APALACHICOLA — Scan the magazine covers in a visitor’s center here and you’ll begin to question this town’s slogan: “Florida’s Forgotten Coast.” Forgotten? How about famous?
In recent months, food writers have taken notice of Apalachicola and found it, well, appetizing. Apalachicola is one of Saveur’s
“Five favorite American food towns.” Gourmet, not to be underdone, judged Apalachicola as one of “The world’s 36 best food destinations.”
And those are just the food writers.
Apalachicola is on all manner of “best” lists: For historic preservation, it’s one of The National Trust’s “dozen distinctive destinations.” At nearly 250,000 acres, its marine reserve is “the largest in the nation.” A narrow strip of forest highway is among the “most scenic drives in America.” And a broad, sugar-sand beach just west of town is one of “the 10 best beaches in the world.”
Apalachicola names many things. It is a town, a river, a bay and a region. Each is discrete, yet each is linked — by water. We hoped to immerse ourselves in each one. Turns out, it is impossible not to.
We started with the town, a spit of land at the mouth of the Apalachicola River.
Cotton was king when Apalachicola was settled in 1831. And the town’s entrepreneurial founders took full advantage. We stood for a bit on Water Street, along the river, trying to imagine Apalachicola as one of the Gulf’s most important cotton ports.
Our guide was shop owner Joe Taylor, who also is president of the Chamber of Commerce. Joe and his wife Jeanette are old friends from Columbus, where they are still remembered for their midtown shop, 1617 Wynnton, and their downtown shop, Nest.
Joe points along the riverfront where nearly 50 three-story cotton warehouses once stood. Steamships brought the cotton from upriver ports like Columbus. Smaller ships called “lighters” carried the bales to large schooners moored off shore.
Most of the warehouses are gone, as are the steamships, lighters and schooners.
Yet four significant buildings from the cotton era are preserved and repurposed. The Cotton Exchange is now a community arts center. J.E. Grady & Company, once a chandlery supplying cargo ships and steamboats, remains as a thriving retail center. Upstairs, what was the French consulate is now a quartet of apartments that visitors rent. And the U.S. Customs House is now the Post Office.
Walk five blocks to get a sense of the next stage of Apalachicola’s economic history. You’re in Coombs House Inn, an elegant Queen Anne-style building, and once the home of lumber baron James Nathanial Coombs.
As cotton declined and rail supplanted steamships, Apalachicola’s entrepreneurs turned to lumber. Steamships that once carried cotton now hauled logs to mills in Apalachicola and other coastal towns.
“Hewn logs were exported to Europe and South America, railroad ties to Mexico,” writes local historian George L. Chapel. “Sawn pine lumber and shingles were sent north, while businesses in New Orleans were the major purchasers of cypress.”
By the time Coombs died in 1911, he was the wealthiest man in town. The house he left is a museum, of sorts, for the products his mills and workmen produced: vast stretches of black-cypress wall paneling on the first floor, quarter sawn heart pine floors, a hand-carved oak staircase leading to the second floor.
But the cypress trees, and the lumber industry they fed, are gone.
Apalachicola’s current economic base — commercial fishing — is all around.
Oysters, for example, are a $2.7 million business, employing 1,000. One in ten oysters consumed in the U.S. is drawn from Apalachicola Bay. Yet oystering is conducted on a small enough scale to be visible.
Our rooms overlooked the Apalachicola River. The first morning we watched oystermen motoring out to public oyster beds on either side of the bridge that spans East Bay.
Not much to be said of these skiffs: Twenty feet of plywood hull, a crude cutty to shield the catch from the sun, one oysterman in the stern operating the outboard motor, another in the bow minding the tongs — often a husband-wife team.
Once over the beds, the oystermen use the tongs to rake up the catch.
“Oystering is backbreaking work,” we learn from a poster in the Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s office. “Oysters are heaved aboard the skiffs with 15-foot hardwood tongs, each tong-full weighing about 40 pounds. This is done hour by hour and oystermen rarely return heavy. Pay is not generous. Oystermen receive $12 for a 60 pound bag after they cull and sort them.”
Watch them work from the bridge. Each crossing, we’d see clutches of oystermen tonging up oysters.
A year of oystering renders 1.5 million pounds of oyster meat, most shucked by hand. The oyster-shucking houses that squat along the river aren’t open to the public, but no one minds if you peer through the door for a look.
So what happens to all the shells? Turns out they’re valuable, too, used primarily to reseed oyster beds. Mounds of oyster shells tower behind the commercial fishing docks on Water Street. Once dry, dock workers bulldoze the shells onto barges.
The first oysters we consumed were hand-tonged that day and served to us at one of the restaurants that is earning Apalachicola its must-try status as a foodie town. It’s called Avenue Sea in the historic Gibson Inn.
The chef is David Carrier, who trained with Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and, with partner Grant Achatz, opened Trio outside of Chicago. (Note to foodies: You’ll remember from the recent New Yorker article that Trio specialized in “molecular gastronomy.”) Two years ago, Carrier and his wife, pastry chef and sommelier Ryanne, visited Apalachicola and stayed.
