Hotels to Beckon Ecotourists

For those not brave enough to rough it, new hotels are offering more comfortable places to stayHotels Set to Beckon Ecotourists

By Jaclyn Emerick

Protected land in Northwest Florida makes the area rich in natural resources. Unspoiled beaches, historic hiking trails and bird-watching, combined with renowned seafood, make the area a travel destination for every environmental aficionado.

But there always has been a hitch.

For years, tourists would make day trips to their favorite trails and parks in the Forgotten Coast, but when the day was over, those who weren’t into camping usually would have to drive elsewhere for overnight accommodations. Now, however, two large hotels are up and running in the region, offering visitors the opportunity to stay where they play.

For guests seeking to break away from the city, MainStay Suites in Port St. Joe, located at 3951 E. U.S. Highway 98, is a new “hybrid” establishment offering apartment-like amenities for both overnight and long-term guests. Owned and operated by David and Trish Warriner of Port St. Joe, MainStay Suites consists of six types of rooms ranging from an open-floor-plan studio suite to a two-bedroom, apartment-style room. All rooms include full kitchen amenities and utensils, a pullout sofa, a desk and a high-speed Internet connection.

“The rooms are designed for people looking to have more space who typically spend a week or even a month here,” general manager Jason Bogan said. Nightly rates range from about $99 to $159 during the peak season and about $89 to $129 off-season. The rates are arranged in tiers designed to benefit those guests with long-term reservations.

Just a 10- to 15-minute drive to Cape San Blas and Mexico Beach, the new non-smoking, pet-friendly hotel offers an outdoor pool and patio with a gas barbecue pit. In addition, a 24-hour staff and the interior-corridor floor plan give guests a sense of security.

“We are not airbrush shops and go-kart tracks,” Bogan said. “We are one of the last pristine environments in the area, and we are trying to keep it that way.” Travelers seeking mini-golf courses and high-rise condominiums won’t find any in the area. Rather, state parks and protected land along the water and bay area make the natural landscape accessible and enjoyable.

While pockets of development are taking place in the area, they are small and very controlled. Events and festivals throughout the year and wonderful shops and restaurants keep visitors busy, but there are strict guidelines concerning the growth.

“You won’t be able to drive a car down by the water, and there aren’t any high-rise buildings blocking the view of the water,” Carly Pickels of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council said. “This is a wonderful, family-friendly area.”

The Big Bend and surrounding areas are a haven for nature enthusiasts, as ecotourism is becoming an increasingly popular way to enjoy the region’s unique environment. The Inn at Wildwood of Wakulla County has been open since November 2005 and is one of 10 “green” hotels in Florida that cater to the ecotourism crowd.

The home-like, environmentally friendly establishment prides itself on being energy-efficient and had to pass numerous inspections to earn the title of being a green hotel. Guests enjoy hotel-like accommodations, including a 1,700-square-foot banquet room and an outdoor pool complete with a clubhouse.

“We try to get people to experience Wakulla County,” general manager Amber Meyers said. “By getting closer to nature, people are starting to discover everything Wakulla County has to offer.”

The Inn at Wildwood offers nature excursions ranging from kayaking to nature hiking and birding. With an event planner on site, the inn is developing packages for guests that will enable them to seek out ecotourism opportunities according to their interests.

Before the inn was built, visitors would spend their tourist hours – and dollars – where there were accommodations, such as in Tallahassee. Now, The Inn at Wildwood provides the missing link in nature-based tourism in Wakulla County.

“The economic engine of ecotourism needed more than just an afternoon,” said Paul Johnson, chief executive officer of P.G. Johnson & Associates, a consulting firm on environmental and governmental affairs.

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2007, Forgotten Coast Archive