Apalachicola, St. George Island and Carrabelle Have A Lot to Offer
We’re Sweet on ‘Salty’ Franklin County
To say Franklin County is charming and quaint is like saying kittens are cute and cuddly. It can’t possibly be overstated. One thing destination promoters like to say is that Franklin County — situated on the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee — is “salty.” Though our late summer visit made us “sweet” on these cozy coastal towns, with their rich history, maritime adventures, famous oysters and plucky townsfolk passionate to leave lasting legacies, we couldn’t agree more.
History Lessons Galore
The Franklin County area has reinvented itself time and time again. The area came of age in the 1800s and like scenes in a storied play it has thrived by changing over time. Apalachicola was established in 1831 and was soon the third largest port in the country. By 1867 Apalachicola declined as a cotton port as the east-west railroad system expanded. In the late 1800s it became a turnkey destination for lumber mills — and it became a place where fishermen’s dreams were fulfilled with fleets of fishing and shrimping boats. Now, only a handful of aging shrimp boats dot the weathered waterfront as another era slips quietly into the past. Today, the charming towns of Apalachicola, St. George Island and Carrabelle are well-dressed windows welcoming yet another thriving industry to Franklin County — tourism.
Just strolling the wide, tree-lined streets of Apalachicola will take you back in time. And you don’t have to go too far into town before finding several must-visit museums. Thomas Orman was a resourceful entrepreneur who set his sights on capitalizing on the up and coming port of Apalachicola. His hunch paid off and over the years he was one of the most successful businessmen in the region, owning multiple blocks in town, warehouses along the wharf and a plantation on the outskirts of town. The Orman House was built in 1838 from cypress and long leaf pine shipped in from Syracuse, N.Y. The tour of the house and the animated tale of what transpired there before, during and after the Civil War, given by Park Ranger Mike Kinnett, was a stage-worthy performance.
A trip to Apalache (as locals call it) wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the John Gorrie Museum to learn about the remarkable physician, scientist, humanitarian and inventor whose “ice machine” revolutionized life in the south, if not the world. It’s hard not to take a glass of ice water for granted in this day and age, but an up close look at Gorrie’s simple invention and its indelible impact will leave you thirsting to know more about this modest 19th century pioneer.
George Kirvin Floyd descended from a long line of Southern boat builders who knew the Apalachicola River like the back of their well-worn hands. After a successful corporate career in Chicago, Floyd returned to his coastal hometown to “do something to nourish the human spirit and renew interest in the river.” He recently launched the Apalachicola Maritime Museum on the riverbank to preserve, celebrate and promote the maritime heritage of Apalachicola with hands-on experiences such as sailing, boat-building, restoration and educational displays.
Museum visitors can explore the river via a rowboat, canoe or kayak. Or opt for a guided tour aboard an airboat, sail boat, catamaran or Floyd’s pride and joy — the Heritage of Apalachicola, a 58’ wooden ketch, which embarks on one to seven-day adventure trips with all meals included. But you don’t have to sail the river to get a lesson in history. Simply relax on the riverfront dock with the locals and chat over a cup of joe from the museum coffee shop.
A visit to the newly restored Cape St. George Light is the perfect way to get some perspective on the island. Scoot up the 92 heart pine steps and shimmy through the scuttle hole for a breathtaking view. This is the fourth structure constructed of the historic lighthouse. Local volunteers helped salvage 22,000 original bricks used to build the new 77-foot structure in 2008. It stands adjacent to the St. George Island Visitor Center and the newly opened Lighthouse Keeper’s Museum and Gift Shop. Be sure to ask about reserving a spot to see the next “moon rise” ($15 per person).
Venture to Carrabelle, an easy 25-minute drive east of Apalachicola, to explore the Carrabelle History Museum, the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum and the Crooked River Lighthouse. This little village is not all that sleepy. One longtime local told us, “Carrabelle is a little drinking town with a fishing problem.” We have it on good account that these locals will celebrate nearly anything without much provocation. One of the most popular events is a Lantern Festival held at the lighthouse each October. This year is the 117th anniversary of the famed lighthouse and it will be marked by art, music, storytelling and a lantern workshop.
Adventures and Delightful Distractions
If you can pull yourself away from the pristine beaches and charming shops, you’ll find no shortage of things to do throughout Franklin County for all ages.
Water lovers will find no better guide than Capt. Chester Reese with Natural World Charters operating out of the Carrabelle Boat Club to explore the Carrabelle River, Dog Island and Gulf waters. We hopped aboard The Eagle for an eco-tour and spotted dolphin, jelly fish and scores of shore birds on our excursion, while hearing several salty tales. As Capt. Reese tells, “In the early 1700s and late 1800s wayward sailors without paperwork were called ‘dogs’ and if they didn’t behave, were cast off on Dog Island to straighten out or dry out as the case may be.”
If you want to feel as though you have gone to the end of the earth, simply venture to St. George Island State Park. Here you can picnic, hike, swim, bike and camp, but we went there to fish, and it was the highlight of our trip. For the price of admission ($6 per adult), you can feel as though you are the last person on earth … priceless!
One of the most memorable points of interest on this trip was the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. Nestled in the pines of East Point, this state-of-the-art facility captivated our entire family. Informative National Geographic-style films, interactive wall murals, walls lined with artifacts and indigenous species, touch tanks and loads of great literature on the natural phenomenon of the estuary made us thirsty for more and we ventured back for a second visit before our stay ended.
Apalachicola is filled with characters and a few of them are in the spotlight at the Dixie Theatre. This gem of a space seats 180 and showcases nearly 20 dramatic, music and dance performances each year. The theater was an eyesore and had not been open since 1967 until it was renovated and re-opened in 1998 by theater-lovers Rex and Cleo Partington, whose daughter, Dixie, currently serves as the producing director. This year marks the theater’s 100th anniversary for what is now one of the few family-owned and operated professional theaters in the country.
Cracking Open the Mystery of Oysters
For an oyster lover, it’s one thing to visit the town that supplies 90 percent of Florida and 10 percent of the nation with its oysters. It’s a whole other thing to meet the man who actually tonged my oyster supper that very morning.
Zach Thompson began tonging for oysters at age 14. The day we met, he launched his oyster boat at 4 a.m. and by 1 p.m. had hauled in 14 60-pound bags of oysters to the dock. His oysters make it on the menu of many of the restaurants in the area. Where does this oyster expert go for the freshest bivalves in Apalachicola? Boss Oyster. So we did, too. And we were not disappointed. You can certainly enjoy them au natural, or 21 other ways, including St. George-style: with asparagus, garlic shallots and Colby cheese. We don’t think you can go wrong with a menu that boasts: “Your oyster is our world!”
There is dining beyond oysters in Franklin County. Head to Harry A’s Restaurant & Bar for fresh seafood, burgers and salads dished up in a casual atmosphere. Tamara’s Café Floridita serves up Florida flavor with South American flair. The Owl Café is known for its extensive wine list, pasta and homemade desserts. Dining in the comfort of your vacation rental home or condo? Be sure to stop by the Sometimes It’s Hotter Seasoning Company on St. George Island for a huge selection of homemade seasonings and sauces that are sure to spice up any meal.