Recently, the pandhandle region of Florida has been getting national attention as a vacation destination and for good reason. This part of the country is a hidden gem, filled with towering live oaks, crystal-clear springs, marshy coastal lands, and fresh-from-the-Gulf seafood.
In early June, I was delighted to be invited to the “48 Hours of Sunshine” Instameet event sponsored by Share a Little Sunshine and Visit Florida. The event’s purpose was to gather small groups of instagrammers and bloggers together across the state to visit local places and post about them using the hashtags #sharealittlesunshine and #LoveFL, all to help promote tourism in the state.
We met at the Wakulla Welcome Center in the morning where we mingled over coffee and pastries and received our agenda for the day. We were told that the Wakulla County Tourist Development Council would be guiding us to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, where we would learn more about the state’s ecosystem and wildlife, and the Big Bend Maritime Center, where we would learn about the maritime industry, before coming back to the Welcome Center for lunch.
The Welcome Center is a beautiful old building set back in the salt marsh and pine forests of Panacea, Florida. It is worth a visit to learn a bit about the area and see photos from both the past and present. There is a great series of photographs of the local fishing and crabbing industries, featuring locals who have been in the business for decades. The Welcome Center staff can also provide you with maps and information about the area. Before you leave, make sure to read the educational panels about the environmental importance of the region and take a walk outside.
Once we were all caffeinated, we hopped on the local trolley and drove over to the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory. The Gulf Specimen Marine Lab is a marine education center and sea turtle rehabilitation facility and is a fantastic stop for both kids and adults alike. The facility also provides specimens for educational purposes to universities, high schools, and aquariums. I recommend taking a guided tour, especially if you can meet the president, Jack Rudloe. Mr. Rudloe founded Gulf Specimen in 1963 and has supported research and education of marine life ever since. We were lucky enough to have Mr. Rudloe give us a personal tour and his passion and lifelong commitment to the facility was obvious. Gulf Specimen features touch tanks, graphic exhibits, and viewing tanks which focus on the smaller marine creatures like starfish, horseshoe crabs, clams, and fish.
Next, we visited the Big Bend Maritime Center, which provides live wooden boat building demonstrations and classes to teach the process to others. Wooden boat building is a huge part of the heritage of the local maritime community. The Maritime Center offers week-long youth camps focused on boat-building and woodworking for kids aged 12-17. The completed boats are sold and profits are put back into the programs. Adult classes are also offered on Saturdays. In about twelve weeks, you can build your own marine vessel: a skiff, kayak, or paddleboard. The final products are beautiful and one-of-a-kind.
To complete our day, we enjoyed a local seafood lunch, complete with freshly shucked farm-raised oysters from farmers in the oyster aquaculture program at the Wakulla Environmental Institute. The program was developed as a sustainable alternative to wild oyster harvesting to help the seafood industry in Wakulla County, which has suffered recently due to drought, disease, and over-harvesting. The oysters were fantastic and were the perfect complement to a lunch of fresh shrimp, crab legs, and smoked fish dip!
Other things to do in the area:
- Wakulla Springs State Park: Hike a trail and cool off with a jump into the chilly freshwater springs. Take a boat tour of the springs for wildlife watching and end the day with a milkshake from the soda fountain at Wakulla Springs Lodge.
- Leon Sinks Geological Trail: Take a self-guided hike to see the unique karst topography in the region, where limestone bedrock was formed from ancient coral reefs and shell deposits. The limestone eroded and dissolved over time to form sinkholes, natural bridges, and underwater caverns. It is a fascinating area!
- St. Marks: Visit a Spanish fort from the 1600s that was later occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War. Ride bikes down the St. Marks Trail, which was formerly a rail line. Have lunch at the Riverside Cafe before visiting the St. Marks Lighthouse, which is the second-oldest lighthouse in the state and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
- Shell Point: Try windsurfing with the Shell Point Sailboard Club. We tried the sport last summer with this passionate group of windsurfers and had a blast!
Many to the Wakulla County Tourist Development Council and Visit Florida for providing me with such a fun and memorable day! This part of the state is one of the most beautiful, in my opinion, and one of the most unknown. Do yourself a favor and on your next Florida vacation, check out the Wakulla area in the panhandle!
Wakulla Welcome Center, 1493 Coastal Hwy, Panacea, FL 32346
Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory, 222 Clark Dr, Panacea, FL 32346
Big Bend Maritime Center, 12 Crum Dr, Panacea, FL 32346
Wakulla Springs State Park, 465 Wakulla Park Dr, Crawfordville, FL 32327
Leon Sinks Trailhead, Apalachicola National Forest, 30.309781,-84.346486 (you can plug the coordinates into google maps)
Riverside Cafe, 69 Riverside Dr, St Marks, FL 32355