At the far eastern end of Florida’s panhandle, the city and surrounding area resting on the banks of the Apalachicola River where it meets Apalachicola Bay are often dubbed the state’s “forgotten coast”—and for good reason. At one time, the port at Apalachicola was one of the busiest in the Southeast, rivaling those of Mobile and New Orleans. The area also boasted a thriving timber industry; multiple Victorian and antebellum mansions still stand as a testament to the wealth that was once concentrated there.
But after the end of the Civil War and with the rise of the railroads, it’s as if Apalachicola’s place of prominence was simply wiped from the collective memory. The bustling port was no longer bustling. Many of the timber resources had been depleted. But thanks to the confluence of the river and bay and the haven for life this joining creates, Apalachicola found a new way to thrive. Today it’s a seafood center and is the perfect seaside getaway for those not interested in the towering condos, packed beaches, and hectic traffic of other coastal locales.
Recent disputes between Florida, Alabama, and Georgia over fresh water flows have negatively affected the bay’s salinity levels, and those who work the water are finding things harder than ever before, yet the town is still humming with the activity of a rich fishing heritage. Every day, oystermen in their shallow-sided boats make their way back to the docks in the afternoon, passing the shrimpers going out for the night, and seafood plants line the waterfront, although some are boarded up.
The seafood industry continues to play a vital part of the area’s economy and is almost equally important to the millions all over the country who enjoy eating Apalachicola’s famed oysters; the bay and surrounding waters annually produce almost ninety percent of the briny bivalves that come out of Florida.
The fertile waters also draw scores of sport fishermen and their tourism dollars. Despite declines, the bay still holds an abundance of fish, meaning, even if you’re a novice, you’ll probably catch some. You’re pretty likely to feel the first nibble on your line within minutes and then proceed to haul in multiple monster redfish, as well as speckled trout and other species. Of course, it does help to know the sweet spots, so hiring a local guide makes good sense if you really want to do some damage. The high chance of angling success and forming fish tales with happy endings makes fishing a popular diversion, but it’s not the only one.
The town of Apalachicola is an alluring blend of Southern hospitality and manners mixed with a salt-of-the-earth, rustic flavor that’s all set in a seemingly unspoiled paradise. Its small downtown (complete with one traffic light) is preserved, but far from perfect, which is part of its charm. Its antique shops and art galleries hold authentic “old Florida” treasures as well as the creative expressions of today’s local artists and artisans, and you can easily walk most of the area.
Visit the Apalachicola Sponge Company to discover more about one of Apalachicola’s lesser-known sea exports from yesteryear—the sea sponge. A century ago, up to 120 residents were employed in the sponge trade in the town. Now, the owners of the Sponge Company harvest and sell natural sea sponges as well as handmade goat’s milk soaps and lotions.
Find a bevy of old ships’ wheels, vintage buoy lights, glass rum bottles, colorful ship flags, and other nautically-themed items at Tin Shed Antiques.
Pop in the Old Time Soda Fountain and suck down a thick and creamy strawberry shake before grabbing a few jars of Tupelo Honey to take home. Its mild yet distinctive flavor comes from the nectar of the white tupelo tree that grows in the Apalachicola River Basin, one of the few areas in the world where certified Tupelo Honey is produced.
For an adult libation, make a pit stop at the bar at The Gibson Inn, a 1907 property that’s just one of Apalachicola’s many buildings and homes on the National Register of Historic Places. Order a Dan Garlick cocktail. This rum-based mixture was named for a local businessman who came up with his own special drink. When other customers kept asking, “What’s Dan drinking?” the bartenders decided to add his signature concoction to the menu.
Another historic home, also on the National Register and right on edge of downtown, has been transformed into an elegant bed & breakfast that makes a great base camp for any and all Apalachicola activities. The sunny yellow Coombs House Inn, named for its original owner, timber magnate James N. Coombs, was built in 1905 out of exotic lumber Coombs had gathered from around the world.
While a leisurely drive through the neighborhood bordering downtown will yield plenty of other “cool old house” sightings, since they are privately owned, unless you’ve been invited, you won’t get a look inside. At The Raney House, though, you are invited (Tuesday-Saturday): you can tour this Greek-Revival mansion that was built in 1838 during the height of Apalachicola’s prosperity.
But long before man ever set foot on the river’s banks, the area has been prosperous in a way not as easily measured. Apalachicola’s amazing natural diversity is being protected in several different ways.
At the United Nations Biosphere Reserve and Estuarine Sanctuary, 196,000 acres of wetlands and estuary are preserved and easily accessible via a winding boardwalk trail. At your trek’s terminus, a sea of tall grasses greets you, swaying with each breath of a breeze. A telescope on the deck gives you a glimpse at a bald eagle’s nest.
The St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge takes a little more effort to reach, as it is only accessible by boat, but is certainly worth the trip. Bisected by coastal dunes and covered in freshwater lakes and upland pine forests, this island harbors an interesting transplant. Once a private game reserve, the island was “outfitted” with several exotic species. Most died off, but a population of sambar deer, an elk native to South Asia, still roams the island. Other native species thrive in this sanctuary alongside the sambar, including alligators, red and gray foxes, and white tail deer, as well as migratory birds.
The short scenic drive over the bay to St. George Island is also worth your time. Here you can sun on the sandy beach and play in the surf. Make sure to visit the Cape St. George Light while there. Learn its intriguing history and climb its 92 steps for a picturesque view.
If all this roaming around has made you hungry, indulge in the area’s most precious commodity at Boss Oyster, a local and tourist favorite. You can have fresh oysters any way you want ’em. Ask for a seat on the deck outside to eat just feet from the water and have a front row seat for Mother Nature’s kaleidoscope of pinks, purples, and oranges at sunset. Try the Crumbly Bacon Oyster, baked with bacon, Worcestershire, and hot sauce, or the Oyster Max, baked with capers, sautéed garlic, herbs, and Parmesan cheese. Or go for the Oyster Roast, three-dozen oysters roasted in their shells. Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill is another smart choice for lunch or dinner and boasts some seriously good, melt-in-your-mouth fried oysters.
For more upscale fare, the Owl Café, which overlooks the waterfront, features a varied menu emphasizing creative interpretations of locally caught seafood. A nice wine list sweetens the deal. If you’d rather have a cold beer, head over to the nearby Taproom and sample some of the selections being crafted by Oyster City Brewing Company.
Spend a weekend exploring Apalachicola’s many gems (both natural and man-made) and leave this “forgotten coast” with a renewed appreciation for seafood and the folks who bring it to the table, a camera card packed with shots of nature’s beauty, a full belly, and some great memories, ones you won’t soon forget.
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