As soon as I cast my line out into the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I got a hit. Clint, our charter boat captain, told me to jerk the line as soon as I felt the fish, but in my excitement I forgot. There went my bait! An experienced fisherwoman, I was not.
Yet even with my lack of skills, poor judgment, and nervous excitement, I still caught a pile of fish—red snapper, striped snapper, Spanish mackerel, and grouper. It wasn’t the season for red snapper so we threw those lucky critters back. And since I wasn’t planning on doing any cooking on this trip, Clint took home the “keepers” we caught and shared them with his mom and dad.
One thing’s for sure, Capt. Clint knew how to find fish. For someone like me, who’s not a huge fan of fishing, actually catching a few is big deal. The last time I went fishing, I didn’t catch a single one. But this was a whole new experience—and tons of fun, too.
I was visiting Franklin County, Florida, which stretches along the eastern side of the Panhandle south of Tallahassee. It’s where most of Florida’s oysters are harvested. Many say the oysters from Apalachicola, Florida, the county seat, are among the world’s best. The waters of Franklin County also produce prized clams and myriad other seafood bounty.
But what struck me most about the region was its old-Florida vibe. The entire county has only a few street lights. And 87 percent of its land is federal- or state-protected: aquatic preserves, state parks, state forests, a national estuarine research reserve, national wildlife refuges. It’s a nature lovers’ paradise. Here’s a quick look at some of the activities you can enjoy during a natural escape to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
If you watched “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda, you’ve already seen Franklin County, which is where the movie was filmed. The best way to get to know the county up close is on the water. We explored the meandering rivers and creeks of Tate’s Hell State Park by kayak. The park got its name when a farmer became lost in the swamp while looking for a panther that was eating his livestock. He emerged seven days later, his brown hair suddenly white, and said with his dying breath, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from hell.”
You definitely want to cover every inch of exposed skin with insect repellant. Once suitably protected, you’re in for a treat. Paddling through pristine stands of cypress trees, you’ll feel transported to a peaceful primeval place where humans rarely venture. Although being deep in the heart of the forest felt a little spooky at times, it was also lovely and unspoiled—and worth the occasional bug bite!
Carrabelle is a cozy little town that boasts the World’s Smallest Police Station, a phone booth. Fishing and boating are its real claim to fame with a number of full-service marinas. Nearby Alligator Point offers pier, surf, and offshore fishing, as well as birding and hiking in Bald Point State Park. My accommodations in Carrabelle were at Pirate’s Landing, a cute condo complex with a pool and Jacuzzi that sits right beside a boat ramp with easy access to the Gulf. The condos are modern, comfortable, and affordably priced.
For fun, locals head over to Harry’s Bar, a Carrabelle landmark since 1942. In the New Orleans-style courtyard, you can sip on a tropical beverage and soak up some of that fine Florida sunshine. Check out the Marine Street Grill adjacent to Harry’s, where you can enjoy a great burger along with your cold beverage as cool breezes blow off the Gulf.
About 45 minutes west of Carrabelle, the town of Apalachicola is an old-Florida gem. Historic homes line streets with live oak trees offering year-round shade and neighbors that know each other. In the charming downtown, you can explore boutiques, galleries, and antique shops. During our visit, Apalachicola was in the midst of a two-week plein air event, and everywhere I went, it seemed, painters were outdoors capturing the beauty of nature and the old-Florida ambiance that makes this area so unique.
The fishing industry is big in Apalachicola, and you’ll find plenty of picturesque fishing harbors along the edge of the Apalachicola River. We toured the river with Capt. Larry Covell of Wheelhouse Charter Tours on a 28-foot landing craft, perfect for scooting around the tall grasses that line the shores. He showed us tupelo trees in quiet coves, where local beekeepers bring their hives in spring and leave them. There the bees collect pollen from the blooms and create what many consider to be among the world’s finest honey.
You can learn more about the local ecosystems by visiting the headquarters of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR), one of only 25 sites designated as such by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The reserve is the most productive estuarine system in the northern hemisphere. Its 246,766 acres support 1162 subspecies of plants, 308 species of birds, 186 species of fish, and 57 species of mammals. It’s a veritable wildlife stew.
An excellent place to grab lunch in Apalachicola, Tamara’s Café Floridita offers a diverse menu with South American- and Caribbean-inspired fare. I enjoyed Thai chicken salad with fresh veggies and rice. Salads also come with salmon, seared tuna, and grouper. Yum. Oyster lovers can head over to Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill, where you can get oysters fried, steamed, baked with toppings, and on the half shell, which is just the way I like them.
For dinner, I recommend Gormley’s at the Gibson Inn, a landmark historic hotel which has welcomed guests to Apalachicola since 1907. The vibe is old-World elegance, and the cuisine combines classic French and Southern charm with an emphasis on seafood, of course. From Oysters Rockefeller to collard-stuffed chicken breast, fresh and local are the operative adjectives. After dinner you can sit a spell on the porch in comfy rocking chairs, watching the world go by.
AMONG THE DUNES
Franklin County, Florida, is a natural escape that attracts visitors looking for a slow-paced lifestyle. I met a number of people who vacation here every year, and they said there’s nowhere else on Florida’s coast where time seems to stand still like it does along this stretch of shoreline.
Families can find spacious and, for those inclined, sumptuous accommodations on St. George Island, midway between Carrabelle and Apalachicola. A barrier island, St. George has been welcoming families for generations. Older, modest homes share the beach with sparkling new elegant properties catering to the well-to-do. Whichever your preference, you’ll find the perfect beach escape hidden among the dunes. All you have to do is look!
Back out on the Gulf, Capt. Clint stowed fishing gear as we prepared to head back from our expedition. All of a sudden, right before our eyes, miles from shore, a sea turtle about 4-5 feet in length swam lazily by. He poked his head up out of the clear blue-green waters and looked over as if to say, “Welcome to my world.” Then with a wink and a wave of his webbed foot, he paddled off. It was a privilege to meet him and to be reminded that enjoying the beauty of nature requires us to be careful of our precious resources. Thanks to forward-thinking naturalists, Franklin County offers visitors a chance to see what the real Florida is like—in its natural state.
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