Along FL's Nature Coast
By Susan J. Young
Nestled among statuesque pines and oak trees dripping with moss, Steinhatchee Landing Resort along Florida’s northwest Gulf of Mexico coastline delivers an escape from the hustle bustle often found at other Sunshine State resorts.
In a pristine setting along the Steinhatchee River, just three miles from the Gulf of Mexico, kids bicycle along the resort's pathways, adults curl up with a good book on their porch rocking chair, and guests enjoy fishing, scalloping and eco-hikes.
Situated amid the natural setting are the resort’s 40 Victorian and Florida cracker cottages, all individually owned.
Staying at Steinhatchee Landing is akin to having your own vacation home.
Yet, the touristy feel so evident at many similar resorts never rears its head here. You truly DO feel like you're home when staying at the Landing.
The concept was developed by Dean Fowler, the resort’s property manager. After visiting the Steinhatchee area for many years on fishing trips, Fowler's dream was to create an off-the-beaten path retreat where families could enjoy the area’s natural beauty.
So this isn't a typical Florida resort. You won’t find valet car parking, championship golf, or 24-hour room service on site. In fact, there isn’t even a restaurant on site – although a very nice complimentary continental breakfast is served in the Welcome Center for all guests, all accommodations have full kitchens and several good restaurants are close by.
What you will find is a relaxing aura, a place where children roam outside and play in a manner I hadn't seen since the 1960s -- playing with sticks, climbing a mountain of dirt, just talking and walking, doing simple things in a simple place.
At left, children try their hand at fishing from the resort's dock.*
A lush canopy of live oak, pine, magnolia and cypress trees surround the homes.
It's a great way to commune with nature, but just step inside your accommodations for creature comforts.
Opened in 1990, the resort has expanded year after year -- yet never strayed far from its original concept. If you want to get away from it all, to find a place to reconnect with your spouse or family, this place delivers.
Steinhatchee Landing is located in Florida's wild northwest, halfway between Crystal River and Tallahassee.
It's just outside the small town of Steinhatchee in the midst of a vast, undeveloped region that begins at St. Marks in Taylor County and continues southward to Crystal River in Citrus County.
As the crow flies, Steinhatchee is 65 miles west of Gainesville and 85 miles southeast of Tallahassee.
It’s also about 20 miles west of Route 19. When you make the turn from Route 19 onto the road to the resort and Steinhatchee town, you lose cell phone service.... showing that you're heading into a place where Florida's wildness still reigns.
In fact, more than 80 percent of the land in this portion of what’s called “The Nature Coast,” is undeveloped and protected by law. So it remains pristine and free of urban sprawl.
The view from Steinhatchee Landing resort is shown at right.*
Yes, you’ll see new residences and commercial structures under development as you reach the outer limits of the town itself (and regain cell service soon after). But a mile or two beyond the town and you’re in the boonies.
One joy of staying at Steinhatchee is that it allows families to spend quality time together without a focus on electronics, cell phones (our T-Mobile service was non-existent even at the resort), or Internet cafes.
If you want to "disconnect," this is a good place to do that. We observed children and, in many cases, families, just strolling along on the resort pathways or riding bicycles together.
That getaway-from-it-all atmosphere but with comfortable accommodations is what drew former President Jimmy Carter and his family to Steinhatchee for a family vacation a few years back.
Choosing Your Accommodations
The resort’s eclectic Victorian and Florida accented accommodations range from one-bedroom honeymoon cottages to three- and four-bedroom family units.
The two-level Spice cottages are lovely for newlyweds or couples just seeking a romantic getaway. The bedroom is on the lower level, the living area on the upper in these cute units.
Most accommodations are stand-alone homes. Our unit, Georgia, Number 6 (shown at far right), was a cottage-styled duplex with a front and back porch; the latter was screened.
Georgia Number 6 featured spacious accommodations, a fully equipped kitchen, two complete baths, two bedrooms, a large dining room table and sumptuous linens. It was clean and comfortable. We loved the front porch with its rocking chairs.
