If one of your main goals when vacationing in Florida is to park yourself in a beach chair by the ocean, we’re with you. Our beloved state’s 663 miles of beach beckon to most visitors (the rest are off standing in long lines, wearing mouse ears) and we locals have long known the pull of the ocean: our caramel-colored skin, and wrinkles, are proof. (I know I know: I should speak for myself. The young perfect beauties seen on today’s early morning beach walk made me wistful for my own teenage years, and that summer-scented bottle of Sea & Ski that I’m pretty sure didn’t have an SPF…)
If you just headed straight to the beach, you’d miss out on some of Florida’s most authentic fishing villages. Bristling with history – and some of the best seafood you’ve ever tasted – these little gems are a must-stop on your way to or from the beach. We’re guessing you’ve heard of some, but there may be at least one you haven’t…
Some villages are close to the beach while others will inspire you to plan a day trip from your beach town. Starting in the Panhandle and working our way east and south:
Photo courtesy of John Gilbert. For more beautiful photos follow him on Instagram @jtgilbert58.
“Oyster Town” and “Land of the Friendly People” describe Apalachicola, an old-timey Florida town with only one stoplight and no high rises. The thriving oyster industry has faltered in the last ten years, as the oysters are facing extinction due to various culprits, including a battle with Georgia over water flow. There is hope for Apalachicola and its oysters: the University of Florida is partnering with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission – the FWC – to restore the oyster’s habitat. Read the fascinating story here, “Where Have All the Oysters Gone?” written by Katie Hendrick for Flamingo Magazine – Florida’s only state wide feature magazine written by and for Floridians (and travelers, who want the authentic and meaningful scoop!)
Despite the faltering oyster population, this small town boasts over 20 restaurants – many of them specializing in seafood – and most are independently owned. Visiting the tiny bakery, Wake and Bake Bread Company (in back of an antique store), and the Old Time Soda Fountain, is like stepping back in time. For such a small town Apalachicola has masses of shops filled with antiques, maritime gifts, art created by locals, fun clothing, and so much more.
St. George Island is just 12 miles south. St. George Island State Park charges $4 per single occupant vehicle, $6 for 2 or more people per vehicle. Restrooms, picnic tables and pavilions are available. No lifeguards.
You know by “play” we mean sitting by the water listening to live music sipping a cold one, right? Also good food is a plus but convivial atmosphere comes first. In Apalachicola we couldn’t find one place that offers both waterfront dining and live music, so try Boss Oyster for its views, food and seafood-dive casual atmosphere, and Tamara’s Cafe for their upscale food offerings and live music.
Apalachicola River Inn is right on the water, and all rooms have a view. You can also book a 2 bedroom cottage; click their name for details.
The Florida Seafood Festival is the state’s oldest maritime event and is held annually in November.
Apalachicola is located in Florida’s panhandle a little over an hour east of Panama City Beach.
Photo courtesy of Brennan Cross of Cross Photography, visit his site at BCrossPhotography.com
You would think we would have heard of the 3rd oldest settlement in North America! Shame on us (and you, perhaps?) Also home to the 2nd oldest lighthouse in Florida, St. Marks has a checkered past involving Indians, Spanish explorers and pirates (you have to love it when pirates are involved!) Read more about St. Marks intriguing history on Visit Wakulla. Known by many (and us, now) as a fishing village for commercial and sport fishing, this small historic town is a designated Florida Waterfronts Partnership Community focusing on revitalization projects and welcoming visitors to its many small town charms.
Riverside Cafe on the River has water views and also live music, click their name for the event schedule and to view their varied menu.
The St. Marks Stone Crab Festival will be held on October 28th, 2017.
St. Marks is located 20 miles south of Tallahassee.
