Shared by Robert Nebel
It was 5:15 p.m. on a humid afternoon. My wife, daughter and I emerged from traveling miles of sun-drenched north Florida roads. We finally reached town. We were weary, but determined as we went on a search for our reserved lodging.
“Do you know where Steinhatchee Landing Resort is?” I queried a waitress at the Lynn-Rich Restaurant.
“It’s…Oh, I don’t know how many miles. It’s just down the road on the right,” she replied in a slow drawl. The waitress' customers looked on as if this afternoon would last forever. They had no particular place to go as they looked at me as if I had lost my mind. They were probably correct in their assumption. I was on a mission to find our room for the night. We were definitely worlds apart.
“I’m on the right path,” I announced to my wife and daughter as they shot me back with skeptical looks.
I hurried back to the car, slammed the door shut, put the pedal to the floor mat (or close to it) and got back on Highway 51 north. We arrived at our destination within minutes.
“We got here in time for check-in!” I exclaimed, while parking the car at the welcome center.
I ran to the front door, eager to meet the resort’s staff. Every door was locked and most lights were off. The sign informed me that the office closed a half-hour ago.
“It’s only 5:30! How could this happen?” I asked no one in particular.
I glanced next to the door where there was a note with my name on it. It instructed us to go to our cottage and phone the staff if we had questions. I called the number on the paper and got the property manager/resort founder, Dean Fowler.
“Just go on to the cottage. Everything you need is in there,” Dean answered in his folksy tone.
We jumped back into the car looking for our cottage. Dean spotted us within minutes. He and his trusty dog Riley pointed us in the right direction.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Dean said as he chased Riley. “Have a good evening.”
We arrived at our two-story, front-screened porch, one-bedroom cottage. As we unpacked, we were reminded that we weren’t in the big city anymore. We were in Steinhatchee (pronounced Steen-hatch-ee), Florida -- home to some of America’s most hard-working citizens like Dean Fowler, who in the late 1980s, had a vision to build a resort for those seeking an outdoor-type vacation with all of the comforts of home. Fowler created Steinhatchee Landing Resort which features 50 modern Florida Cracker-style designed cottages, tennis courts, fitness center, pool and indoor swim spa/sauna. All of this is within walking distance to the Steinhatchee River where guests can kayak, canoe, swim and fish.
After unpacking, we relaxed on the cottage’s front porch just talking. We could have zoned out to cable TV, watched a movie or even listened to CDs a few feet away in the cottage’s entertainment center. Instead we connected. We felt like we were at camp. The crickets were singing, the stars were shining and the outside fans were whirring. It doesn’t get any better than this if you’re seeking serenity. On a typical day, many of us are bombarded with moving images in our modern media world. Every now and then, we need to detoxify at places like Steinhatchee Landing.
Our morning started off with a complimentary breakfast in the main house which has a dining room, gift shop and check-in office. The breakfast wasn’t anything too fancy, but nothing around here needs to be. Before we knew it, Dean came in and sat with us -- telling stories from his South Georgia childhood when he helped his father on the farm. Listening to Dean can bring a sense of calm that I never knew existed.
“We had mules doing all the hard work,” Fowler recalled. “It’s good to have automated machinery now. We need it these days.”
The walls in this dining room are festooned with photos, letters and published newspaper and magazine articles about the resort. Among these mementoes are pictures of Dean with former President Jimmy Carter, a close friend for many years. Carter and his large family first visited Steinhatchee Landing over 15 years ago. They made several return visits since that inaugural visit which is commemorated with sign in front of the cottage where the former first couple stayed.
“Oh I helped Jimmy out with his campaign for the presidency. I remember going to the governor of Wyoming, telling him about Jimmy,” Fowler recalled. “He said, ‘Young man, there’s no way that Jimmy Carter’s going to become the next president of the United States of America!’” I approached that man after Jimmy’s inauguration to remind him of our summer meeting. I kind of rubbed it in.”
After chuckling over that story and some more reminiscing, Fowler toured us around the grounds starting with a visit to the property’s chapel.
“We have a lot of weddings here,” Fowler said, as he turned on the chapel’s speakers to pipe in music. “Isn’t this nice?”
Steinhatchee Landing is perfect for weddings. The spacious, stained glass 2,000-square-foot chapel seats 125 guests. Across from the chapel is a conference center where receptions are held.
We wandered over to the resort’s horse barn that houses two donkeys – Jethro and Ellie Mae. Both vied for our attention when we approached. “Those donkeys love carrots,” Fowler said. “I can’t keep them away from carrots.”
Even though he has a soft spot in his heart for his dog and donkeys, Fowler’s latest interest is his Koi pond.
“See that one over there?” he asked, while pointing at one of the fish in this large school. “He’s got a broken back, but he’s getting better in here.”
Indeed Fowler is married with his own grown children, but if you count Steinhatchee Landing’s Koi, rabbits and other animals, he has a massive family.
As our tour concluded, I felt like I was in a bed and breakfast instead of a resort.
“I’ll come around to your cottage at 5 to go out on the river,” Dean said, as we parted for the afternoon.
Fowler typically takes his guests out on his 12-passenger pontoon boat where you can get a sense of Florida’s natural beauty while dining on great food and drink. We didn’t get that chance on our visit due to technical difficulties -- don’t worry, it was minor. I do hope to get out on the Steinhatchee River during my next visit. The habitat and Dean Fowler are unforgettable.
Steinhatchee is the Florida that Donald Trump forgot to develop and most likely, he will never get his hands on this well-preserved slice of Sunshine State heaven. Steinhatchee and this part of Taylor County, Florida are protected by the state according to county officials.
If you want to see the real Florida, look no further than the locals who patronize Fiddler’s and Roy’s restaurants on the town’s main strip. They come to both unique eateries for some of the world’s best seafood including scallops, deviled crab and hush puppies. Fiddler’s offers fresh beef, pork and chicken dishes in addition to their seafood offerings. Roy’s is a 35-year-old seafood institution that also has an extensive salad bar and juicy hamburgers for the picky eater like my child.
Food and service at both of these Steinhatchee restaurants are first-rate. At Roy’s, our waitress apologized for bringing over the wrong kind of tea.
“There’s no excuse for me doing that,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”
When I told people that I was going to Steinhatchee, those who were somewhat familiar with the area asked if I was going during Bay Scalloping Season. Every July 1 – September 10, visitors and locals flock to this area of the Gulf – known as the Apalachee Bay to find scallops in shallow, grassy areas. After reading up on the resort, I soon discovered that I missed it by a few weeks.
Where the real people live
Steinhatchee is a boating-fishing-hunting hamlet filled with beer, deer and pickup trucks. The locals welcome visitors to this part of the world with open arms. If you would like a getaway that doesn’t involve those same old “pristine sandy white beaches,” go to where the sun is warm, the beer is cold and the fish are biting.