Apalachicola Oysters: What's So Special?
In 2006 noted food writer John T. Edge administered an oral history study about Apalachicola oysters and oyster fishermen with the Southern Foodways Alliance, out of The University of Mississippi. "The oysters there are among the best in the nation," he said. "They are fat, abundant, rich, and lusty. The oysters are both sweet and salty, and it's the interplay of the freshwater of the river and the salt water from the Gulf, forming an estuary, that makes the difference and sustains these vibrant oysters. It's about the confluence of that river and the Gulf of Mexico. The uniqueness of that combination, along with the timeless appeal of the fishing village of Apalachicola, is hard to match anywhere in the country. There are a number of restaurants across the country that only serve Apalachicola oysters."
For more about the oysters and fishermen of Apalachicola, visit www.southernfoodways.com under the heading of "Oral History."
Morning comes gently to Apalachicola. Oyster boats and shrimpboats begin their daily pilgrimages into the seafood-rich bay as the sun rises on the Northwest Florida coast. The lights twinkle on in this fishing village, its residents ready for another day in unspoiled paradise. If you ever wondered if such a place still exists, yes, old Florida lives here. A lone blinking yellow light directs the downtown traffic. Come and stay awhile in this wonderful, walkable, watery hamlet. Try the pace on for size.
Bay or Beach
When you arrive in Apalachicola, options both old and new offer a lovely stay. The grande dame in town--the Gibson Inn, built in 1907--lures you with her welcoming Victorian-style porches, rocking chairs, and 30 comfortable rooms. Rates start at $95. Ask for Room 101 if you want a quiet, private spot. It's located away from the well-known restaurant on one end of the building. But do take advantage of the first-rate dining on the premises. Avenue Sea boasts chef David Carrier, who hails from The French Laundry, a famed establishment in Napa Valley. Be sure to make reservations; he's that popular and that good.
Or try out the new kid on the banks: Water Street Hotel & Marina has 30 one- and two-bedroom riverfront suites, which feature washers and dryers, kitchens, screened porches, and more. Rates begin at $149.
If you'd rather dig your toes into the sand each morning, another option awaits less than 9 miles away on St. George Island. This barrier island--28 miles long--offers a large variety of beach houses, cottages, and condos. And the price is really right during February. Rent a three-bedroom Gulf-front beach house for two nights for only $300.
Dining for Compliments
Avenue Sea serves up the wonderful Apalachicola oysters--not shucked until they're ordered--as well as Gulf shrimp and blackened redfish.
For a perfect view, enjoy dinner on the second floor of the Owl Cafe, overlooking the waterfront. Sample the fried oysters, along with the seafood bisque, if available. Add a kick to your seafood paella with the Venezuelan flavors of Tamara's Cafe Floridita. The owners claim that love and magic are in the sauce. A laid-back experience awaits at Papa Joe's Oyster Bar & Grill at Scipio Creek Marina. You just might find some of the best fried oysters of the whole trip here, perfectly battered and meltingly good. After your lunch, take a guided boat tour, and learn the source of all this bounty.
On the Water
Several local guides offer estuary tours by boat, which are thrilling for visitors. "Everyone is looking for old Florida," says our tour boat captain. "There's not a lot of it left." For the next two hours, you'll see it and learn about the estuaries and bays and delicate ecology that allows oysters, fish, and birds to thrive in this rich gumbo of freshwater and salt water.
The boat glides through swamps, drifting past Ogeechee tupelo trees, the source of tupelo honey. You'll find yourself looking up to see the ever-present brown pelicans winging across the sky and ospreys building their nests.
Once you're back on land, put on your walking shoes, and wander around Apalachicola. Stop in at Downtown Books for a great selection of regional volumes as well as a knitting shop tucked away in the back. For one-stop, fun shopping, peruse The Grady Market, where you can pick up some plastic cups dubbed "Weekend Waterford." And you can snag the perfect item for your beach house (or wishful beach house) at Blue Beach + Home or Avenue E. Order a thick milk shake at Old Time Soda Fountain. Here you'll also find just the right Apalachicola souvenir. No, it's not the coconut monkey or kitschy puka beads. It's a jar of locally harvested tupelo honey, guaranteed to remind you of Apalachicola with every sweet taste.
For more information on Apalachicola and St. George Island, visit www.apalachicolabay.org, or call 653-9419.
The Best Bivalves
You won't find sweeter, tastier oysters than the ones pulled from the waters around Apalachicola. Ninety percent of all oysters served in Florida come from this bivalve-rich spot. But seafood lovers and fishermen delight, too, in the other shelled and finned creatures that fill the area's bay, river, and nearby Gulf. A total of 180 species of fish call this coastal spot home.
When You Go
Gibson Inn: 51 Avenue C; www.gibsoninn.com or  653-2191.
Water Street Hotel & Marina: 329 Water Street; www.waterstreethotel.com or  653-3700.
Rentals on St. George Island: www.collinsvacationrentals.com or www.resortvacationproperties.com.
Avenue Sea: 51 Avenue C;  653-2193.
Owl Cafe: 15 Avenue D; www.owlcafeflorida.com or  653-9888.
Tamara's Cafe Floridita: 17 Avenue E; www.tamarascafe.com or  653-4111.
Papa Joe's Oyster Bar & Grill: 301-B Market Street; www.papajoesoysterbar.com or  653-1189.
"Florida's Quiet Side" is from the February 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.