Sunsets, Seafood and Six Other Reasons to Visit Steinhatchee
By Nancy Moreland
It takes a little effort to reach Steinhatchee, a coastal village in Northwest Florida’s Taylor County. You’ll find it’s worth every minute of the drive along sparsely developed Highway 361 to visit this town alongside a river of the same name. As you might guess, “Steinhatchee” was derived from the Native American language: "esteen-hatchee" means “river of man”. Throughout time, Indians, explorers, Civil War soldiers, sponge divers and commercial fishermen gathered here, attracted to resources they found in the river, Deadman’s Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, just 2.5 miles away. Today, Steinhatchee draws visitors in search of the way Florida used to be.
Here are eight reasons to make a trip to Steinhatchee:
1. Sunsets. Who doesn’t love a sunset? Waterfront sunsets alone are reason enough to spend the night in Steinhatchee. Head to Roy's Restaurant for the best view in town. Professional photographers hoping to capture a great image often set up tripods in the parking lot. If you’re hungry, order a Captain’s Platter and watch the sky change color from air conditioned comfort. Blue crab cocktail claws are a year-round favorite; grouper and snapper are seasonal specialties. The sizeable salad bar is a local legend. “All of our salad dressings, slaws and potato salad are homemade,” says Linda Wicker, proprietor of this family-run operation.
2. Seafood. Steinhatchee’s varied and bountiful seafood deserves more than one mention. (See below.) Whether you catch your own, buy a fresh batch of crabs at Kathi's Krab Shack or relax while someone else filets the fish or cleans the shrimp, Steinhatchee does not disappoint. Regional favorites include smoked mullet dip (available year-round) and stone crab (seasonal; October 15, 2019-April 15, 2020.)
The surrounding waterways create prime breeding habitat for fish and shellfish. “Most people look for pretty beaches. We have mudflats and pristine grass flats. It’s like a nursery for sea life,” says Jim Hunt, owner of Fiddler's Restaurant and Hotel. Fiddler’s “customer fish” is a popular feature among sportsmen. “You hook ‘em, we cook ‘em,” Hunt says, adding, “We clean and prepare your fresh catch four to five different ways and serve it family style, on a beautiful platter. With enough notice, I can come to your table and explain the best ways to cook fish.”
Steinhatchee’s varied and bountiful seafood deserves more than one mention. (See below.) Whether you catch your own, buy a fresh batch of crabs at Kathi’s Krab Shack or relax while someone else filets the fish or cleans the shrimp, Steinhatchee does not disappoint. Regional favorites include smoked mullet dip (available year-round) and stone crab (seasonal; October 15, 2019-April 15, 2020.)
3. Scalloping. Anyone who has participated in this summertime sport understands why it needs its own category. For three and a half months – (Steinhatchee’s season runs June 15-September 10, 2019) hundreds of hungry hunters of all ages snorkel the shallow Gulf waters off Steinhatchee in search of tasty bay scallops. Peering through celadon green waters, they search for electric blue dots nestled among undulating grass flats. These dots are the bivalves’ eyes, which reveal their hiding places. Net bag in hand, the snorklers attempt to snag the scallop before it propels itself out of reach. Like an underwater Easter egg hunt, the pursuit yields a delicious treasure. One scalloper compared the succulent meat to eating a lump of sugar.
It’s a fun family activity, but remember to apply waterproof sunblock, especially to your neck, shoulders and ears. Wearing a long sleeve UVB protection shirt helps, too. Stock up on scalloping equipment (snorkel, face mask, fins, gloves and net bag) beforehand or purchase at Sea Hag Marina. Scalloping takes place all along the Gulf Coast, but Steinhatchee is a mecca of bivalve bagging, complete with guides, dockside scallop cleaners and restaurants to cook your catch.
“To escape the crowds, go out on weekdays. If you like the hoopla, go on weekends,” says Danielle Norwood, owner of Sea Hag Marina. The “hoopla” creates a festive atmosphere out on the Gulf, but means longer waits at the boat launch. Marker One Flats Charters and Reel Song Charters are two local options for scalloping and fishing excursions.