Once upon a time called Achenahattchee (sounds like a sneeze!) Steinhatchee has a similar coming-of-age history as that of St. Marks, involving Spanish conquistadors, Indians and pirates, and also a claim of signs of man as early as 12,000 B.C. Through the years commercial fishing was a mainstay for locals, from sponge fishing to mullet and their roe, to current day catches of stone crabs, blue crabs, black mullet, bait shrimp and the most popular catch of all, scallops. Scallop season is from July to mid-September during which Steinhatchee has a huge influx of visitors.
The closest beach to Steinhatchee is Hagens Cove, which is more of a boaters/fisherman’s paradise than a traditional beach-lover’s beach. Hiking trails, observation towers, pavilions and picnic areas can be found here. 15 miles NW of Steinhatchee, Hagens Cove is a great place to wade for scallops (no boat needed!) We’ve heard rumors of a clothing-optional section of this cove, but haven’t been able to substantiate. (Let us know if you find out!)
Who Dat Bar and Grill is on the water, serving fresh local seafood and has live music on occasion.
We just missed the Steinhatchee Fiddler Crab Festival held this year on February 17-19. Check back with the Steinhatchee Chamber of Commerce for next year’s festival dates.
Steinhatchee is located 70 miles west of Gainesville.
Cedar Key, on Florida’s Nature Coast, is one of the Top Ten Coolest Towns in America. The close-knit community has been hard at work rebuilding after Hurricane Hermine, and things are once again sparkly and open for business. As in most Florida towns the Indians, the Spanish, and a surfeit of pirates populate the past. As do some fierce Civil War battles. Both the Faber and the Eagle pencil companies established cedar saw mills on the island that is now Cedar Key (Way Key, then) and on Atsena Otie Key (called Cedar Key then; I know, confusing) and the world’s supply of pencils came from the trees here. A hurricane in 1896 (these havoc-wreaking hurricanes!) wiped out the mills and the town of Atsena Otie, and all that remains today is a graveyard with headstones dating from the early 1800’s. Some say it’s haunted.
You have to visit this tiki bar while you’re in Cedar Key: The Hideaway Tiki Bar
There is a little beach of sorts in Cedar Key, the Cedar Key City Park located at the intersection of 2nd and A Streets. Public restrooms, a playground and covered pavillion are available. The calm waters surrounding Cedar Key are perfect for kayaking and stand up paddleboarding as well as swimming.
A short drive or bike ride from the center of town is the quirky Hideaway Tiki Bar, pictured above. This waterfront bar is open-air and weather dependent, so make sure to visit on a clear day or night.
With lush shady gardens, water views, and an amazingly hard working, friendly staff, Faraway Inn is the place to stay. The staff are rebuilding and making repairs as we speak, and six units are open for booking. You can bring your dog! Read more about this magical place here.
Cedar Key Seafood Festival will be held October 21-22, 2017. For more information visit the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce.
Cedar Key is located on Florida’s Gulf coast, approximately 1 hour south west of Gainesville and 1 hour north west of Orlando.
Tarpon Springs is known for its sponge industry, started by Greek immigrants in the 1880’s. This tiny, vibrant waterfront town still has a large population of Greek-Americans, a higher percentage than any other town in America. (The high school sports teams are nicknamed “The Spongers!”) Visit the many shops along Dodecanese Blvd. including the Sponge-o-rama Museum and Sponge Factory. Take a sightseeing tour offered by various companies – visit Sponge Docks for a detailed list of attractions and sightseeing. Best of all is the plethora of authentic Greek restaurants. For a list and a comprehensive, fascinating article on Tarpon Springs go to Authentic Florida.
Gorgeous and unspoiled Honeymoon Island State Park is just 10 miles south of Tarpon Springs. Plentiful parking, concession with facilities and some of the best nature trails in the area, the park charges $8 per multi person vehicle and $4 for single occupant vehicle.
Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill checks all the boxes (including a fun name!) of a water view, live entertainment, and good food.
Tarpon Springs’ Sponge Docks Seafood Festival will be held November 10-12, 2017.
Tarpon Springs is located on Florida’s gulf coast, 30 miles north west of Tampa and 114 miles south west of Orlando.
