Looking for Old Florida at its best? Head to Steinhatchee, a town of fewer than 2,000, located about three hours north of Tampa. One of Florida's first settlements, Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto and President Andrew Jackson both passed through here at one time, but today, the tiny fishing village caters to the outdoors crowd. The first thing you learn when you visit is how to say the name. Locals pronounce the "Stein" in Steinhatchee as "Steen," similar to "steam." The name is American Indian in origin. "Esteen hatchee" means river (hatchee) of man (esteen). The town has long been known for its scallops, but now that the season is closed, local fishing guides entertain tourists who come to fish the rich grass beds for trout, redfish, sheepshead, black sea bass and mangrove snapper. But the Big Bend region has more to offer than just scallops, crabs and fish. Head upstream and the Steinhatchee River provides great paddling opportunities. Be sure to pack a picnic lunch and check out Steinhatchee Falls. The spot was a historic crossing point for American Indians and other settlers. In terms of lodging, the laid-back luxury of Steinhatchee Landing Resort, a village of quaint rental cottages, is worth the trip. Complete with its own dock, pool, playground and neighborhood goats, you will find it an excellent base for any adventure.
WHOA! GREAT BARRACUDA
They may look scary, but barracuda are actually a lot of fun (for some). These open-ocean predators will hit just about anything, including a variety of artificial lures. This creature's sharp, razorlike teeth helped it earn the nickname "tiger of the sea." The International Game Fish Association's World Record Game Fishes book lists categories for eight species of barracuda, the largest being the Guinean, which is found in the Eastern Atlantic, along the coast of Africa. This fish is a real monster, reaching more than 100 pounds. But our local variety here on the gulf coast, Sphyraena barracuda, or great barracuda, is no slouch. It can weigh more than 80 pounds and get as big as a grown man.
PADDLING: THE WEEKI WACHEE
Fed by a first-magnitude spring that discharges 64 million gallons of water each day, the Weeki Wachee flows roughly 8 miles through a variety of habitat before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Bayport. The river, one of the best-kept secrets on the gulf coast, is ideal for entry-level paddlers or families with small children. But experts can design a trip as easy or as challenging as they wish. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Paddling Adventures rents canoes as well as single and tandem kayaks and offers transportation back upstream. Paddlers also have the option of bringing their own canoes or kayaks. Weekends tend to be crowded. But go on a weekday, and you might just have the river all to yourself.
FEET FIRST: IN THE RIGHT BOOTS
With fall officially here, it is time to hit the trail. If you are going to hike here in Florida, where it is often wet and flat, get a lightweight trail boot. Boots made of synthetic materials are usually lighter than those made of leather. Waterproof boots cost more than boots that are water resistant. (Waterproof boots keep your feet dry if they are submerged; water-resistant boots keep them dry for a while, but eventually, your feet get wet.) Most waterproof boots have a breathable liner that adds cost. A good pair of lightweight, waterproof boots start at about $100. That may sound pricey, but they are well worth the investment. And don't forget the socks — made of anything but cotton. Socks made of synthetic materials help transfer moisture, keeping your feet dry. Before you hike, wear the new boots around town for a few days. You might look like a geek, but it beats getting a blister.