by Robin Rowan

Steinhatchee bills itself as "the gateway to Florida’s Nature Coast," that crook in the arm of the state where panhandle becomes peninsula and white sandy beaches give way to marsh and limestone rock. In this part of Florida, there are no man-made amusements. There are no resort towns. Heck, there aren’t even any towns! I’m kidding, of course. But beginning around St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge due south of Tallahassee, the Gulf Coast beaches disappear. The coast becomes marshy, grassy, and brimming over with wildlife. Freshwater rivers and springs make it an angler’s dream.

Traveling east on I-10, turn south onto Hwy. 19, which runs down from Georgia and dead-ends at St Petersburg Beach on Florida’s west coast. Twenty-six miles south of Perry, turn right onto Highway 51 and travel another 10 miles. Notice how the landscape changes as you travel north to south. The scrub and stands of tall pine give way to spindly palms and prairies of saw palmetto. Dense fog often shrouds the small highways at night, so keep an eye out for wildlife that might skitter across the road.

Base camp for your Steinhatchee adventure is situated about three miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico on the Steinhatchee River, an oasis called Steinhatchee Landing Resort. Lush doesn’t even begin to describe it. The resort seems to have retained every gorgeous mossy oak, pavement is used sparingly, foot trails wind through dense natural areas and preserved Native American sites, and the little cottages are sited for the best views.

Where to Stay

Steinhatchee Landing Resort 800.584.1709; web address: www.steinhatcheelanding.
-com. Two-night minimum required on weekends; three-night minimum on holiday weekends. Cottage prices range from $132 per night (weekday) for a one-bedroom "Spice" cottage to $270 per weekday night for the three-bedroom Presidential Retreat. These are off-season rates and are applicable now. Dogs up to 28 pounds are allowed in designated units with a $100 refundable housekeeping deposit. Pool, spa, shuffleboard court, petting zoo and playground, tennis and basketball courts, outdoor barbeque grill, jogging trail and fish cleaning facility are included with the price of your room. Boat trips, canoes and bicycles are available at additional cost.

Steinhatchee River Inn, 352.498.4049, located across from River Haven Marina and the Steinhatchee River. Daily off-season rate for suites with refrigerators, ranges and kitchen area accommodating up to 4 people is $60; $420 weekly and $1380 monthly. Cable, pool, barbeque grills and picnic area are all available to guests at no additional charge.

For more information, contact the Dixie County Chamber of Commerce at
(352) 498.5454.

Rent a canoe from the resort to explore the Steinhatchee River. Either put in at the resort, or take the canoes upriver and paddle the gentle waters down to Steinhatchee Falls, a steep one-foot drop-off! The limestone banks rise up around you in unusual formations, creating coves and small cave-like indentations. Resort staff knows of a little offshoot of the river near one of the many springs, where a two-minute walk will take you to a beaver dam. If you begin your trip there, it’s quite possible to spend a couple of hours on the river without seeing another boat.

The Steinhatchhe River Inn offers affordable lodging with a wonderful river view.
Drive into town for a wonderful lunch at the Bridge End Café and a quick orientation of the town (population: 800). Six marinas line the river, while quaint shops beckon travelers across the street. There’s a charming inn here, perfectly serviceable and a bit more affordable than the resort with a nice view of the river. The Steinhatchee River Inn has a shady swimming pool, barbeque grills and its own picnic area. If you’d rather cook your own meals than eat out, some of the suites are equipped with small kitchen areas, and all have refrigerators and coffee makers. This "strip" of motels, shops and marinas may be the most "touristy" part of the area, but it doesn’t have that feel at all. What you will notice, however, is the terrific customer service, the friendliness of the locals, and the feeling that you are wanted and welcomed as a visitor. Feel free to ask any of the marina owners or shopkeepers for a restaurant recommendation or a great place to fish; they’ll be more than happy to tell you.

