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|Frankie D ... Foraging The Forgotten Coast|
If "Redneck Riviera" is slang for the Northwest Panhandle of Florida, then I must have missed a turn. Bypass Panama City and instead of stumbling upon a dancing grandpappy playing the spoons, you will find an unspoiled wilderness, magnificent beaches and tasteful developments. Join me now as we explore the forgotten coast from Fort Walton to Apalachicola on Chris Hastings' culinary tour of the region. We will discover cottage industries, native fisheries, and natural splendors. So bring your appetite as we are going to catch crab, fish, and oysters, and dine like Cajun royalty.
Our adventure starts at the WaterColor Inn and Resort and Resort. But first, we have to get there. Unless you're driving, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida is not easy to access … yet. There are plans for an international airport that will drop you right into the heart of the action, but for now you can fly into the almost exclusively military airport located at Fort Walton Beach. From here, rent a car and drive about an hour to Santa Rosa Beach. It's worth the drive.
It's easy to love this 60-room, boutique-style, waterfront hotel, voted the number one Best Family Resort in Florida by Travel + Leisure Family readers. Expansively spread across 499 acres, the resort includes 1500 linear feet of the whitest sand on the planet; the hotel is perfectly nestled in the dunes. The white quartz sand originated as Appalachian mountaintops ground down on a tortuous trip to the sea. Enter the parking lot and long-leaf pines, award-winning architecture, and world-class service surrounds you. As I stepped into the hotel lobby I felt something unusual and overwhelming: the urge to call my Mom and tell her what I had found. The rooms are spotless, luxurious, cleverly appointed and colorfully decorated, borrowing from the palette of the sea, sand and sky. Even the amenities give pause. My room opened up to a view of the adult pool and beach, exposing the naked gulf sunset.
After a reception with cocktails, sushi and sunset appreciation at the Fish Out of Water Restaurant (world class and selected by Florida Trend Magazine as one of Florida's top 400 restaurants) we dined on creations by chef Phil Krajeck. Phil's meticulous preparation of local seafood is an inspirational lead into what we will be experiencing in the days ahead. Expertly pairing wine with locally harvested foods, the evening soon becomes unforgettable as the waning, gibbous moon sinks into the sea, blasting the sky with color.
Here we meet our guide Chris Hastings: Renaissance man, outdoorsman, master chef, father, husband, blue-eyed preservationist and enthusiast. He is our leader while we forage (in a contemporary sense, almost entirely at the finest restaurants) the Forgotten Coast, capturing our dinner, cooking it on the beach (OK, watching him create a masterpiece bouillabaisse and boil our Blue Claw crabs!), all while we savor the myriad colors painted across the sea, sand, and sky.
Chris is the culinary consultant for the St. Joe Company. Via his culinary/foraging tour he enthusiastically promotes the panhandle region, much of which is owned St. Joe's - the larges single landholder in Florida. Besides articulating our experience through regional fare (seafood and agriculture), he provides us access to local fisherman and farmers, giving us a first-hand understanding of the cottage industries that have survived here for decades. His mission promotes understanding and preservation at the same time - a thrill for city-softened folk such as yours truly.
After a sumptuous sleep in my bed and a great shower at WaterColor, we meet for breakfast and our adventure continues.
Chris tells us it's time to go crabbing at the adjacent development, called WaterSound, another St. Joe property, equally committed to superb quality and landscape harmony. Crabbing is not tricky but it does require strategy. Mind you, none of us are professional fisherman, and some of us don't know exactly what to do with the crabs that we pull from the clear water and muddy bottom. Yet we are very productive. And as the crabs emerge from their winter mud nap, we pounce. While the object is to catch them with chicken parts tied to string, we find that the two nets Chris brought work just fine, since the crabs are slow and sleepy with cold. Katherine Cobbs, a fellow travel writer, doesn't even need a net: she just uses her hands to reach in and pin a crab! Whether crabbing is your idea of a good time is up to you to find out. It's hard for me to imagine a better way to spend the day, even if you would rather just use the beauty of this paradise as an office. It's an unspoiled view from WaterSound.
