Written by Authentic Florida Guest Blogger/Author Laura Albritton, her latest book is Hidden History of the Florida Keys
Apalachicola, positioned on the banks of a sublimely beautiful river and bay, is my new favorite weekend escape. Until recently I’d heard of – but never visited – this gem of a small town. Like some Floridians, I wasn’t especially familiar with this region of the panhandle. (It’s not called “the Forgotten Coast” for nothing.) What I discovered were miles of unspoiled scenery, long stretches of Gulf-front beach, and historic sites that make Franklin County well worth exploration. Here you’ll find Alligator Point, St. Teresa, Dog Island, St George Island, the towns of Carrabelle and Eastpoint, and of course, beguiling Apalachicola itself.
Downtown Apalachicola. Photo by Laura Albritton.
At one time a port closely connected to the cotton trade, Apalachicola (called “Apalach” by residents) has known booms as well as busts. Sponging once fueled the local economy, while today, that honor largely belongs to its famous oysters. Fortunately for Florida history buffs, one can also see evidence of a successful local preservation movement in the vernacular cottages and Victorian mansions. Houses, churches, and commercial buildings have been sensitively restored so that walking or biking around its streets is an absolute pleasure. Despite the town’s modest size, it offers visitors a variety of dining, shopping, lodging, and cultural options, not to mention a chance to experience the natural wonders of Apalachicola Bay and the St. George beaches.
Orient Yourself – in local history
The 19th-century Sponge Exchange Building. Photo by Laura Albritton.
First things first: when you cruise into town, park by the Visitor’s Center at the corner of Commerce and Avenue E, and avail yourself of a Historic Walking Tour map (or simply summon it up on your phone). Soon you’ll notice architectural details you might otherwise have missed and will appreciate the highlights of the compact downtown, such as the 1838 Cotton Warehouse and the 1840 brick Sponge Exchange. Tour a handsome 1838 Greek Revival mansion, the Raney House, and don’t forget the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, dedicated to local maritime heritage. Although there are 37 sites on the walking tour map, most are clustered together, so the tour is eminently do-able.
The Raney House, a stop on the walking tour. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.
Browsing the shops. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.
Whether you’re in need of Floridians’ favorite footwear (flip flops!) or some polarized sunglasses for boating, Apalach Outfitters will get you kitted out. This delightful store stocks men and women’s shoes, clothing, accessories, and even coolers for a laid-back, outdoorsy lifestyle. Bookstores have sadly become an endangered species, so it’s gratifying to come across Downtown Books & Purl on Commerce Street. Dedicated to both books and knitting, here you can take the opportunity to pick up a novel or peruse yarns, needles, and notions. Another spot also worth popping into is Apalachicola Sponge Company with its natural sea sponges as well as handmade soaps and tupelo honey.
The iconic Gibson Inn. Photo courtesy of Anoldent, Flickr, Creative Commons.
Inside The Franklin restaurant. Photo by Laura Albritton.
Nothing stimulates the appetite like shopping, and fortunately, Apalachicola offers some appealing options. From the well-known Owl Café to the popular Apalachicola Seafood Grill, visitors find oysters and seafood dishes aplenty. Inside the iconic Gibson Inn is a restaurant with cuisine so delectable, it pays to make reservations. Chef Ken Lumpkin heads The Franklin, a chic establishment featuring local ingredients artfully prepared with French and also Japanese influences. The Waygu Coulote steak was exceptional, as were the Braised Oxtail Gyoza.
The menu includes inventive preparations of raw and cooked oysters, also. The Parlor Bar next door fashions signature cocktails and makes for an ideal happy hour hangout. For a casual meal with a view, stop in at Half Shell Dockside, located on picturesque Scipio Creek. A dinner of shrimp and grits with a backdrop of live music and exceptional sunsets? Unbeatably authentic, in my opinion. In the mornings, those seeking a restorative cup of java can make their way to Apalachicola Chocolate & Coffee Company. (Or, in the afternoon, also treat yourself to their gelato.)
Support the Arts
49 Palmetto art gallery. Photo courtesy of 49 Palmetto.
Apalachicola boasts a number of art galleries, and I’d certainly make time for a look inside 49 Palmetto. Curated by a former New York art dealer and museum researcher, the sculptures and the paintings are strikingly original, truly top drawer regional art and Folk Art. Other galleries to visit also include Bowery Art Gallery & Studio, the Gallery at High Cotton, Joyce Estes Gallery, and On the Waterfront Gallery. The Apalachicola Center for History, Culture, and Art on Water Street also mounts interesting exhibitions as well. In the winter season, the 107-year-old Dixie Theatre hosts performances from January through March, with occasional events sprinkled throughout the other months.
Get Out on the Water
Looking out over the water. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.
Apalachicola grew up in the nineteenth due to its position where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. The estuary landscape looks serene from a distance, but paddling through it in a kayak, you notice the busy birdlife, with fish jumping and dragonflies skimming the water’s surface. One easy place to rent kayaks is the Apalachicola Maritime Museum. Just minutes away from the town (and also reachable by car) is St. George Island. Park by the lighthouse to access a wide beach offering room to sprawl out, picnic, and also take a relaxing dip in the ocean.
The beach on St George Island. Photo by Laura Albritton.
You can make Apalachicola a day trip, but it’s a shame to miss the night-time fun and the beautiful stillness of the early morning. I spent more time than I expected on my Water Street Hotel balcony, gazing out onto the marshes and watching water birds soar by. With dockage and a pool, it’s a convenient base. As someone who loves Florida’s historic houses, however, I also investigated rental homes and flats for a future vacation. The guest house and the carriage house at 50 Cherry looked charming, and I also like the idea of actually inhabiting a bit of Apalachicola history. Plus, the space is ideal for families or couples traveling together.
Historic 50 Cherry accommodation. Photo courtesy of Anna-Maria Cannatella.
Sometimes clichés are dead wrong, and in the case of Apalachicola, bigger is certainly not better. An Authentic Florida destination if there ever was one, this little town, population 2200, brims with an outsized charisma. For people who value such things as history, architecture, good food, and access to the life aquatic, it’s the kind of place where you’ll find yourself musing over real estate listings — and also dreamily imagining yourself on the porch of your own pastel-colored cottage.
Sunset over Apalachicola. Photo by Zickie Allgrove.
Fifth-generation Floridian Laura Albritton has written four books on regional travel and history, including the recently published Hidden History of the Florida Keys.
Additional photos by Katy Warner (sign) and also Gary J. Wood (sponge shop), Creative Commons/Flickr.
AuthenticFlorida.com was named Best Travel Blog at the 2018 Sunshine Awards.
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