Apalachicola, “Apalach” to the locals, is a small Florida coastal town southwest of Tallahassee. The scenic and quiet Franklin County area in which Apalachicola is located has attracted artists whose talents include photography, painting, pottery, sculpture, jewelry making, and more. Some things, mostly good, have remained constant. You still won’t find tall buildings and there is only one stoplight, and it just flashes. Quaint downtown stores house locally owned shops, galleries, and restaurants. And even now there are no chain restaurants or hotels, not even a McDonalds or Holiday Inn Express. Can you imagine?
The town’s downtown waterfront continues to serve as home base for fishing boats that anchor next to Water Street. This area once served as home to a row of cotton warehouses, net factories, and a sponge warehouse that are now long gone, but not forgotten, for it was cotton that brought the town its initial wealth by making it such an important port. Local merchants have converted these buildings of a former era into operating businesses. Along the three major streets current visitors discover cleverly named establishments such as the Oystercatcher, Boss Oyster, Riverlily, and Two Gulls. One shop displays unusual metal bobbing flamingos in a variety of colors that would certainly draw comments when placed along the walkway to your front door. The renovated Dixie Theatre offers live performances January through March and occasionally at other times of the year. There is even a maritime museum.
The Apalachicola area enjoys a fascinating history. Established in 1831, the town at one time claimed the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, behind only New Orleans and Mobile. An “Apalachicola Historic Walking Tour” pamphlet provided by the Chamber of Commerce guides today’s visitors in discovering the town’s historic buildings and mansions. A guided tour of the Orman House, now a Florida state park, offers a peek into the life of Thomas Orman, an important 1830’s cotton merchant. Several of the town’s historic homes have been converted into inns or bed and breakfasts. One of these, Coombs House Inn, was built in 1905 by the owner of three area lumber mills. A relatively new arrival spent a great deal of money to return the home to its former glory. Residents, both new and old, obviously treasure the town’s roots.
Even a sleepy coastal village can spring a surprise or two. Did you know that air conditioning was invented here? Dr. John Gorrie, a local physician, received a patent for a machine that produced ice he used for cooling the rooms of patients suffering from yellow fever. John Gorrie Museum State Park in Apalachicola tells the history of the town and allows visitors to view a replica of the world’s first ice maker/air conditioner. The original is in the Smithsonian.
Another surprising fact is that this area of the Gulf Coast was utilized by the military in the early 1940s for practice landings that would be used later at Normandy. Camp Gordon Johnston (formerly “Camp Carrabelle”) once housed 10,000 troops who used St. George Island and Dog Island for practice. World War II buffs can enjoy Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum in nearby Carrabelle.
Not surprisingly, seafood, especially the delicious salty oyster for which Apalachicola is so famous, is the food of choice. Seafood dishes, both simple and exotic, are featured at most restaurants, which, considering the size of the town, are surprisingly good. One oddity was a Carrabelle restaurant with the name “The Pit Stop.” Who would expect great seafood at a restaurant with such a name? Don’t let the name mislead you. Tamara’s Café in Apalachicola offers bay snapper with grilled shrimp in a ginger vinaigrette. Other local restaurants we sampled include Boss Oyster, That’s A Moray!, The Owl Café, Apalachicola Seafood Grill, and Harry A’s.
Travelers who visit the Gulf Coast are generally interested in frequenting the beach. It is difficult to find a beach much better than that of St. George Island State Park on the east end of nearby St. George Island. With nine miles of white sand, there is plenty of room to roam. During a morning walk along the beach we glanced toward the bay and saw a pod of dolphins swimming by. Not a bad way to start the day. The Cape St. George Island Lighthouse and neighboring St. George Island Visitor Center are a worthwhile stop. If it isn’t too hot, the view from the top of the lighthouse is worth the climb. Beach houses and condominiums on St. George Island are available for rent if you want to stay close to the beach.
The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) Visitor Center in neighboring Eastpoint is an interesting stop. Scientists here monitor the 308 species of birds, 186 species of fish, and 57 species of mammals that make Apalachicola Bay and the area’s rivers their home. The visitor center contains displays, aquariums, and a wonderful mural depicting many of these birds, fish, and mammals in their natural habitats covers an entire wall. As a bonus, there is no entrance charge.
Outdoor activities include kayaking and boating (rentals are available), guided kayak and fishing trips, and sightseeing and charter boat trips. An 18-hole golf course is east of Carrabelle. The par 72 St. James Bay Golf Course was designed by Robert Walker with wetlands and water hazards on each hole. If you live for golf rather than the beach, club villas and condominiums are available for rent.
Local tourism people have become creative with special weekends and festivals to attract tourists. The two best known are the 3-day Oyster Festival during October’s Columbus Day weekend, and the two-day Seafood Festival during the first weekend in November. The Oyster Festival includes a 5K run, a fishing tournament, and a shucking contest, plus lots of oyster eating. Bring on the Tobasco sauce!
The best time of year to visit Apalachicola depends on your interests. If you enjoy activities and crowds choose dates during one of the festivals. If a live stage production is your thing, the renovated Dixie Theatre offers programs January through March. A calendar of events provided by the Franklin County Tourist Development Council and the St. George Island Visitor Center may help with a decision of when to go.