Pat’s Wildways: Visiting the Big Bend Area of Florida

By Pat Foster-Turley

The Good Times Motel has recently reopened after the hurricane.

In the past few years, Bucko and I have taken short field trips to the Big Bend area of Florida, the Gulf Coast shoreline area where the Panhandle begins. We have spent years going to nearby Cedar Key but have pretty much explored every aspect of this place and it was time to broaden our horizons.

This past August, we visited Steinhatchee, a bit north of Cedar Key, just a few days before Hurricane Idalia battered and flooded the area. From our vantage point at the Who Dat Bar and Grill we watched boats full of visitors heading out to snorkel for scallops from the busy Sea Hag Marina across the river. Our room at the adjacent Good Times Motel and Marina was what you would expect a fish camp room to be: inexpensive, sparsely decorated, small but clean. We were shocked to see video footage of Hurricane Idalia destroying the Sea Hag Marina just a couple of days later.

Crabbie Dad’s Bar and Grill was flooded almost to the ceiling during Hurricane Idalia, but many of the dollar bills on the ceiling survived.

Now, six months later, we were able to stay again at the rebuilt Good Times Motel in Steinhatchee. It has come back even better since the destruction, with all newly rebuilt units, new floors, new walls, and new furniture. And across the river, Crabbie Dad’s Bar and Grill was doing fine. Both places had more than six feet of seawater filling their buildings, but, if you didn’t know about the hurricane you would never guess.

Putnam Hall Lodge

Near Steinhatchee, a historic lodge beckons. The Putnam Hall Lodge in Cross City dates from lumber baron times when old-growth cypress and yellow pine were harvested. The lodge was built in 1927 as a retreat for Putnam Lumber Company executives and is still outfitted with pecky cypress, a lumber product that has gone extinct and disappeared along with most of the old growth trees in the area. Today, it is a fun place to stay, with comfortable rooms, and a large property with peacocks, guinea hens and cats roaming around garden statues, an idyllic fountain and an aviary full of finches and parakeets. But, even though the 1927 Steakhouse on the premises is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings for dinner, I suggest passing it up. Although the ambience is nice, Bucko and I had to turn our meals of over-priced filet mignon tips and breaded chicken cutlets back to the kitchen, basically inedible. In all our years of dining out we have never been so disappointed in a supposedly upscale restaurant. Hey, eat at Crabbie Dad’s in nearby Steinhatchee instead before checking into the hotel and you won’t be disappointed.

Cats and peafowl roam the grounds of the Putnam Hall Lodge in Cross City, Florida.

Another historic place we often frequent is Wakulla Springs Lodge in the middle of a state park. The springs here are protected for swimmers, and no boat traffic is allowed at the headwaters—just the park tour boats that take visitors on a short tour close to many acclimated birds, some manatees, and flowering aquatic and shore-side plants. The lodge itself is a historic structure built in 1935 and artfully preserved. The rooms are comfortable and clean, the ice cream bar brings back old memories, and dinner at the lodge is Southern style, ample, and tasty. You can’t go wrong at this place any time of year.

The lobby at the Wakulla Springs Lodge is full of historical details.

On our recent trip to the Big Bend area, we tried out another classic bed and breakfast inn, the Old Carabelle Hotel in the seaside town of Carabelle a half hour west of Panacea. Carabelle is a quaint town, with sights such as the “smallest police station” and the house made of bottles. The last time we visited Carabelle, we spotted a black bear crossing a residential street. You can read more about Carabelle in my previous column about this area.

The Old Carabelle Hotel dates back to 1900 and has been lovingly restored and furnished. From the outside, however, it looks like a haunted house, with unmanaged vegetation obscuring the wrap-around porch and other signs of unkemptness. Once inside, it was wonderful, although if you plan to visit in the summer, you might check to see if they have air conditioning. We didn’t see any signs of it in our second-floor room. A few restaurants are within walking distance, but sadly on this recent trip only Bucko scouted them out. I had come down with a cold and spent the evening nestled in a comfortable bed while he went over to nearby Fathoms Steam Room and Raw Bar to procure a take-out dinner.

I hope these tips will inspire you to do your own exploration of the Big Bend Area. I know we have just scratched the surface and will be back again someday to tell you more.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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1 month ago

Today I learned that ostriches often walk around and then forget where they are going.

Today I also learned that my spirit animal may be an ostrich.