Sportfishing, pristine beaches, and wildlife on an island in the gulf

(Fred Burger for the Boston Globe)
By Frederick Burger
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2006

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ST. GEORGE ISLAND -- From the mainland four miles away, this island just west of the crook of the Florida panhandle looks like a mirage hugging the horizon.

A business marquee hints at the kind of place this is: "Turtles are nesting -- Remove your things from the beach at night -- Light s out, please." The bumper sticker on a pickup truck cautions: "No Wetlands, No Seafood."

Protecting the environment and the area's all-important commercial fishing industry is paramount here. But tourism is the island's biggest industry, and sport fishing is the very thing that lures many to these environs. That and the pristine beaches -- uncrowded even in the peak summer season -- which are as white as the shores of a Tahitian resort.

Visitors not interested in fishing come here for the island's ambience, the kick-back lifestyle, the somnolent, sparkling days that only a coastal community can offer. There are no stoplights, no street lights. And on a clear night you can see a billion stars.

Local promoters like to portray St. George Island as one of the last remaining examples of the "Old Florida" -- before fast-buck developers descended on the state, before high-rise condos ascended over what seems like every inch of sandy coast .

Only about 1,000 people live on the island full time, but summer tourism pushes that figure to an estimated 12,600. All of Franklin County has only about 11,500 full-time residents.

Wildlife abounds. Bald eagles nest here. Unleashed dogs, prohibited on many public beaches in the state, are free to accompany their masters on strolls along the placid Gulf of Mexico, as long as they are "well behaved."

"Everybody says they want to be a family resort," Doug Brandt said recently. "Well, this is a family resort. There's no go-go here."

A retired TV cameraman from the Midwest, Brandt, 64, oversees the rental of about 100 bicycles at Island Adventures, a retailer that sells everything from fishing gear to clothes. "A lot of kids learn how to ride bikes here," Brandt said.

This is a community of single-family homes, investments for people from across the country and even a few from Europe, but roughly 800 are available to visitors as rentals. There is only one townhouse complex and one condo development here, and those -- 300 Ocean Mile and the Villas of St. George -- total only 139 units, all built in the early 1980s. That's not many on an island a half mile wide by 20 miles long.

There are only 117 motel rooms, almost all of them at the locally owned, beachfront Buccaneer Inn.

More telling, two decades ago county officials imposed a two-habitable-floors height limit on new development, sparing the island the canyons of condos that have sprouted in so many places. Building codes, however, also require that new structures be nine feet off the ground to protect them from hurricane storm surges, which effectively places the height limit at three stories.

"When I came here about 18 years ago, the thing you always heard was, 'We don't want to be like Destin,' " Mark Curenton , assistant county planner, said recently, referring to a community 140 miles northwest up the Gulf coast. "The height limit is a sacred cow here."

During a mid-September tour of the island, Ed Mitchem , a realtor, observed: "A lot of places are known for what they have. We're known for what we don't have."

What St. George doesn't have is much night life. Yes, there are a handful of convivial bars, but they cater primarily to residents, not throngs from the mainland. "Fine dining" is a scenic 22-mile drive west to Apalachicola, the county seat and a charming tourist town.

For much of its history, St. George Island was little more than a remote outpost, but it has long attracted ambitious men who envisioned developing it. At first, visitors could reach the island only by boat.

In 1955, a commercial ferry was launched from the mainland community of Eastpoint to the island , but it carried no more than five cars on the four-mile trip across Apalachicola Bay.

In December 1965, a $4 million toll bridge to the island opened, and development became more pronounced. A new $78 million bridge opened in 2004. Much of the old bridge became the island's fishing pier.

Since the 1970s, the island and the bay have been the focus of pitched battles over how much development should be allowed. County residents have fought numerous proposals to change the nature of their habitat, and they have largely succeeded. A golf course-housing development proposed for the island was beaten back a couple of decades ago.

Environmentalists, commercial fishermen, and related businesses have made preservation of the bay's rich marine life -- responsible for 1,000 local jobs -- a rallying cry.

The bay produces about 90 percent of the oysters harvested in Florida and roughly 10 percent of the national total. Much of the 1.3 million pounds of oyster meat harvested here in 2005 is shipped to restaurants across the country that promote "Apalachicola Bay Oysters," renowned for their sweet and succulent taste.

A decade or so ago, an official state map failed to include Apalachicola and St. George Island. A little angry but also somewhat amused, locals began promoting the area as "The Forgotten Coast." It was a misnomer, of course, because each year more and more people discover the area.

In recent years, St. George Island has seen the inevitable housing boom, and real estate prices have soared. Since 1995, 606 houses have been built on the island. One notable development is The Plantation, a gated community on the island's western tip. A four-bed, four-bath beachfront house there sold for $695,000 in 2000, and a similar one sold recently for $2.3 million, realtor Alice Collins said.

Country singer Hank Williams Jr. has a beachfront home in The Plantation and sometimes visits with pal Kid Rock. Singer-songwriter Tom T. Hall has a vacation home tucked back in the pines.

Environmental concerns remain in the forefront and have spawned some successful businesses. Jeanni McMillan , a former teacher, launched Journeys of St. George Island 15 years ago. The business features an environmental camp for children and various boat rentals and kayak and canoe trips to explore the area's natural beauty. Nearby St. Vincent Island, a 12,500-acre federal wildlife preserve accessible only by boat, is a favorite destination.

Journeys introduces countless youngsters, some as young as 5, to dolphins and manatees.

"The developers had big plans in the early 1970s," said Justin McMillan, 34, who helps his mother run Journeys. "Basically, they wanted to fill in the wetlands to create canals. They were going to do that the whole length of the island to maximize waterfront property, which would mean more [money] for developers. Thank God [the county] stopped that. Otherwise , we would have no wetlands here, which is where all the good fishing is."

Gordon "Junior" Holland, 67, has been fishing here his whole life. He remembers when you could catch as many fish as you could reel in, before daily limits were imposed. He has worked as a local fishing guide for four decades and has taught many of his younger colleagues about the ways of the fish.

"The fishing here's as good as it was 40 years ago," Holland said. He disagrees with catch limits imposed by the state, but he's thankful that so much of what he knew as a kid remains.

"We fish a lot of kids in June and July," Holland said. "I've already got people on the books for next year. Last year I fished 180 days. . . . There's a lot of wildlife. I see seven or eight eagles every morning I go fishing. I can show you 15 or 20 any day you want to see 'em."

Contact Frederick Burger, a freelance writer and editor in Anniston, Ala., at