December 19, 2014

Florida Getaways

No Stein Unturned in Steinhatchee, Florida

Far away from sun-seekers, deep into old Florida, you'll find Steinhatchee.

Chris Sherman | 6/30/2011
Sea Hag Marina
Capt. Tommy operates fishing charters from the Sea Hag Marina at Steinhatchee.
[Photo: Tommy Thompson]

Most visitors come to Florida for the sun, but when summer comes shining down, we Floridians crave the shade, skipping the ocean and the gulf and heading instead for riverbanks, lakefronts, bayous and springs, where curtains of Spanish moss provide the sunscreen. The farther away from sun-seekers and the deeper into old Florida, the better.

Few places are as far and deep as Steinhatchee (pronounced "Steen-hatchee") in the Big Bend, midway between Apalachicola and old Suwannee River herself, a couple of hours from anywhere and decades closer to the Cracker past of lazy rivers and lazier days. Happily, it's still a largely secret destination, hidden in the shade of the old moss-draped oaks.

Cottages at Steinhatchee Landing
Cottages at Steinhatchee Landing range from one to four bedrooms. [Photo: Brook Pifer]
Other than fishing, Steinhatchee is made for no-hurry recreation, slow nature walks, sunset watches, canoeing and curled-up reading — and seafood-eating, of the perfectly fried variety, but you won't complain with catch this fresh. Fishing is easy, too, for there are ample fish but rarely too many boats, offshore or in the flats for trout, redfish, grouper and mullet.

Or dipping for scallops — "so easy a child can do it, senior citizens, too," says Capt. Tommy Thompson.

Capt. Tommy is one of Steinhatchee's veteran guides working his skiff, an 18-foot Shipoke flats boat, out of the Sea Hag Marina. "It's a lonesome kind of place," a good thing, good enough that's he's lived here for 15 years. He prefers the skinny water in the back country, although Dead Man's Bay at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River attracts all manner of fish and anglers.

Commercial and sport fishermen have worked these waters for blue crab, stone crab, mullet, bait shrimp, sponges and, most delectably, soft shells and mullet roe for a century.

There are just a handful of restaurants and a short spectrum of accommodations from simple fish camps, marinas and riverside motels to Steinhatchee Landing on the high end.

With whole cottages?under?$275 a night, the Landing is far less than ritzy rooms elsewhere. Yet it's luxurious for Steinhatchee and cutting edge in "green" principles. Developer and owner Dean Fowler designed it in a New Urbanist version of small-town Florida, but with more space and easygoing attitude.

The architecture is not a Victorian seashore fantasy; the 50 some cottages are done in friendly Cracker vernacular, with painted clapboard, front porches, tin roofs and a few curlicues of gingerbread. They range from one-bedroom cozies for honeymooners (with luxury spas) and other couples to four bedrooms, two stories big enough for family reunions or small retreats.

Scalloping
The best scallops in the state are just a few feet down in the seagrass and tidal flats. [Photo: Tommy Thompson]
Guests are spared chi-chi resort shops and on-site restaurants; each cottage has a kitchen for all the fish you catch — or bologna sandwiches when you don't. Instead, the Landing's 36 acres include a dock, canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats, pool, tennis and basketball courts, archery range, croquet lawn and petting zoo. Low-key, DIY fun.

The other major feature on the grounds is a simple and handsome wedding chapel, stained glass and primitive wood, which the Landing calls Florida Gothic. Perfect for a small destination wedding with the romance of old Florida.

Anyone who says nothing happens in Steinhatchee hasn't been here in scallop season. Get out into the seagrass and tidal flats, and you don't need to get more than a few feet under to find the best scalloping in the state. This year, the season runs earlier (June 25) and later (Sept. 25), and there are three new boat ramps on the Steinhatchee side.

All it takes is a $17 license, snorkeling gear and a dip net. A good eye and a quick reflex help — scallops are mighty fast for their size. Don't worry about shucking them. Locals have made shucking-to-order for visitors a cottage industry in season.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Big Bend

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