The screened back porch was a plus, particularly at dusk and dawn when Florida's mosquitos often like munching on tourists.
All accommodations at Steinhatchee Landing are fully furnished. They feature full kitchens, laundries, central heat and air-conditioning, TVs and VCRs, covered porches and outdoor charcoal grills.
Some homes are new, others have been rented since the resort opened in 1990. Views vary. Some overlook the property, others landscaped gardens, and some the woodlands or river.
One of the eclectic homes at Steinhatchee Landing for rent is shown at left.*
We’ve stayed at Steinhatchee on three occasions, most recently in January 2007. None of our accommodations were cookie cutter. Homes reflect the individual taste and style of the owners, along with varying amenities.
Thus, it's an excellent idea to do your homework. Go online to the www.steinhatcheelanding.com site and use the resort’s handy “Cottage Finder.” Check the type of homes, view their locations and amenities.
What's the view, what's the history (brand new or, if older, when has the home been renovated). What are the specific interior amenities and decor?
The comfortable decor and flat screen TV in one Plantation Cottage interior is shown at left.*
For example, some homes have whirlpool tubs or fireplaces. All have VCRs, so if you want to use your own DVDs, ask if the home has a DVD player (ours didn't).
Are you planning to go to the pool daily? If so, you may want accommodations closer to the Welcome Center and the west side of the property. If you prefer more seclusion you might select a different home.
Will you require a first-floor bedroom and bath or will an upstairs bedroom be fine?
Many of these questions can be answered online. In addition, click “add to compare” and you’ll be able to see the selected units compared side by side.
Any questions? Call the resort as staff will happily answer questions; they know the units inside and out. Finding the right fit and location for your family is important.
Want to bring Fido? No problem. Of the Landing’s 40 cottages, 10 are available to guests wishing to include a family pet of up to 28 pounds.
Dining around Steinhatchee
You might sleep in and prepare breakfast in your own vacation home. Or, between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., you might head for the resort's Welcome Center for the complimentary continental breakfast.
The cheery breakfast room offers cereal, bagels, sweets, fruit, juice and coffee or tea. You may enjoy breakfast inside or outside on the porch (see photo at right*).
Again, the resort has no on-site restaurant. For lunch and dinner, guests either prepare their own meals in their vacation rental kitchen or dine out.
While this is not a cosmopolitan area, several good, down-home restaurants are just a 5-10 minute drive.
Don't miss Fiddler's Restaurant (at left*). It offers a full menu of seafood, beef, pork and chicken dishes, along with a full bar.
Order the special Shrimp and Scallop Au Gratin during summertime. Scallops are harvested locally from July 1 through the end of summer, so you can’t go wrong with that fresh choice. Other fresh fish options are also a good bet.
Overlooking the Steinhatchee River, Roy's Restaurant (at right*) is another option. It has an extensive salad bar. Menu items include fried seafood, juicy hamburgers, and fresh mullet.
The Bridge End Café offers open-air seating in a quaint country setting. During scalloping season, guests feast on the café’s seafood bisque and Manhattan style scallop chowder.
Mason's Market, the local grocery, offers to-go lunches of fried chicken, fresh vegetables and sandwiches. It's also a good place to stock up on food and sodas for the rental home's refrigerator if you haven't brought supplies from home.
Most importantly, local wholesale fish houses sell to the public, with oysters, fish and crab almost always available. So you can buy the freshest seafood available, take it to your rental home and cook it up.
Recreation and Fitness
One appealing feature of Steinhatchee is the laid-back approach. So you might curl up with a book on your cottage’s porch, take a hike, or just head for the new pool complex (shown at right*) with its 55-foot-long pool, ringed by lounge chairs.
Inside the complex is a humongous whirlpool (that's actually a swim-against-the-current spa), three-person sauna and small fitness center with new exercise equipment.
Adjacent to the pool is a new children’s play area (see below right*) – complete with colorful climbing rungs and other fun stuff.
Other pursuits? Guests might head to the outdoor jogging trail, or perhaps the outdoor basketball, tennis or shuffleboard courts.
