Apalachicola, Florida: Uncovering a Small Town in Northwest Florida
By Herb Hiller
Apalachicola, a small northwest Florida town, is the kind of place where people stay because of what the town doesn't have.
There's only one road in and out of town, only one traffic light and it's 71 miles to the nearest movie theater, but folks in Apalachicola, Florida don't feel deprived. People stay because of what the Northwest Florida town doesn't have.
The People of Apalachicola, Florida
Some people come to this northwest Florida town and never leave. World-traveled hotel interior designer Lynn Wilson bought two houses. First was a 1905 mansion built of cedar and black cypress.
"There was only one bathroom when I bought the house," said Wilson, "and no closets." Fifty-five of the 59 windows were broken. One whole side had wood rot. The second floor was falling and all the porches had fallen off. The widow's walk was gone.
Wilson's compulsion is now the Coombs House Inn, one of the spiffiest B&Bs in Florida. Her home nearby in the National Register Historic District is appropriately named Lynn Haven.
Food writer and cookbook author Jane Doerfer said she came for the oysters. She decided to teach cooking in an adapted 19th-century plantation house that she had moved to for a view of the shrimp boat marina.
"I like that oystermen are very tolerant of other people," she said. "They do what they do and give you the same courtesy. Apalachicolans are very 'live and let live.'"
Accessible too, I learned, when I once wound up playing volleyball in a town park with an inn proprietor, a restaurant manager, a newspaper publisher and a globe-trotting photographer.
Richard Bickel, the photographer, had come through town on assignment, and within weeks had bought a house across from an oysterman who also keeps bees. Richard's photo essay called "The Last Great Bay" has achieved cult status and hangs in shops around town.
Most everyplace in town can be walked or cycled to. Folks don't rush. When they drive, they honk hello at each other. That's when they don't stop in the middle of Market Street, the wide main street, to schmooze.
At the Tin Shed, where they sell antiques and nautical items, a fellow who moved from the San Francisco Bay area said that after a week in Apalachicola, he knew more people than he knew where he'd come from.
Part of the town's appeal is that it sits behind oyster-bountiful Apalachicola Bay, back off the beach. St. George Island to the east and St. Joseph Peninsula to the west have become frenzied with house building.
Oysters of course are what Apalachicola, FL is famous for. You get them at all the restaurants in town. It's a measure of Apalach sophistication that for a town of maybe 3,000 (in a county of fewer than 12,000), a dozen restaurants are worth your time.
Boss Oyster serves its specialty about a dozen different ways, located on the town's namesake river. There's the long narrow steamboat-looking dining room in the must-visit Gibson Inn. Tamara's Café Floridita turns out allegedly aphrodisiac crab-stuffed grouper as a special among superb fish dishes. Apalachicola Seafood Grill & Steakhouse, at the traffic-light corner, is the place of choice for a Dagwood-sized fresh fish sandwich.
A Glimpse of Apalachicola History
Best way to appreciate the architectural trace of the town's history as a cotton, timber and seafaring port is to take a walk by the John Gorrie State Museum where the famed doctor invented the ice machine that morphed into the modern air conditioner. Also check out Lafayette Park and the restored Dixie Theatre.
You'll want extra time at the Grady Market. It's housed in a mid-19th century ship chandlery where upstairs (once office of the French consul) are four posh suites called The Consulate, and downstairs has been sectioned off for galleries that show the work of regional artists.
At the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve you can view a video and view live specimen tanks that explain just how this river and estuary became the source of such a remarkably productive bay – and marvel at how a place so in touch with its past abides.