CROSS CITY, Florida -- This region of the Sunshine State is known by many names, among them the “Nature Coast” and “the Armpit of Florida.”
“I prefer ‘The Forgotten Coast,’” said John Goettsche, an owner of Dakotah Winery, a tasty and refreshing stop near the town of Chiefland.
On a map, the great bend in the Gulf Coast, where the east-west Florida panhandle turns into the north-south Florida peninsula, does look something like a colossal armpit, but I can’t imagine that the local visitors bureaus would approve.
“Forgotten Coast,” though, has an intriguing, slightly mysterious sound. And with no high-rise condos, no beachfront resorts and a delightful dearth of traffic, the sparsely visited region fits the name. (“Forgotten Coast” was once a registered trademark of the chamber of commerce in Apalachicola, at the western end of the armpit.)
The coast here, where the Suwannee and Steinhatchee rivers empty into the Gulf, is lined with salt marshes and tidal mudflats, great for wildlife and anglers but not so much for beach-worshipping snowbirds who might rue the lack of white sand, surf shops and cabana boys.
For travelers who enjoy nature, Southern hospitality and a laid-back, old-Florida atmosphere, the Nature-Armpit-Forgotten Coast won’t be forgotten after a first visit.
The hospitality was much in evidence at the winery, where, in the knickknack-filled tasting room and gift shop, flames danced in a fireplace, taking the chill -- yes, chill -- off the late north Florida winter morning.
Goettsche, who was wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning cap, was happy to talk wine -- and hockey -- as he led visitors through a wine tasting.
The winery also has pretty grounds that include a small pond where wood ducks often lounge. A pair was there during my visit; a brightly colored male is the logo on bottles of Dakotah wine.
I encountered plenty of other wildlife on my visit to the region.
At Fanning Springs State Park, I was standing on the floating dock in the crystal-clear springs, the only human around, when two dark shapes approached from the short, cypress-lined outlet leading to the Suwannee River.
The shapes resolved, thrillingly, into a mother manatee and calf, seeking the warmth of the springs, always 72 degrees. The two dived beneath the dock into the springs, where they stayed, just feet away from me, for several minutes of manatee magic. The baby seemed to nurse for a bit, then put one little flipper around the mother’s back as she propelled them both toward the center of the spring.
I saw many more manatees, alligators and, alas, many more humans at Manatee Springs State Park, another otherworldly upwelling of pure water that flows through a short, tree-lined channel into the Suwannee. People often swim in the springs when the air is warmer, but on my visit, only wetsuit-clad snorklers were in the water.
Manatee Springs also offers boat tours of the Suwannee River and canoe and kayak rentals for visitors who want to explore on their own.
I also took a few hours to drive out to the coast to explore several oceanfront fishing towns. Visitors who don’t mind getting their vehicle dirty should try the Dixie Mainline, a well-groomed, scenic dirt road that passes through the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge over an old railroad right-of-way linking the villages of Suwannee and Horseshoe Beach.
I found another scenic dirt road leading toward the town of Steinhatchee, the closest thing to a tourist hot spot on the Gulf between Apalachicola and Cedar Key.
Steinhatchee is a great place to find good seafood, fishing charters and tidy riverfront motels.
The town also has the closest thing to a traditional resort in the area, Steinhatchee Landing, a lovely retreat with long- and short-term rental cottages set amid moss-dripping oak trees along the Suwannee River.
My lodgings were not as isolated, but more historic and a place I’m glad I didn’t miss.
Putnam Lodge, in the old logging town of Cross City, was built in the 1920s by the Putnam Lumber Co. to house company executives, visiting VIPs and discerning tourists.
The lodge retains its original “pecky cypress,” a high-quality wood naturally marked with stains and holes that is rarely encountered today. The lodge’s paneling, posts and beams are colorfully decorated with original, hand-stenciled patterns.
Visitors will now find 25 renovated guest rooms and a magnificent cypress dining hall with some of the best food in north Florida.
Owners Ed and Beverly Pivacek, who live on the premises, treat the dining hall as a kind of extended living room, holding court at the lovely lodge bar where they’re happy to share stories from their go-go days in metro Tampa, where Ed was a commercial property developer. (If you are very lucky, he might tell you about the time he tried to corner the Midwestern Christmas tree market.)
The Pivaceks, though, seem quite happy to have traded the Tampa scene for their much, much quieter life in whatever it is you call this part of Florida.
And few who stop by for a visit will wonder why.
-- Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.