U.S. You might recognize it from the annual Orthodox Epiphany celebration portrayed on television morning shows. The tradition begins with the Archbishop blessing a golden cross and tossing it into the bayou. Young boys dressed in white dive in, churning the waters in their search, until one lucky lad finds the relic and garners some diving blessings.

If you happen to miss the town’s most famous gathering, don’t worry—there are plenty of other reasons to visit. Stroll the docks as fishing boats unload natural sponges, pop into an antique shop, or visit the Saint Nicholas Cathedral. Just don’t leave before sampling the pastries and authentic Greek flavors of eateries such as the family-run Hellas Restaurant and Bakery. The sticky baklava is even better than your yaya’s.

Crystal River

Crystal River is a slice of “Old Florida” best explored by water. All you need is a boat and a salty sea captain to explore the area’s favorite pastime: scallop diving. The season runs from early July through mid-September.

Before puttering out toward the Gulf, be sure to pack a cooler of snacks, cold beverages, and plenty of SPF. As you leave the dock, look out for one of the area’s most beloved attractions: a group of spider monkeys that have free range on tiny Monkey Island.

Thankfully, scallop diving isn’t all that complicated. It’s less about skill and more about speed. As you glide overtop the seagrass where the baseball-sized bivalves hide, keep your eyes peeled. Once you spy the scallop, you have to kick, dive, and grab it before it clamps down and propels itself deep into the weeds. Since scallops live in six to eight feet of warm, shallow water, there’s no need for scuba gear, making it fun for snorkelers of all ages.

Crystal River is also the best place in the world to see manatees in the wild. The underground sand boils and vents of Three Sisters Springs ensure these waters are often warmer than those of the Gulf. Thanks to the ideal conditions, hundreds of the gentle giants are lured into the springs every winter. Visitors can kayak and even swim with the manatees, or simply watch them from the boardwalk viewing areas.

The Cedar Keys

Island Hotel on Cedar Key is a far cry from a Holidome. With just 10 rooms packed full of history and personality, it’s the kind of place where time stands still. Rocking chairs creak on the wooden balcony, claw-foot tubs welcome you to relax, and there’s not a television in sight. Not surprisingly, this timeless lodge is located on an island in the Gulf of Mexico you’ve probably never heard of—Cedar Key.

The Cedar Keys are actually an archipelago surrounded by the blue-green waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast. Within the island chain, there’s a national wildlife refuge where a thriving lumber town once stood, plenty of marshy backwaters to row, and a local boutique where you can conveniently buy both fine art and smoked mullet dip. Order up a salad made from a Sabal Palm or cast a line in the flats. Wander the quirky fishing village or savor a cup of clam chowder in a world where chain restaurants don’t exist. 

Apalachicola and St. George’s Island

This tiny dot on the Florida panhandle is home to waterside seafood shacks, main-street storefronts, and historic homes. It’s a step back in time. Don’t believe us? Check out Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park. Along beaches that have repeatedly earned a mention on the Top 10 Florida Beach lists, are miles of unspoiled sand, joyfully free of high-rise condos and souvenir stands. It’s Florida the way it once was and may never be again. 

No doubt the small-town charm and idyllic lighthouse are worth the visit, but it’s the legendary oysters you won’t forget. Thanks to the nutrient-rich tides and brackish waters of the Apalachicola River, they grow fat and sweet in an estuary protected by barrier islands. Now threatened by a watershed that steals the flow upstream and prevents it from reaching the bay, the supply is shrinking. The good news is that while Apalachicola oysters may be disappearing from restaurants around the country, the area’s finest are still plentiful on local menus. So, grab a seat at the table, order up a dozen on the half-shell, and toss back a cold beer at a raw bar overlooking the sea.

From secluded beaches to hidden springs and sleepy main-street towns, there’s no better way to lose yourself than a trip around the Big Bend. While it may not be the typical Florida attraction, the Sunshine State’s “Forgotten Coast” is sure to be a getaway you’ll always remember.