Archery, shuffleboard, and bicycle, canoe or kayak rentals (see photo at left*) also are available.
A small outdoor petting zoo is fun for the kids. And for shopaholics, the resort boasts an excellent gift shop in the Welcome Center. It offers a great selection of gifts, kitchen fare, cookbooks that reflect southern and Florida cuisine, as well as sundries, CDs and so on.
Wedding Bells Chime
Not surprisingly, Steinhatchee appeals to couples as they plan a wedding and honeymoon experience that has a feel of “old time” Florida with modern amenities.
The resort’s new 2,000-square-foot Dancing Waters Chapel (shown at right*) features seating for 125 guests and 12-foot high stained glass windows.
It seemed to us much more like a small church than a chapel. We were impressed with the size and interior appointments.
With high vaulted ceilings (see photo at left*) and high quality acoustics, the chapel creates a romantic setting.
Antique wood derived from a 1800s Georgian hotel is incorporated in the chapel’s doors, windows and interior walls.
Inside the entry are two small rooms – one for the bride and bridesmaids, the other for the groom’s entourage.
Built from scratch just two years ago, the chapel also boasts an outdoor garden with gazebo (seen at right*), often used for wedding photography or vow renewal ceremonies.
The resort’s 2,400-square-foot Conference Center is a good spot for a wedding reception or other private affairs. It accommodates up to 90 guests.
A Steinhatchee Landing staff person is assigned to accommodate each wedding group and help coordinate facilities and services, including any catering.
Spring and summer are highly popular for weddings and the chapel books up quickly during that period, so plan ahead. In fall, though, the air is cooler, the resort less crowded, and the rates more affordable
Whatever your reason for visiting, don't miss the exellent 90-minute pontoon boat cruise that's usually available from the resort – with just a bit of advance notice.
Cost is $95 an hour or $190 for two hours; that's for up to 12 guests on the boat.
Along the Steinhatchee River, we observed stunning natural scenery (as shown at left*).
Many birds were spotted including heron, egrets, and cormorants. Fish jumped from the water.
And the boat ride was a good way to see the town of Steinhatchee from the water – offering a different perspective.
While families with small children do come onboard the pontoon ride, we have a few tips for parents.
If your children are well-behaved, enjoy quiet natural beauty and can be entertained just by viewing spectacular scenery, then definitely bring them.
If not, leave them at the dock with a responsible adult in your party, or charter the boat for a shorter trip just for your own family.
On our ride, the kids onboard were totally bored after 30 minutes and were a distracting influence for other guests who wanted to soak in the beauty of the voyage.
Honeymooners, couples celebrating an anniversary or families with a large number of people might pre-arrange for a chartered boat ride – with a catered lunch or dinner onboard including; beer and wine can be included. Rental charges vary depending on group size.
Beyond the Resort
The Steinhatchee area boasts year-round fishing – both freshwater and saltwater. You might catch redfish, grouper, sea trout, flounder, black bass, snapper and cobia.
See fisherman at right for the type of catch you might snare.*
Many families come for Bay Scallop Season from July 1 to Sept. 10. If you plan to stay at the resort during scallop season, make reservations well in advance.
Scallops are found in shallow, grassy areas, allowing even small children to participate in the fun (see child sorting scallops below.*).
Apart from a mask, snorkel, fins and a mesh bag, scalloping requires no special equipment. The scallops are plentiful but there is a per-person limit.
You may harvest a maximum of two gallons of whole scallops or one pint of shucked scallop meat per day.
If you bring your own boat, Steinhatchee Landing provides docking space for up to 15 boats. The resort office will arrange fishing trips with local captains.
The resort also will provide suggestions on bird watching, hiking, hunting, canoeing, kayaking, scuba diving and cave diving; all are available within a short distance or on a day trip.
On our visit, we opted for a day trip to a winery, a state park and a late afternoon lunch in Suwannee, FL.
