A Trip to the Florida of Yore

A colorful row of seaside homes along the Gulf of Mexico are know to local as ’The Skinnys,’ on barrier Island Saint George.
A colorful row of seaside homes along the Gulf of Mexico are know to local as ’The Skinnys,’ on barrier Island Saint George. Photo: Jarrett Christian for The Wall Street Journal

Let me confess right up front that my travels in Florida haven’t been extensive or particularly adventurous. My name isn’t Lewis, nor is it Clark. Still, when I moved from England to America about 40 years ago I was young and eager to explore my new country. My head was filled with crazy romantic preconceptions—especially about Florida. Hazy, lazy daydreams about Key Largo featuring Bogart, Bacall, louche gin joints and crusty old fishermen. Then there was Hemingway in Key West—more old fishermen and gingerbread houses shaded by swaying palm trees.

Unsurprisingly, after a few visits, I returned to New York deeply disappointed. More Mar-a-Lago than Key Largo, the Florida I saw (namely Miami and Key West) was full of glitzy, gilded high rises, golf courses, pretentious restaurants, noisy crowds, and way too much traffic for my oh-so-delicate European soul. Still, being a magnanimous type, I was willing to give it one last, absolutely final chance. Surely there had to be some place in the entire state that would make my erstwhile daydreams come true? So last May—25 years after my last trip to Florida—I called my friend Yolanda. Oh yes, she said, of course. It’s up in the Panhandle and it’s called Apalachicola.

A couple of weeks later I turned off the main road from Tallahassee, with the warm Gulf waters lapping the sandy shore line and drove into the tiny town of Apalachicola (population 2,328) slowly, very slowly, on account of the town’s apparent indifference to the benefits of traffic lights. After checking into the Bowery Hotel around 8 p.m., I ambled down the main drag—lined with three-story brick and clapboard buildings, an art deco theater called the “Dixie” on the left, a balconied cafe, smothered in jasmine, on the right. I did notice one orange Cyclops light, blinking myopically where the road intersected with Commerce Street. The red-hot epicenter of downtown. Beyond that, at the end of the street, a silvery moon hovered above the inky-black nighttime water.

The shrimp boat Miss Martha docked near 13 Mile Seafood Market.
The shrimp boat Miss Martha docked near 13 Mile Seafood Market. Photo: Jarrett Christian for The Wall Street Journal

The next morning, having barely glimpsed the waterfront the night before, I headed straight down to Water Street the minute I woke up. Candy-colored houseboats bobbled about in the water, fishing boats chugged by, pelicans divebombed for their breakfast and a little further on I noticed an elegant 19th-century brick building with an ironwork balcony and a sign with a French flag that read, “The Consulate.” Though clearly not an outpost of Monsieur Macron’s embassy in D.C., it was still puzzling enough for me to want to know more.

At this point what I needed was a large cappuccino, a short history of Apalachicola, the local paper and a cafe (the Apalachicola Chocolate and Coffee Company is the place to go) where I could consume them all in the hope of making some sense of this one-horse/one-light town. And here, in a nutshell—or perhaps an oyster shell—is what I discovered. The French consulate (now a hotel) opened its office here in the 19th century when the volume of cotton bought by the French was so huge Apalachicola needed a consul to take care of business. Hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton arrived on flatboats—until the railroad took over—from the vast plantations up river to the north. The bales were stored in the warehouses that lined the waterfront and were then exported in ships to the cotton mills of Europe and New England.

Cotton and oysters built the graceful Greek revival houses you see on every street, the simple but stunning Trinity Episcopal Church, and the swanky 30-room Gibson Inn. They’re all echoes of a prosperous past, carefully preserved, lending the town its ineffable feeling of being lost in time. But with cotton long gone and oysters in steep decline, Apalachicola’s economy is now largely based on the kindness—and spending power—of strangers. In other words, tourists. Not the kind who descend like a swarm of noisy, hungry locusts, devouring the object of their desire. But the other kind who crave that increasingly elusive combination of peace, quiet and just the right number of visitors.

Lost-in-Time Apalachicola

Ambling through this small, waterfront town

Trinity Episcopal Church, constructed in 1837 originally known as Christ Church, is a historic house of worship in Apalachicola. Nov/Dec. 2018
Jarrett Christian for The Wall Street Journal

Shopping isn’t big in Apalachicola but who could resist an endearingly idiosyncratic establishment by the name of Lee. I certainly couldn’t, but the door was padlocked. Peering through its dusty windows, I made out a huge gum ball machine, a Confederate flag, some sponges as well as about a hundred jars of Tupelo Honey. A helpful sign, “Know what you want? Can open within 5 minutes—call this number,” was posted above the door. But I guess nobody ever called since the door remained locked the entire time I was there.

‘Fishing boats chugged by, pelicans divebombed for their breakfast.’