We tried their six-course tasting menu. At $55, it promised enormous value.
Out first were heirloom tomatoes with basil, olive oil and house-made mozzarella. Next out were grilled Spanish sardines from nearby St. Joseph’s Bay. Then came those oysters, poached in olive oil with garlic, fennel, Niçoise olives and a sourdough crisp. A carnaroli risotto with English peas and morel mushrooms was next. Then came Benton bacon-wrapped grouper with early corn and summer succotash.
By our count, the grouper was course five of six. We told the server we’d like hot tea and coffee with the last course — dessert.
“Not yet,” she said. “There’s more dinner coming.”
Chef Carrier, it turned out, wanted us to try another grouper course, followed by a course of braised pork cheeks and belly, and a course of three cheeses before Ryanne sent out the dessert.
Both of us were at the edge of blissful foundering. We had to be firm: We ordered the six-course tasting menu. Can’t eat more.
Out from the kitchen came Chef Carrier. David is shaped like a Florida black bear, only taller. Wavy black hair. A full-face beard. Chef leaned into the table, his head at the same level as ours.
“You’re not following the rules,” he said. Good natured, but not kidding.
While tourism is important to Apalachicola, it isn’t touristy. While there are many things to see and do, there are few attractions. Apalachicola is more of an on-your-own, self-entertaining visit.
Here are a few of the things that attracted our attention:
The Friday night crowd in the Gibson Inn bar. Someone told us that Apalachicola is too small to have a town drunk. “So we each take a turn.” We listened as an older guy in a faded, floral shirt regaled others at a nearby table.
He said he’s had two operations that cost $250,000 each. He said he’s had three warnings he’s about to die. He said he’s set aside $1,000 to get Alabama cheerleaders to come to his funeral.
When he moved over to our table my wife Alice said, “Uh-oh.”
“Uh-oh?” he said — insulted, we guessed.
After reminding us of his importance — owned “every Jag, ever,” bought and sold Ferraris and Lamborghinis, owns a “block of downtown” Apalachicola — he accepted a martini and a sidecar from a friend and moved on.
The next day, we wandered into shops.
Joe and Jeanette own two: Avenue E, for beach-themed gifts and wares, and Blue, for interior furnishings and accessories. They’re on everyone’s must-shop list. A line had formed in front of Avenue E the morning we stopped, waiting for the store to open.
We visited three others:
Tin Shed is an open-air, shed-like structure that sells nautical artifacts. Something of an attic collection; not quite a museum. Look for the tags that read, “This is an authentic old ship’s piece.” Bells, long glasses, charts, flags and pennants.
Riverlily is a “shop for your senses.” Soaps, candles, lotions, fragrances. But the big deal here are the glass and bead earrings hand-crafted by owners P.J. and Jeff Trowell and family. They use vintage and antique class for their pieces, including Italian glass from Murano.
Petaluna is for the “fashion-conscious” pet owner. Selected goods: A dog’s neck scarf that reads, “So spoiled.” The casual canine back-to-school rugby polo, in medium, is $14.99. (If you don’t know your pet’s clothing size, there’s a helpful guide, by breed.) Dental wipes and enzymatic toothpaste. A “Hip Houndstooth” pet carrier was on sale for $69.99.
And a fourth, Downtown Books, is on everyone’s list. Beach books, the Sunday New York Times, as well as everything Apalachicola. We found locally published guidebooks, like Joan Lundquist Scalpone’s “Mini Day Trips,” both invaluable and unavailable elsewhere. Begin your planning here.
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Shops like these might leave a visitor with the impression that Apalachicola is just another of those high-end coastal Florida towns. Not so. And, moreover, it has no ambition to be so.
Apalachicola is a working town more than it’s a tourist town.
Lots of effort is under way to preserve Apalachicola, not transform it. Authenticity counts. Some of the most decrepit buildings, whether old warehouses in the downtown, or vernacular homes in poor neighborhoods, are being restored — not scraped off.
Sure, there are chic shops and fine restaurants. But the high-end grocery is a Piggly Wiggly and most seafood comes battered and fried. When lightning ignites fires in the marsh, they’re left to burn, even if it means a smoky downtown. A folk artist won’t sell his carvings, but he might leave one in your yard. An old guy who drives around with an open can of beer in his lap is left alone.
This isn’t Seaside.______________________________
JOHN F. GREENMAN Special to the Ledger-EnquirerIn Apalachicola, authenticity counts: Historic and cultural integrity, whether of a gracious luxury home or vernacular houses in poor neighborhoods, is the key to preservation here.
JOHN F. GREENMAN Special to the Ledger-Enquirer Oystermen like this one motor out on Apalachicola Bay in modest, mostly plywood skiffs.
JOHN F. GREENMAN Special to the Ledger-Enquirer When lightning starts fires in the marshes around Apalachicola Bay, they’re left to burn themselves out.