Wednesday, January 7, 2009

At World's End in Apalachicola, Florida

You’ve probably never heard of Apalachicola. Neither had I until recently. That’s not surprising when you consider that it’s the belle of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” a beautiful, remote section of coastline that few know about and even fewer inhabit. (Supposedly, the name came about when a Florida tourism brochure “forgot” to include it.)

To get you situated, Apalachichola (or “Apalach,” as the locals call it) is located on the southernmost tip of the Florida Panhandle. It’s 1.5 hours southwest of Tallahassee (the drive on Highway 319/98 hugs the water and offers gorgeous views), or 1.5 hours southeast of Panama City. No matter how you slice it, it’s not that easy to get to, which is why it remains the perfect place to drop off the grid.

Water is the name of the game here, as the town (population 3,000) is located on the banks of the Apalachicola River, which empties into the massive Apalachicola Bay, which is in turn protected from the Gulf of Mexico by St. George Island, a 22-mile long barrier island with pretty white sand beaches and summer houses on stilts. (I stuck my feet in, and let's just say the Gulf is warmer right now than the Pacific ever gets - and that's in "winter" here!)

These unusual geographic qualities make the bay the uncontested oyster capital of Florida. If people know anything about Apalach, it’s that “good oysters come from there." Approximately 90% of the oysters in Florida come from this bay, as well as 10% of the national oyster supply. The town's big annual event is the Florida Seafood Festival every November, which features an oyster eating (up to 250-300 at a time!) and shucking contest.

As someone who finds a raw oyster the equivalent of a salty blob of mucus, I can assure you that it wasn’t oysters that drew me here. But for those that appreciate the slippery critters, you should know that I have never in my life seen them prepared more ways: fried oysters, baked oysters, broiled oysters, oyster po’ boys, oystercakes, oyster gumbo, etc. They're the centerpiece of every menu, and you could easily eat them three meals a day.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other things to eat, from unbelievably fresh fish caught same day to classic Southern fare. We checked out three great places mentioned in the New York Times36 Hours in Apalachicola article – Caroline’s River Dining, The Owl Café and Verandas – as well as the town’s undisputed best restaurant, Tamara’s, where we chatted with the funny chef/owner, Danny, pictured below, who was a chef in Savannah, Georgia, previously. Oyster lovers will have to join the debate about whether Papa Joe’s or Boss Oyster is the best spot for oysters.

For us, what drew us to Apalach for New Year’s Eve was the opportunity to hang out on a houseboat with my boyfriend’s good friend Kathy. Talk about a unique lifestyle. A massage therapist and yoga teacher (after years of obstinate resistance, I attended – and very much enjoyed – my first yoga class under her tutelage at the Water Street Hotel), Kathy lives full-time on a handcrafted, floating houseboat moored in the Apalachicola River. She also owns a second houseboat, which houses her adorable Spirit of the River Spa. As is typical of a town with one stoplight, everyone knows Kathy, and Kathy knows everyone.

The houseboats are docked in the center of town in a small houseboat community. To enter the boats when the water is low, you climb down a small ladder, and voila. Sometimes you notice a gentle rocking and the squeaking of an otter who lives underneath, but other times, you forget you’re on the water. One of the boats has an engine and rudder should they be needed (i.e. hurricane relocation!), and both have porches overlooking the river channel and surrounding marsh.

Most people who come to Apalach stay in stately inns and B&B’s, however. Modeled after Philadelphia, with wide streets and central squares covering a nine-square-block “downtown,” Apalach is distinctly Southern, thanks to the live oaks and Spanish moss, and distinctly genteel, thanks to its Victorian architecture and boomtown history as an antebellum cotton port, turn-of-the-century timber powerhouse, and more recently, seafood producer. (You're snapped back to modernity when a golf cart whizzes by, however. It's legal to drive them on any road other than the highway.)

Given this rich legacy, the town has a surprisingly large number of historic buildings from 19th and 20th century - over 900 according to the Chamber of Commerce. Many grand homes have been preserved as B&Bs, and The Coombs House (built 1905; around $120/night and up) is the best-known. It was fully booked for New Year’s – a good sign given the current economy. So on Kathy’s recommendation, we stayed at The Bryant House (built 1897; around $90/night and up), run by the vivacious Brigitte, a native of Germany.

A hilarious raconteur, Brigitte says the town cast a spell on her, prompting her to twist her husband’s arm into buying an old house and relocating with their talking Macaw Einstein, who greets you from the porch when you arrive. Brigitte admits to getting “small town panic” every now and then, but insists that as soon as she leaves, she’s desperate to come back to the peace and quiet. Kathy echoed these sentiments. Apalach seems to be one of those places that pulls you in with its sleepy charm and, when you leave, calls you back.

I see what they mean. Despite the region’s nickname, Apalach is not easily forgotten. And to the continued bafflement of my friends, nor is my love affair with teeny tiny historic towns!


jessica m said...

OMG, I totally want to go there. What an amazing place. Do you have a crush on it?

AVM said...

Oh yes. Crush in progress. Just as the locals warned me, it gets worse the farther you get away from Apalach...and the more civilization starts to hassle you!

elizabeth pennewill said...

My husband and I spent a week there last summer, loved every relaxed minute. Hope you got to see Richard Bickel's photography - he has a gallery downtown. Lovely local photos.

Island Woman MJ said...

Good article, you got around and described those places well! But the use of the local name was sort of annoying. Maybe because I grew up in Florida and still speak of it as Apalachicola, I'm not from there, why would I call it the locals' name?

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