4. Fishing. By now, you’ve noticed a trend: water-based recreation is Steinhatchee’s claim to fame. Many visitors plan an entire weekend around fishing. One of the advantages of this area is that the Gulf fishing spots are state-owned and thus, undeveloped. The surrounding waterways create prime breeding habitat for fish and shellfish.
“Most people look for pretty beaches. We have mudflats and pristine grass flats. It’s like a nursery for sea life,” says Jim Hunt. His “customer fish” at Fiddler's is a popular feature among sportsmen. “You hook ‘em, we cook ‘em,” Hunt says, adding, “We clean and prepare your fresh catch four to five different ways and serve it family style, on a beautiful platter. With enough notice, I can come to your table and explain the best ways to cook fish." That’s why those grass flats Hunt calls “pristine” are still intact. As Danielle Norwood says, “You’re fishing in nature, not in someone’s backyard.” Redfish, flounder and trout are popular local catches.
5. Boating. With almost 60 miles of coastline, four rivers and plenty of creeks, Taylor County is a boater’s dream. Steinhatchee itself seems designed for boaters, with its location on the Steinhatchee River, its proximity to the Gulf and boat-accessible lodging. Sea Hag Marina rents boats and boat slips. Steinhatchee Landing Resort rents boat slips to guests. The public boat ramp on 1st Street East gets high praise from boaters for launch accessibility, ease of use and plenty of parking.
6. Character. “We’re just a small, laidback Old Florida town. We welcome everybody and take care of them.” Linda Wicker’s modest statement conveys Steinhatchee’s classic Southern sensibility. Folks are friendly. Flip flops, T-shirts and shorts are dinner attire. Many locals still ply the Gulf for their livelihood. Residents stock the library, housed in a 12 x 15 Cracker cottage, with books and local memorabilia. A building height restriction of three stories preserves the small-town scale. There’s a tiny grocery store and a seasonal tiki bar at Sea Hag Marina, but you won’t find big box stores or night clubs. Other than scalloping season and the Fiddler Crab Festival, life moves at a quiet stroll.
7. Unique Lodging. Sea Hag Marina redefines the term “fish camp”. Its guest “shacks” are anything but. Spotlessly clean, they balance contemporary amenities with an Old Florida feel. Jimmy Buffet would feel at home among the porches, nautical décor, tropical color scheme and packed-sand parking lot. The newest addition, Goliath Grouper, lives up to its name, with cathedral ceilings, a waterfront view and enough bedrooms to sleep 20.
Hidden further up river, Steinhatchee Landing Resort's 23 cottages sit under moss-draped oaks on 35 idyllic acres. A genteel version of the original Florida Cracker cottage (think AC and other modern amenities), these getaways come in one, two, three and four-bedroom versions. The property is ideal for families, with a playground, tennis and basketball courts, dog park, petting zoo and a kayak/canoe launch. It’s equally fine for couples, especially honeymooners who wed in its quaint chapel and enjoy onsite spa services after the wedding excitement subsides. This riverine retreat is better suited for relaxation than work; if you must, the onsite conference center comes in handy.
8. Serenity. In an age of the 24-hour news cycle, Steinhatchee is a prescription for peace. “There’s not a single red light in Steinhatchee,” Danielle Norwood says. At night, the brightest lights you see come from the stars. Come morning, stroll down to the docks and you’re likely to hear fish jump or pelicans splash as they dives into the river for breakfast. An ideal de-stress destination, you can play, stay and dine here for a week or weekend without needing to leave. In fact, leaving town may be the only downside to your Steinhatchee stay.
To learn more about Steinhatchee, visit the Taylor County website or call 850-584-5366.
Photos, top to bottom: Nancy Moreland, Sea Hag Marina; Taylor County Chamber of Commerce; Sea Hag Marina.