Ancestors of the original founding families still live and work the water here in this tiny, authentic fishing village – one of the oldest remaining in the country. Fiercely proud and protective of their craft and their town, it comes as a surprise that four movies have been filmed here – they allowed that? (Great Expectations – the 1998 version – A Flash of Green, Out of Time and Palmetto.) Developers have tried to come in and change everything, but to prevent that F.I.S.H. – The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage was formed to spearhead the purchase of 100 acres of land along Sarasota Bay to be used as a nature preserve. The annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival’s proceeds have helped with this purchase.
Visit the Florida Maritime Museum to learn more about this quaint, rustic village. Make sure to take time to walk around and take in the surroundings; historic cottages with names like “Smileys” and the “William Guthrie House” – which can be rented – will draw you in and make you want to stay awhile.
Bradenton Beach is just across the bridge, less than a mile away. Free parking, concessions, grills and restrooms under shady trees are available at the southern end of Bradenton Beach at Coquina Gulfside Park.
The Starfish Company Dockside Restaurant is almost famous (and therefore often has long wait times) so stroll a little down the road to the Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar for amazing, relaxing water views, good food and live music.
Pelican Post Motel is an updated old-Florida motel with traditional rooms and also a separate historic cottage (with space for up to 5 people) that was moved there by barge to house workers building the new bridge in 1921. Once you cross over the bridge in Bradenton Beach, the motel is just a couple of blocks away, one block away from the vibrant main street and a block and half to the beach. Read more about Pelican Post and Bradenton Beach, here.
This year the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival was held in February. Check the F.I.S.H website for next year’s dates.
Cortez is located on Florida’s gulf coast 1 mile west of Bradenton Beach and 36 miles south of St. Petersburg.
Port Salerno, is one of the last still-operating commercial fishing villages on the east coast of Florida, and recently underwent a huge redesign and redevelopment of the roads, waterfront, and the addition of Sandsprit Park. Port Salerno overlooks the Manatee Pocket, which leads to the St. Lucie Inlet and on to the Atlantic Ocean. The boardwalk that connects the shops, restaurants, art galleries, bars and the hotel is often called the Pocket Walk. The Fish House Art Center here is “home” to resident artists’ studios where they create while you watch and their work is available for purchase.
Port Salerno, located just south of Stuart, was incorporated in 1921. Named, because of the many Italian emigrants, after Salerno, Italy, Port Salerno has had a strong commercial fishing presence since the 1930’s. Back then shark fishing was prevalent, and in later years the large net ban caused the number of commercial fishermen to dwindle, but today the working boats still go out and supply area restaurants with fresh catch.
Port Salerno and Stuart are primarily boating communities, but the beach is a short drive away. Our favorite spot to enjoy the ocean is Bathtub Reef Beach, a great place to swim in calm waters caused by a reef just offshore. Free public parking, new dune restoration and a beautiful big pavilion can be found here. Restroom facilities are 100 yards north at Rocks Beach.
The largest family-owned and operated waterfront restaurant in Martin County is The Twisted Tuna, with multiple places to sit and enjoy the view inside and out. Live music every day and a large and varied menu will keep everyone happy.
Pirate’s Cove Resort and Marina is just steps away from the shops and restaurants, and has it’s own restaurant and tiki bar as well.
The Port Salerno Seafood Festival was in January this year, check their site for next year’s dates.
Port Salerno is located on Florida’s east coast 38 miles north of West Palm Beach and 5 miles south of Stuart.
Most of the historic fishing villages in this article have been designated as a Waterfronts Florida Partnership Communities. The Waterfronts Florida Program offers help to coastal local governments in Florida to revitalize their working waterfronts by providing resources and technical assistance for planning. Find out what other Florida towns have been designated on Floridajobs.org.
Give us your input on these historic fishing villages; the ones we’ve written about and the others we haven’t gotten to yet! And also, had you heard of St. Marks?