I wish I could say an end-of-winter vacation was responsible for our extended absence of late. Instead, the day-to-day has escalated somewhat, and made our memories of a trip we took last year about this time more sweet.
Our Florida vacation proved that I could work independently of a location, provided there was an internet connection and a phone. More on that later. We want to tell you about St. George Island and Apalachicola – in the midst of Forgotten Florida.
Forgotten Florida, or Old Florida, or however you want to designate the part of Florida that is down-home and definitely not glitzy, is the inside elbow bend the panhandle makes of the state map. While there are barrier islands all along the Gulf coast, most have been invaded over the years by species such as developeris timesharum or condominium multistorius or retirus ad nauseam. Franklin County, although home to humans for over 10,000 years, has been, until now, overlooked by more flashy developers.
What remains are the most charming and undiscovered treasures Florida has to offer. Friendly people, sandy beaches, oystermen and crabcakes, and a picturesque little county seat across the causeway made St George Island a welcome respite from winter winds.
Floridians view the winter months as the off season up here, so we pretty much had the gated neighborhood of St. George Plantation to ourselves. Similar to the one in the photo, our rented house, across the street from Hank Williams, Jr.’s place, had its own pool and a gourmet kitchen. It was heavenly leaving the sliding door open and falling asleep to the rhythmic crashing of the surf.
The east end of St. George Island is a State Park containing nine miles of protected marshes, dunes, scrub forest and salt marshes. Opportunities abound for birders. Migratory and shore birds, as well as raptors, make their homes adjacent to those of humans all over the island.
Pete’s sisters were busy adjusting their award-winning chili recipe for another go at the annual crock pot Chili Cook-off on the day the entries were due, defending their previously-won title. Word had it that the judges went for a sweeter, spicy chili with no beans. While they didn’t place this time in their category, the free tasting dispensed with their supply and we went home happy.
Heading into Apalachicola across the causeway, the GPS on our car appeared as though we were in the water – the bridge had been replaced some time ago. No matter. We could see the oyster boats on the prowl and the sea birds following in their wake. I was at peace and winter’s icy blast was far, far away.
The village of Apalachicola was designated one of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2008. It’s the kind of pretty little town that makes you want to be a local with a shady front porch and a tray of cold drinks. You can imagine Andy and Barney slowing past with a wave from their cruiser, especially since the next town over used to have its Police Department in a phone booth. Apalachicola is sleepy, on purpose.
The town museum costs $1, and features the most famous Apalachicolan, Dr. Gorrie, who invented mechanical refrigeration, but died before he could profit from it. Another landmark residence, the Orman House, is operated by the Florida State Parks for tours at $2. All in all, over 900 historical sites are listed in Apalachicola proper.
These attractions leave plenty of room in your budget for a cold refreshment along with your crabcake sandwich on the waterfront at Caroline’s. Finer fare can be found at The Owl Cafe – a gem with a welcoming wine room. The crabcakes were excellent here, and the white wine recommendation was outstanding – and reasonably priced.
Ambling down a side street, I spotted an old yellow dog napping in the doorway of a storefront. Spare on the inside, the shop’s ancient brick walls showcased large black and white photographs. Stepping carefully past the drowsy canine so as not to disturb, I was quietly greeted by Richard Bickel, the artist proprietor. “He doesn’t do much any more but sleep all day,” I was told. It seemed like an okay thing to be doing to me.
From the photographs on exhibit, it was clear Richard is a sophisticated citizen of the world. Whatever was an internationally-renowned award winner doing in Apalachicola, when there were photos to shoot in Niger or Marrakech or Castro’s Cuba? Well, he told me, he came here on assignment, and forgot to leave.
Tapped by Elam Stoltzfus to collaborate on a documentary, Apalachicola River: An American Treasure, Richard captured the faces of this river town and its backwaters through the same artistic lens he uses on other continents. The result is familiar and riveting, a time capsule, preserving with stark authenticity the fading ways of life on the waterway.
Apalachicola Bay is one of the most productive, nutrient-rich and unspoiled estuarine systems, according to the city website, in the world. Franklin County harvests yield fine oysters and seafood: white, brown and pink shrimp, blue crab, and commercial fish including pompano and flounder.
A winter vacation gives the opportunity to remind oneself that there is sunlight to be soaked in. There are waves to gently lap against a dock or chase you up the beach, and icy drinks and ceiling fans to temper the day’s heat. But more than this, the soul needs a rest from battling the chill that emanates from a barren landscape which encases almost any trace of living things in silence.
The isolated quiet is different in this part of Florida. It speaks to the timelessness and peace inherent in the rise and fall of the tides. There’s an unassuming coexistence with beauty and natural rhythm. It’s a place where the imprint of man has yet to overshadow that which came before, and it’s where environmentalists, conservationists and those who capture images – moving and still – are working to keep things that way.
- The Beach: The Northwest Florida Gulf Coast