The name is attention-getting. Stardust Villa.
That’s what Bill’s brother and his wife call their rental property on St. George Island, a 22-mile-long and one-mile-wide barrier island along the Florida Panhandle. Listed on the VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) website, Stardust Villa looked like the perfect place for us to spend Christmas week, along with Bill’s mom, aunt, and uncle. A clear view of the Gulf of Mexico. A site that would ensure privacy and serenity. Easy access to the beach. Upscale amenities. Three bedrooms with en suite bathrooms to generously accommodate the five of us.
Bingo. Decision made. We packed up the car and were off to St. George Island.
The area is known as the Forgotten Coast, so named, the story goes, because at one time officials left it off a state tourism map two years in a row. The name persisted, however, possibly because the locals preferred it that way to help preserve its natural beauty, which features powdery white sand, pine forests, salt marshes, tidal creeks, sea oats, and coastal scrub.
The gateway to St. George Island begins on the mainland at Eastpoint Access is via a four-mile long bridge, completed in 2004, that crosses the Apalachicola Bay. From both points of land, remnants of the bridge’s predecessor jut out quite a ways into the bay, purposely retained to serve as fishing piers.
The western end of St. George Island is St. George Plantation, a private, gated residential community that’s home to Stardust Villa. Pine trees abound, so many that a turpentine factory occupied this part of the island in the early-to-mid 1990s. Within the boundaries is a small, private airstrip for plantation homeowners.
The eastern end is the pristine Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park. The antithesis of the high-rise and densely packed development that blankets much of Florida’s coastline, the park bills itself as “the Real Florida” with nine miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes. Dr. Beach ranked the park the third best beach in America in 2013. He should know. Dr. Beach, according to his website, is Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, and America’s foremost beach expert.
Further, Sports Illustrated gave St. George Island State Park its stamp of approval in 2012 when it shot the magazine’s famed swimsuit issue on the island with the beach as the photo backdrop. According to Bill, that was an especially noteworthy endorsement.
The center of the island is a greatly scaled-down version of Main Street. The vibe is casual, with several beach-shack type restaurants and bars, such as the Blue Parrot Oceanfront Café and BJ’s Pizza, a few small markets selling fresh produce, meats, and basic groceries, and the requisite T-shirt and beachwear shop.
The dominant structure, though, literally towers above all as a tribute to the community’s maritime heritage.
The Cape St. George Lighthouse has had a rough history. The first of four incarnations was built in 1833 on the island’s western tip to help guide ships to the then-thriving cotton port of Apalachicola. It was dismantled after it suffered storm damage and rebuilt in 1848 on Cape St. George on the island’s southern tip to allow for better viewing by ships approaching from the east. A hurricane toppled that light in 1851, and the third construction was completed the next year. After years of pummeling from storms and tidal surges, and despite rescue attempts, the lighthouse tragically collapsed into the gulf. Workers salvaged more than 22,000 bricks and other architectural features, completing the latest version, situated inland, in 2008. The adjacent lighthouse keeper’s house serves as a museum and gift shop.
Fishing is the name of the game here. Thanks to the confluence of the gulf, the bay, and the nutrient-rich Apalachicola River, the surrounding waters form a vastly productive estuary that’s nationally renowned as a fishing paradise. Briny oysters, sweet, plump shrimp, and mild, white grouper from the local waters are just some of the daily catch featured on restaurant menus and sold at fishmongers, including the sunny yellow fresh seafood van parked at the island’s entrance that we frequented. We learned that the region produces 90% of Florida’s oysters.
Nature is in full swing. The island is a top spot for bird watching. Birds strategically use the island as their last rest stop before heading south across the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s also the first stop on their return trip. It’s the same for migrating monarch butterflies. In addition, sea turtles crawl onshore to nest from the first of May to the end of October.
We spent our days in leisure, walking along the beach, wading in the chilly surf, watching pelicans dive and dolphins surface, star gazing, and exploring the park’s 2.5-mile nature trail. Brilliant sunrises and sunsets bookended the days.
We also shopped in small boutiques and drove past gingerbread homes and live oaks in the historic port of Apalachicola, a 30-minute drive away. We chose Ira’s, the restaurant at the picturesque Gibson Inn, for Christmas dinner. Built around 1907 during Apalachicola’s prime as a shipping and lumber center, the inn stands out like a crown jewel with its wood frame, metal roof, widow’s walk and cupola, and wrap-around porch. The inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although summer is high season, December proved to be an ideal time to visit St. George Island and stay in Stardust Villa. Home for the holidays indeed.