This portion of our journey was bookended by two delightful towns, Fairhope, Alabama and Tarpon Springs, Florida. In between were the broad bays, bayous, rivers and barrier islands of the Emerald Coast, followed by a series of ‘open water’ (i.e. mostly no land in sight) hops along the more remote regions of Florida’s Big Bend.
The Emerald Coast is renowned for its tropical weather and spectacular barrier island beaches. This has attracted a great deal of beach home and condo development, and the typical vacation accoutrements that go along with them. While we enjoy such attractions and comforts too, our focus while cruising is usually on smaller towns and quieter anchorages. Fortunately we were able to find these in abundance, with interesting stops in places like Apalachicola, Carrabelle, Smack Bayou and Dog Island.
For most cruisers doing the Loop, the open water crossing of the Gulf of Mexico from the protected ICW ending at Carrabelle and beginning again near Tarpon Springs is a big one. Many choose a one-step overnight trip (about 180 miles). For us, however, because of our relative speed and ability to handle the fairly shallow depths of the river entrances at selected interim stops (Steinhatchee and Crystal River) we chose the longer, more scenic route. This worked out very well for us, with sunny weather and relatively calm seas the entire way. It also allowed us to have experiences that other cruisers miss, such as the opportunity to swim with the manatees in the incredibly clear waters of the Three Sisters freshwater springs in Crystal River.
We’re not sure our pictures do complete justice to this lesser known area of Florida, but we’ll let them speak for themselves.
We enjoyed exploring Fairhope’s leafy residential streets on our bikes.
The National Naval Aviation Museum in nearby Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels; the yellow biplane in the lower left was flown by George Bush Sr. during WWII.
Almost all the aircraft at the museum are original; many of the WWII vintage planes were recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan near Chicago, where navy pilots were trained how to take off and land – sometimes not successfully – from aircraft carriers.
The Admiral wants to take one of these with us on His Idea: the Captain says he’ll mutiny.
Departure day across Mobile Bay was sunny and serene.
Our anchorage at Ingram Bayou…..
…..where we were entertained by dolphins feeding in the shallow waters for mullet.
Sometimes unexpected things happen when boating – a faulty switch for the anchor windlass led us to a ‘character’ marina in Fort Walton Beach that was inhabited by an unusual menagerie of exotic birds.
We have seen osprey nests at the pinnacle of all manner of trees, posts, poles and the like, however this was the most unusual location we have observed so far!
One of the interesting small towns we visited was Apalachicola, where shrimping and other harvests from the sea are important mainstays of the local economy (along with tourism).
A wide variety of waterfowl are evident in the rivers, bayous…..
…..and shallow bays of this area; in the distance is a barrier island that is crucial to the creation of this rich marine ecosystem.
This is a portion of the Carrabelle River estuary.
On the beach at Dog Island (where the shell collecting was outstanding) at the end of the Gulf Intra-coastal Waterway; the Captain is in the distance contemplating the next day’s open water journey to the east, across the Gulf of Mexico.
A blast of pink among Dog Island’s hot, white sand dunes.
Fortunately, a red sky at night…..
……foretold of very good weather for our three day journey around Florida’s Big Bend (over 200 miles in all).
Feeding time for the resident pelicans at the adjacent slip at Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee; this is a major recreational fishing centre and the remains of the days catch are dumped in the river for these fellas to feast on.
We are always delighted when we have a chance to get up close and personal with the local wildlife, from manatees……
The next installment will cover our time spent in the delightful town of Tarpon Springs, our journey south to Fort Myers, then east across central Florida via the Okeechobee Canal to Stuart, and south to Miami, our departure point for the Bahamas.