Apalachicola/ Port St. Joe Area

For typical Florida vacation plans (boating, fishing) to something different (historical architecture, oyster harvesting), check out these small towns and islands.

Whopper catches, certain shellfish, and a sense of rural peace and pacing pervade this flashback strip of Gulf of Mexico coastline. When you cross the dramatic bridge over the Apalachicola River from the east, time drops you back into the antebellum era. A battalion of brick buildings along the riverfront in Apalachicola reverses time 179 years, back to the town's heyday as a thriving shipping port for cotton.

Today, oysters are more synonymous with Apalachicola than cotton. The waters of Apalachicola Bay, where the river flushes into the sea, make oysters happy as, well, clams. Apalachicola's fast-growing oysters have a reputation for their briny, mellow taste and succulence. Learn more about the ecology of the bay at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve waterfront education center, home to exhibits on local flora and fauna, an aviary, and giant live fish tanks.

Today oysters are farmed in the bay and harvested by oystermen with long-handled tongs and wooden flats boats. Fish houses line the waterfront of Apalachicola and neighboring town of Eastpoint, selling the prized shellfish. The town brags that it produces more than 90 percent of Florida's oysters and 10 percent of the oysters America eats.

It also boasts more antebellum sites than anywhere else in Florida. More than 900 homes and commercial buildings, which hold boutiques, shops, galleries, restaurants, churches and B&Bs, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The circa-1912 Dixie Theatre hosts a professional winter/spring season which runs from January through March. John Gorrie Museum State Park commemorates the 19th-century doctor who invented an ice-making machine, the precursor to modern air conditioning, while searching for a way to make his yellow fever victims more comfortable.

From Eastpoint, one can reach 28-mile-long, off-the-beaten-path St. George Island via bridge. Here begins the renowned blinding-white, dunes-piled sand beaches of Northwest Florida. An intimate inn and rental homes along the beach accommodate vacationers to the skinny island.

The best place to take to the beach is St. George Island State Park, where it remains in its natural state of ghost crabs, salt-dwarfed pines, wild rosemary and reindeer moss. On the beach side, loggerhead and green sea turtles lumber ashore to lay eggs every summer. On the bay side, salt marshes host snakes, turtles and a variety of fish among their reeds.

Fishing is St. George Island's long suit, and you can catch a charter into bay or gulf waters any day. Other tours take you canoeing or boating in search of nature or off to islands unconnected by bridge to the mainland.

The largest of these, St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, is sanctuary to a rare mix of native animals and exotics that have survived from the island's former life as a hunting preserve. The island also serves as a breeding area for endangered red wolves.

East of Eastpoint, the tiny town of Carrabelle offers some of the best charter fishing around. It also has antique shops, art galleries and claims the smallest police station in the world, a phone booth. Here's another good place to get your fill of fresh oysters at casual fish houses along the waterfront.

Whereas Apalachicola's world may be the oyster, in nearby Port St. Joe the crustacean of renown is the bay scallop, harvested recreationally during the summer months. Charters take watersports enthusiasts on scalloping expeditions and also snorkeling and diving to local wrecks and ledges. Port St. Joe is the site of Florida's first Constitution Convention where both the drafting and the signing of Florida’s Constitution took place. A monument and museum now sits on the historical site remembering the erstwhile town of St. Joseph.

For sun time, head to Mexico Beach, one of Florida's least developed beach towns with a mañana sort of personality that earns it its name. The area's other beaches hide well away from crowds and traffic on a thin peninsula of sand known as St. Joseph's Peninsula and Cape San Blas.

Finding it requires a trip off the beaten path known as Highway 98, through forests of skyscraping pines and magnolias. A state park and 1,650-acre wilderness area occupy the reclusive far end of the cape, with camping, beaching among the towering dunes, fishing and wildlife spotting as favorite pastimes.

Follow the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway north through the longleaf pines and cypress thickets of the more-than-571,000-acre Apalachicola National Forest, where more opportunities abound for hiking, biking, canoeing and wilderness camping in this land where nature still rules.

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