This unspoiled part of Florida is picturesque and romantic.
Explore the town by bicycle; rentals are available at the resort. Be sure to spend some time riding the trails of the resort’s ten acres first, though, to get a great feel for the area’s natural beauty. Steinhatchee Landing can also set you up for horseback riding or a horse-drawn carriage ride. Pontoon boats can be rented from the resort, or you can book a two-hour sunset cruise on the river. The resort will even provide a hiking pack and some great places to go, plus tennis, archery and badminton all right there on the property. The kids will adore the riverfront petting zoo (lots of goats that will eat anything), the pool, and the screened barbeque "house" on the river.

Part of the resort was once an old Indian trail, lovingly preserved by owner Dean Fowler. If you’re interested, you might ask him to show you an ancient hitching post well hidden in the dense underbrush on King’s Creek, which runs through the property. Displayed in the resort’s main office are many of the artifacts found along the creek—old pharmaceutical and whiskey bottles, arrowheads and pottery shards.

Pet-friendly Steinahtchee Landing Resort welcomes boaters of all description.
For some gorgeous scenery, bird and wildlife watching, and real solitude, head to Hagen’s Cove in time for the sunset, which is about a 15-minute drive from Steinhatchee on the gulf. Hagen’s Cove isn’t a preserve or a state park or a wildlife refuge—just a public area with a primitive parking area, some really bumpy roads and a picnic pavilion. Here’s where you get the feeling you’ve left civilization behind—because you have! Marsh grasses grow right up to the shoreline here, creating a haven for all types of small marine life. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, take a canoe out to one of the small islands off the coast here to spend a day fishing or just exploring. It would be folly under normal circumstances to canoe into the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s not recommended for beginners, but the gulf waters are protected here and unusually calm. If you go out, please watch for rapidly changing weather conditions to be sure you can make it back to shore before a storm hits.

Bring a pair of binoculars and a camera, then climb the bird watching tower to spot osprey and huge wading birds like egrets and herons, or watch in awe as several thousand migrating birds all rise in flight at once from the shore. Catch the brilliant colors of a winter sky as the sun sinks into the gulf.

Oyster and scallop shells litter the shoreline, as do horseshoe and hermit crabs. If you take some shells home, please be sure you’re not taking any live specimens. You might also spot some unusual driftwood pieces, which look great in backyard gardens. Kids will especially enjoy climbing around on the gigantic pieces of limestone rock, brought here to mark the parking area.

If you’re trying to take in Steinhatchee on a single weekend, you will, of course, want to discover its wild and natural beauty, but upon your return to your charming cottage at Steinhatchee Landing Resort, you’ll wish you had more time to spend there as well. Architecture is Victorian, Florida Cracker, or Georgian, all beautifully woven into the natural landscape of giant oaks, pines and palms. The "Spice Cottages" are just that—all named after spices, with the bedroom downstairs and the living and kitchen areas upstairs and a screened porch on both levels. There’s a wood-burning stove, a TV and VCR, and a stereo system in every unit. You’re hardly roughing it. Two-bedroom houses, duplexes and condos are also available. Steinhatchee Landing Resort requires a two-night minimum stay on the weekends; three nights on holiday weekends. And just in case you find Steinhatchee too irresistible, you can purchase a home site on property adjacent to the resort.

The excellent Landing Restaurant on the property attracts resort
Catch your own scallops, and grill them on the hibatchi - can't get fresher than that!
guests and both locals and visitors not staying at the resort. Special dinners during holiday weekends are sellouts. And the combination of shade, colorful plantings and natural landscaping, a gazebo and the river location make Steinhatchee a natural for weddings, reunions, and special gatherings of all kinds. But the most popular time of year in Steinhatchee is during scalloping season in summer, where hundreds of bivalve-loving visitors descend on the tiny village, filling its hotel rooms and lining the grassy shores of Deadman Bay for a taste of the local delicacy. There’s no better eating than freshly harvested scallops cleaned right on shore, then tossed on a waiting hibachi. Just a bit of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a memorable seafood experience.

With literally millions of visitors flocking to hundreds of man-made attractions, huge developments wiping out marshlands and forests, and trucked-in landscaping replacing native vegetation, scenic natural areas like Steinhatchee are becoming harder to find. But on this portion of the coast, nature still rules, attracting the kind of travelers who have an appreciation and a true reverence for the real Florida.