Apalachicola on the River
By Terry Tomalin
With a population under 3,000, Apalachicola has preserved its history and small-town appeal. Come here for fresh oysters (90 percent of Florida’s oysters come from here), charming inns and a growing arts scene.
“Apalachicola” is a native word for “people on the other side.” Locals, however, say that Apalachicola really means “land of the friendly people.”
Most folks approach this tiny seaside town from the east or west, along Route 98, the country highway that links Florida’s seafood capital with Tallahassee and Pensacola. But to fully appreciate the beauty and culture of Florida’s “Oystertown,” I paddled in from the north, down the river that gives the rural town its name.
The Apalachicola River, Florida’s largest in terms of water volume, flows south 106 miles from the Georgia border through some of the wildest country the state has to offer before emptying into Apalachicola Bay at Apalachicola.
Apalachicola was the third-largest port on the gulf in the mid-1800s, shipping cotton and other goods directly to England and the northeast. Today, arriving in Apalachicola, the river is quiet, except for the occasional fishing or oyster boat.
Like the river, the live-oak-laced incorporated city is a time-piece. Well preserved but not too precious, it boasts both an art scene with almost a dozen galleries and a flourishing culinary scene that is drawing the attention of travel writers from just about every major newspaper in the country.
The city of Apalachicola, population 2,340, is the perfect departure point to discover Florida’s Forgotten Coast and other destinations in Franklin and Gulf Counties. Start your visit at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce on (of course) Commerce Street. They provide a map with a 35-point walking tour of the city. (It’s easy — most of the streets are numbered, and the cross streets are letters.)
They will certainly direct you to see the home of Dr. John Gorrie, who built an ice-making machine to help keep his yellow-fever patients cool. While mostly forgotten, Gorrie is considered to be the father of modern air conditioning and malaria control (his statue is in the U.S. Capitol). John Gorrie Museum State Park, at 46 Sixth St., houses a model of his original contraption and has exhibits on local history, including the cotton warehouses that once lined the banks of the river. He is buried in the town’s Gorrie Square.
At the time of Gorrie’s arrival in 1833, the town was booming, crowded with steamboats that carried cotton from the interior to be sent abroad. During the Civil War, Union troops blocked the port and put an end to the cotton trade. After the war, timber became the river’s top commodity. Through it all, the town had oysters. Even today, the FM radio station in Apalachicola is WOYS, 100.5 FM, Oyster Radio.
Apalachicola Bay produces 90 percent of the state’s oysters, and the state of Florida has made the preservation of the oyster beds a priority. Floridians love the tasty little mollusks, fried, baked, broiled, steamed or hand-picked out of the Gulf raw. Oystering hasn’t changed much in over 100 years, and the oystermen, or “tongers” as they are sometimes called, still harvest the shellfish with large tongs, like their forefathers did before them.
Oysters are not hard to find. Boss Oyster at 123 Water St. is my (and a local) favorite for real Florida seafood. Located next to the Apalachicola River Inn, this bright-green eatery made Coastal Living’s top 10 list in 2004. It looks the part too, as it’s situated on the river. Try the Oyster Rockerfella with sauteed spinach, onions, garlic and Parmesan cheese, or the Oyster Bienville with chopped shrimp, mushrooms, garlic and cheddar cheese. Other favorites include the Oyster Captain Jack with bacon, jalapeño peppers, colby cheese and hot sauce and the Oyster Key West with key lime juice, garlic, butter and parmesan.
Also worth a try: Tamara’s Café at 71 Market Street. Located in the middle of the historic district, this little restaurant is popular with visitors and locals alike. It’s all about local crab cakes, oyster stew and seafood bisque with a Venezuelan spin.
This town is like a chilled oyster with cocktail sauce and pinch of horseradish. You have to try it at least once.
Make it a Night - Stay Over in Apalachicola
Don’t miss the Raney House, the stately antebellum residence of Apalachicola’s two-time former mayor, David Raney. It is now a house museum, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1838, this Greek Revival house at 128 Market Street is one of the two oldest structures in the city. The adjacent guest cottage is available for overnight stays.
One of the best-known landmarks of the town is also a hotel. Built in 1907, The Gibson Inn (at 51 Avenue C) is an impressive wooden structure and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside are historical charts on the region. Friday night happy hours are very popular here, especially with the locals.
Another option is the Coombs House Inn, 80 Sixth St., which was built in 1905 out of exotic lumber that owner James N. Coombs had gathered from around the world. Coombs, a timber tycoon, was a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt and is said to have turned down both the vice presidency and the governorship of Florida.
This article was originally published in our Outdoor Getaways Guide. Click here to view or order Florida vacation guides.