If I happen to find myself in a little seaside town when the sun is shining and the temperature is dancing around 82 degrees, my thoughts tend to wander off in the direction of beaches. Specifically, in this case, in the direction of St. George Island, a snake-thin barrier island just 4 miles offshore. It’s 28 miles long, about a mile wide, with almost 2,000 acres occupied by a state park. One afternoon we spent a few hours exploring the island, accessible by bridge and consisting of a glorious 9-mile-long expanse of white-sand beach, gentle dunes, salt marshes and pine forests.

On my last day, an old friend who has been coming to St. George Island since he was a kid in the ’60s, took me to lunch at the Indian Pass Raw Bar, a few miles north of town, where his dad first took him about 50 years ago. Its history actually goes back further to 1929, when present owner Jim McNeill’s grandmother, Gypsie, had run it as a general store, serving noon meals on the side. It had also been a gas station and a post office—sometimes all at the same time. We ordered beer, oysters, stuffed shrimp, crab legs and more beer. As the jukebox played Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby and a Cigar Store Indian kept an imperturbable eye on us from his corner, we drank a toast to our simple good fortune in just being there.

A few of the offerings at Up the Creek raw bar.
A few of the offerings at Up the Creek raw bar. Photo: Jarrett Christian for The Wall Street Journal

Visitors who arrived just a few months later were not as fortunate. Hurricane Michael was both deeply destructive and erratic. At the beginning of October, instead of hitting Apalachicola hard, as predicted, he switched course at the last moment and roared up the coast at 155 mph, decimating both Panama City and Mexico Beach. Apalachicola suffered far less damage, though some buildings along the waterfront were destroyed, trees were uprooted and a number of houses on St. George Island were severely battered, many beyond repair. The Indian Pass Raw Bar is down but by no means out. Jim McNeill plans to reopen for business by spring. Just in time to celebrate the restaurant’s 90th birthday.

The Lowdown / Finding Fine Inns and Fried Oysters in Apalachicola
Seaside homes on the barrier Island Saint George, 4 miles offshore from Apalachicola.
Seaside homes on the barrier Island Saint George, 4 miles offshore from Apalachicola. Photo: JARRETT CHRISTIAN for The Wall Street Journal

Staying There: The Bowery Inn is an extremely elegant B&B with four beautiful rooms, kitchen, though no permanent staff on site. But you will have a contact telephone number if you need to speak to the manger. The room to book is the Morning Glory Room. It’s enormous, furnished with antiques and comes with a huge deck with a view down to the water (from $110 a night, peopleplaces.com/boweryinn). A charming 19th century brick building, the Consulate (it really was the French Consulate at one point) offers balconies overlooking the river, and louvered shutters. The four suites (with kitchens) all have room for four guests and each one is decorated in a different, but equally beguiling, style (from $205 a night, consulatesuites.com). The Grande Dame of hotels in Apalachicola, the Gibson Inn was built in 1907 and has kept all of its period charm – four poster beds and ceiling fans and a widow’s walk and cupola on top of the roof as well as two wrap-around porches (from $100 a night, gibsoninn.com).

Eating and Drinking There: Sit outside on the deck at Up the Creek, order the fried oysters or shrimp gumbo, some chilled Sauvignon Blanc and gaze out at the marshes and river and watch the seagulls diving for their own fishy dinners (313 Water St., upthecrekrawbar.com). Owl Café is probably the best restaurant in town in terms of food, atmosphere and plain old-fashioned fun. It has a great bar where you can eat, but you might opt to sit upstairs on the terrace where you can’t go wrong with the blue crab cake, black grouper and artichoke hearts or oysters on the half shell (15 Ave. D, owlcafeflorida.com). Apalachicola Chocolate and Coffee Company serves extraordinary espresso, coconut cream pies (the kind they throw in your face in old movies) and irresistible hand-made chocolates–what more could you possibly want for a wholesome breakfast? Of course they also have croissants and for a light lunch, BLTs and chicken salad (75 Market St., 850-653-1925). Founded in 2014, the Oyster City Brewing Company makes all its own beer and has even created three–Apalach IPA, Hooter Brown Tupelo Honey Ale and Mill Pond Dirty Blond Ale–but be warned food is not on the menu so if you’re hungry just walk across the street to the Tap Room, which is part of the same company (17 Ave. D, oystercitybrewingco.com). Aptly named –in the best possible sense – the Hole in the Wall is simple, small, friendly and cozy. Order a basket of fried grouper and shrimp, crab cakes or clam strips and be prepared to make new friends (23 Ave D., 850-653-3222). With its old brick walls, tomato red ceiling and wooden floor Tamara’s Café exudes warmth. They are famous for their pecan-crusted grouper but there’s also a nice Spanish/South American spirit with a great Margarita chicken in honey tequila lime glaze and seafood paella (71 Market St., tamarascafe.com).

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