Many vacation destinations require sprawling day-long expeditions to truly enjoy an area’s diverse natural beauty. But for folks staying on St. George Island, a quick drive to the north side of the SGI Bridge reveals the second-largest estuarine research reserve system in the United States.

The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center — or ANERR, as the locals call it — features more than 1,300 species of plants, 131 species of fish, and 50 species of mammals within 246,000 acres nestled along Apalachicola Bay.

It’s great for nature lovers who enjoy sightseeing, and the more curious who want to learn more about the environment around them.

Open Tuesday through Saturday, ANERR features winding paths that incorporate pine flat woods, oak hammocks and freshwater marshes where cattails and sawgrass grow wild. It is a photographer’s dream with a variety of scenery at every turn, especially near Millender Park, a prime picnic area with views of Apalachicola Bay and the volunteer-made breakwater area.

There are signs posted to keep a lookout for black bears, and while it may be a rare occurrence to actually see one, it should give you an idea of how diverse the wildlife found in ANERR is.

The reserve’s Nature Center features 18,000 square feet of learning space including two working wet and dry research laboratories. It overlooks the Cat Point oyster bar, which is one of the most productive oyster bars in Apalachicola Bay. At low tide, tidal flats and parts of oyster reefs are exposed.

In the Education Center, there are three large water tanks representing the river, bay and gulf habitats found in the Apalachicola area. Each tank holds more than 1,000 gallons and houses a variety of native plant life and creatures.

For more than a century, Apalachicola and Eastpoint have been working waterfronts, fostering generations of fishermen whose industries have only been sustainable due to the health and productivity of Apalachicola Bay. The Education Center focuses on that aspect of local history, with exhibits showing the evolution of oyster industry, and more. A beautiful, 80-foot mural is also on display, depicting area ecosystems.

One of ANERR’s signature events revolves around National Estuaries Day each September. Activities include free, fun and educational stations for kids and adults including marine animal touch tanks, and estuary-themed games including Microplastic Match-Up, Reptile Round-Up and Pin the Tag on the Monarch. In addition to this, there are educational events held year-round.

ANERR is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and for more information call 850-670-7700 or visit apalachicolareserve.com.

While we spend a spend a majority of our time enjoying St. George Island, it’s our wonderful neighboring communities who also make the Forgotten Coast the panhandle’s best destination. So sometimes we like to stretch our legs and escape for a bit and being just a few miles to our east, Carrabelle makes for a pleasant escapade.

The area has some of the best hunting, fishing, hiking and camping on the coast, with over 750,000 acres of public forest where eagles, deer, blue heron, osprey and black bear can be seen, depending on the season. And that massive acreage includes nearby Tate’s Hell State Forest and the convergence of the Carrabelle, Crooked and New rivers, which are perfect for canoes and kayaks.

At Carrabelle Beach, Crooked River Lighthouse Park is a fun place to visit and experience a bit of history. It features the 103-foot lighthouse, where you can climb all 138 steps to the top for a great view of the area. The park also features a museum and, soon, will feature a centerpiece pirate ship known as the Carrabella II for kids to explore.

Craving a day of adventure? Dog Island is just a short jaunt to the south, by motor or paddle. The island is a fun place for adventure with pristine white sand beaches, good shelling, crabbing and shore fishing. Although it is now closed, the Pelican Inn is still there, reminding visitors that the island used to be inhabited. Now, it’s a prime destination for folks wanting a taste of pristine habitat, where hundreds of species of birds can be observed, and a picnic lunch is the best idea of the day.

For those who enjoy golf, hard-court tennis, aerobics and good food, the St. James Bay Golf Resort is open to the public and features the Crooked River Grill restaurant and a perfectly manicured 18-hole championship course.

Carrabelle is also home to a collective of local artists whose creations can be found throughout the area. And there are two main events each year, in addition to holiday celebrations like those at Christmas and the Fourth of July. Each August, the city hosts the Crab Cake Cook-off, which for the last three years has raised money to build the aforementioned Carrabella II. It’s a tasty chance to mingle and enjoy a variety of crab cake recipes using local seafood.

And the featured attraction each October is Lantern Fest, held at Crooked River Lighthouse. The glow from 123 lanterns will set the mood for an evening celebrating the lighthouse’s 123rd birthday. There’s dancing, Celtic music, star gazing with the Tallahassee Astronomical Society, children’s activities, delicious food and desserts, and special evening tower climbs at the tallest lighthouse on the Forgotten Coast.