Located about 45 minutes south of Steinhatchee, the Dakotah Vineyard & Winery (352-493-9309 or www.dakotahwinery.com), is located right along Route 19.
Dakotah is operated by Rob Rittgers and his father Max Rittgers.
Established in 1985 with a planting of just 200 muscandine grape vines, today the winery is a 12-acre site with more than 6,000 grape vines.
The large wine tasting room features a horse-shoe shaped tasting bar, along with an extensive gift shop (see left*) and temperature controlled wine cellar.
Tasting room hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. If you go, bring home a bottle of Dakotah's cream sherry. It's quite savory and makes a nice gift.
And be sure to head for the winery's back deck to view the natural pond with its eclectic collection of ducks. Several wood ducks are seen at right.*
Just up the road off Route 19 is Fanning Springs State Park (352-463-3420 or www.floridastateparks.org/fanningsprings/default.cfm). Located on the Suwannee River, Fanning Springs produces an average of 65 million gallons of water daily.
Swimming or snorkeling in spring, summer and early fall is a popular activity. A nature trail and boardwalk overlook the spring and river. Manatees sometimes visit the spring during the winter months.
This is just one of seven Florida State Parks within driving distance of Steinhatchee Landing. Steinhatchee Resort offers free seven-day state park passes to guests; ask at the welcome center.
And along the way back to Steinhatchee, we took the turn-off west on Route 349 to Suwannee. It’s a long, relatively deserted road drive to a place that seems a bit lost in time.
But perhaps that’s what made this side trip enjoyable. There’s not that much to see, but the fact that small water-focused towns like this still exist in Florida is an attraction onto itself.
We had an excellent late lunch of fish and chips along the water at Salt Creek Restaurant (352-542-7072) in Suwannee. Its specialties are fresh seafood and steaks. It’s open seven days a week for dinner; for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday; and for lunch Wednesday through Sunday.
If you wish to take a full-day trip further north, head for Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city. Read our separate story on Tallahassee: A Feminine Flair, detailing some of the eclectic attractions focused on women and their contributions to the city's history and culture.
Whatever you do, though, save at least one or two evenings, to head for the parking lot adjacent to Roy’s Restaurant in Steinhatchee.
At the west end of the lot, you’ll have an unobstructed view of spectacular sunsets.
Check out the glowing pink and orange sky (see right*) that dips lower and then drops over the horizon.
Pricing and Deals
Generally, the high season for Steinhatchee is July 1 through Sept. 10. Off-season rates apply other periods, with the exception of holidays.
Right now, the resort is running a 50 percent discount of a stay of four nights or more between Oct. 28 and Nov. 20, and between Dec. 2-20. Choose any one- to four-bedroom cottage for the deal.
Our two-bedroom, spacious Georgian Number 6 cottage ranges from $165 to $288, depending on time of year.
The one-bedroom Honeymoon Cottages are priced at $283 nightly year-round. The large River House ranges from $278 to $491 nightly, depending on time of year.
Again, check the Web site for pricing for other accommodations, such as the Spice cottages (shown at left).*
All rates are subject to 9% sales and county tax plus 3% resort service fee.
If you do book, however, pay careful attention to the resort’s cancellation policy. It’s stricter than at many resorts, mostly because of the resort’s off-the-beaten-path locale. If you cancel, there isn’t someone automatically lined up right behind you to fill the booking. But that means the rules are much more stringent than at some other resorts. The policy is explained online.
This resort, though, is worth the trip. You might hike in the shade of an old pine forest, canoe or kayak the Steinhatchee River, or just kick back and relax in the comfort of your private cottage. Whatever you see and do, Steinhatchee delivers a one-of-a-kind, natural experience.
It’s a place where families can reconnect, where couples can relax and rejuvenate, and where individuals get a sense of Florida the way it used to be – and, thankfully, still is here in this corner of northwest Florida.
For More Information
Steinhatchee Landing Resort
203 Ryland Circle
Steinhatchee, FL 32359
800-584-1709 or 352-498-3513
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Steinhatchee Landing Resort and Susan J. Young. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.