We have caught enough crabs for tonight's dinner, and now we are in need of some lunch, so Chris leads us to a fine local establishment for a taste of local strawberries and imported cheeses, wines and more delicious food. Makes me hungry thinking about it. The Larder.
Again we are on the move. It's back to the WaterColor Inn. I marvel at the bareness of this beautiful coast. I find it incredible that all this beauty could be in Florida, when so much of the southern part of the state claims all the attention. How did this remote corner stay so pristine and undiscovered? Perhaps it is the collision of two forces: one, the increased value of Florida real estate, and two, the decrease in value of the price of paper. In 1928, Alfred Dupont purchased 880,000 acres of Florida panhandle for the bargain basement price of one buck an acre, and proceeded to set up a timber mill and a few leases for oystermen and fisherman. Now, fast forward to 2001, and put all those acres in the modern perspective of St. Joe Company. Suddenly, some of that timberland looks prime for resort development. And that's exactly what St. Joe Company has, and is continuing so far, to do. If change is inevitable, then let it be: with care and green vision, and by people with resources and an eye for style and adventure.
The architecture of the homes throughout the resort is award winning. Back at the inn, I notice six brand new BMWs sitting out front and learn that you can reserve any of them for 3 hours for FREE! All you need to do is sign a piece of paper and take the keys. BMW can explain that one to you.
The sun is beginning to settle into the horizon as we return to the WaterColor for our evening meal. The friendly and expert staff is on hand to escort us to an unforgettable feast. From the pool area we take a long and "strenuous" hike. I imagine we are en route to a bonfire picnic but the extraordinary sunset whispers that this is more than just your ordinary clambake.
The two hundred-yard walk down a custom-made path offers us plenty of time to admire the view over the snow-white dunes of the Gulf of Mexico. And when we finally arrive, we find a table set for kings and queens. We find a beachside "kitchen" where we will observe the preparation and cooking of the fruits of the sea. Chris Hastings and Chef Wayne Alcaide, St. Joe's chef for Norwest Florida, have been working hard and the proof is in the bouillabaisse. The appetizers come fast and we devour them furiously. Fritters, quail, local oysters a bonfire and ... more sunset. And of course, no beach feast is complete without the tiki torches! And the chef! Ahhhhh! Bouillabaisse!!!! And what's a feast without dessert? The local farms provided complements to our seafood feast: fresh rhubarb with strawberries and cream. Chris explains the recipe and the importance of balancing acids using citrus. I am sure that I hear everything Chris has said, just not certain the wine will allow me to retain it.
The first real day of our journey is over. It's back to the Watercolor Inn to get some rest for the big day ahead—the journey to Apalachicola.
Join us next week as Frankie D continues his journey.
International recreation expert, Francis J. DiScala (Frankie D), was born to do it differently. On his first camping trip at 10-years old, he was sequestered from his group for talking and was forced to sleep in an open field away from the safety of the tents. He immediately realized that the moon was much clearer out under the stars and has been "out there" ever since.
Never one to say no, Frank has been to Mountains of Montana, Idaho, Arizona bow hunting and sleeping outdoors, fishing off-shore amongst the whales for giant tuna, skiing and snowboarding almost every major mountain in North America, racing motorcycles on international racetracks in New Hampshire, and scuba diving reefs from Australia to the Red Sea in Jordan.
Fun and games are often interrupted and trips cut short by his need to return to his beautiful wife and to his legal career. He hasn't stopped talking and often can be seen and heard giving strange opinions on television shows including CNN'S Headline News/Nancy Grace and Court TV. Despite a hectic schedule, Frank has also found time to travel and write and in recent years has become an enthusiastic contributor to JohnnyJet.com, one of the most comprehensive travel resources online.
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Note: This trip was sponsored by the St. Joe Company.
Pictures From The Trip
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