An Old Florida Pearl

(Originally published on MOLI 4/10/8)

You know when you have an idea of what you’re looking for in a vacation spot, but you’re not sure where to find it? You drive and drive, and instead of a pristine fishing village and quaint inn, you keep passing the same old chain stores: Target, Best Buy, Wal-Mart. You start to wonder if you’ve fallen for some vintage postcard image that condos wiped out a couple decades ago (ain’t that America!), and if you’ll be camping at a KOA after all.

Then at the end of another one of those miles-long bridges that stitch together this oceanic region, there it is: a riverfront lined with 19th-century clapboard warehouses and fishing boats. I’m talking real, working fishing boats with nets and pulleys and crates that haul in shrimp and oysters – not white and chrome outfitters who charge $200 a day to take tourists out to slaughter some gorgeous game fish. A couple blocks past the end of the bridge, there’s a main street with broad sidewalks and diversion-filled cross streets. Within spitting distance of each other, there’s an independent book store, a handmade chocolates store, a shop selling nautical bric-brac that spills out onto the yard, and an internet café called Café Con Leche with Venezuelan specialties.

Perched where river meets sea just around the bend in Florida’s panhandle, Apalachicola is a gem of a town. No, in honor of the oysters that are plucked from the Gulf of Mexico here, and whose shells fall off a conveyor belt into a giant seagull-surrounded pile down the street from the nautical store, let’s call it a pearl. My husband, son, and I made a last-minute decision to drive around Florida for Cole’s spring break at the end of March. We had an ultimate destination – Bud’s aunt and uncle in Crestview, which is about as far from Miami (some 600 miles) as you can get and still be in the Sunshine State; in fact, we ventured into Alabama for one afternoon idyll. In between, we were winging it. We figured drive a few hours, find a place, stay a night, check it out.

Matlacha, a strip of road connecting the mainland to Pine Island, is a great beach-boho village amid the overpriced development of the Naples and Fort Myers area. The charming Bridge Water Inn is built on a deck, so water literally laps under the rooms – but we’ve stayed there before, so it wasn’t a discovery. The next day, we were impressed by the rescued animals (my type of place!) at Homosassa Springs State Park – but the area was packed with families on spring break.

We thought we’d stop earlier the third day, but instead we kept driving, because nowhere seemed “right” — though the scenery was improving. After Crystal River, we’d finally escaped the strip mall sprawl. We were driving on two lanes down Florida’s back country, over the slow-moving Suwanee River, past sweet-smelling orange orchards, through palmetto-filled swamps, to the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico.

My friend Hunter had tipped me off about Apalachicola, but I was maintaining a healthy skepticism until proven otherwise. We’d eaten a gas-station nonlunch and I was hungry and cranky by the time we reached the river and sunset was approaching. Along the way, we’d seen a lot of beachfront being replaced by blocks of cookie-cutter condos, and I was bracing for another gentrified, touristified town, where actual industry had been replaced by Ye Olde Shoppes. From that first bridge glimpse, we could tell Apalachicola is the real deal.

Yes, one of those riverfront warehouses has been converted into a hotel and restaurants. But the Apalichicola River Inn is a charming and unpretentious place. The lobby doubles as a liquor store, so sweaty locals pedal up on bikes for their daily fifth as you check in. The rooms all have gorgeous views of the river. On the second floor, you get your own private balcony. It was our first real mattress in a couple nights, and there was a cooling ceiling fan and rattan furniture. There are two adjacent restaurants: upscale Caroline’s and the legendary Boss Oyster, whose motto is “Shut up and shuck.” We ate at the latter and it was divine. The oysters are (obviously) very fresh and come topped with all kinds of things; we chose Oyster Bienville, which had blue crab, sherry and Monterey cheese. Bud and I have a thing for hominy, so we had to have the grand grits, which were served in a cream sauce with chunks of ham and jumbo shrimp. The grilled bay scallops were delicate and tasty. We enjoyed all this while sitting on the river, watching the boats come in from a hard day of fishing and the gulls trying to scavenge.

The inn is handily located beween the oyster shell pile and the nautical store. We managed not to invest in some little wooden shrimp boats – which we regret. At Downtown Books, a cozy store focusing on local authors, I bought a copy of The Yearling, the classic novel set in the old Florida landscape through which we had just driven. The clincher, though, were the chocolates. I can’t tell you the name of the store, because the chocolatier is a retired man who told me he just does this for fun, not for fame, and he doesn’t make business cards, or stickers, or anything with a logo. He opens and closes when he feels like it and doesn’t take credit cards. He does make dozens of types of creamy fudges, truffles, turtles, etc.

Especially for Florida, Apalachicola is an old town; in fact, Dr. John Gorrie invented the basis for air conditioning (and refrigeration) here in 1849, essentially enabling the settling of the state. There are beautiful Victorians near the water – many of them for sale. Go inland for a few blocks, and you’ll quickly see that this is also a working-class, even a poor, town. Unlike so many quaint seaside villages, it hasn’t all been gussied up for tourists. Which is how this tourist likes ‘em.

Finally, of course, there are the beaches. The panhandle is famous for its soft white sand and the Gulf of Mexico is gentle and blue (when there are no hurricanes, of course). St. George Island, with its state park, is just a few miles away.

A heavy fog denied us a sunrise over the river the next morning and sparkling sea views as we left. But you know, you can’t have everything.

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