Take time to discover the wonders of this Florida river town.

By Tracey Minkin
January 16, 2020

There are discoveries, and then there are discoveries. You know you’re onto something as U.S. 98 slides southeast down the coast from Panama City. After heading inland briefly past flanks of longleaf and slash pines, you find yourself rolling more slowly past stately antebellum homes until you arrive at a pristine 19th-century downtown. Just beyond is a sky blue waterway dotted with shrimp boats.

You meander downtown, amazed by what you see: a craft brewpub; a Charleston, South Carolina-worthy boutique with beautiful clothing; an upscale outfitter with fishing rods and fashionable outdoor wear; antiques stores; and art galleries. On a corner is a deep-porched inn that feels like the coolest spot to stay on the Panhandle.

Welcome to Apalachicola, Florida’s stunning surprise, the little up-and-comer. Here lies a tiny city that has endured booms and busts. First a thriving cotton and lumber port, then a center of the Gulf’s oyster fishery (which crashed precipitously in 2012), it has, in the last decade, quietly built itself up. Inventive entrepreneurship has turned it into a sweet and stylish getaway that blends those downtown delights with proximity to some of the coast’s most remarkable wild beaches.

Make no mistake: Apalachicola is having a moment. You can feel it in the vibe of The Gibson Inn. Built in 1907, this historic property was bought in 2018 by a pair of thirty-something siblings—Steven Etchen and Katharine Couillard—who grew up coming here with their parents and enjoying Shirley Temples on these very porches. “We have loved this place forever,” says Couillard, “so when it looked like we could buy it and enhance its potential while maintaining its authenticity, we leaped at the chance.”

The Gibson Inn was built in 1907.
Jessica Sample

With the design-savvy vision of the pair, the interiors now vibrate with a modern sensibility that nods to nostalgia—deep leather sofas in the lobby, the occasional taxidermy, plus nautical and Florida motifs in the wallpapers. A revitalized bar offers craft cocktails along with longneck beers, and the house restaurant—The Franklin—takes a fun and updated culinary approach that emphasizes locally sourced oysters and fresh-caught seafood. Evenings downstairs at The Gibson Inn are themselves a marvelous blend of everything that is Apalachicola—old-timers parked at the bar and longtime visitors and families settling in for dinner, all mixing with happy travelers who know they’re onto something really special.

While the abundant charms of Apalachicola could keep anyone occupied for a long weekend (you could spend days just rambling The Tin Shed Nautical & Antiques), what lies nearby also lures.

There’s perhaps no wilder place than Cape San Blas and the St. Joseph Peninsula, a delicate spit of sand that arcs out from the mainland just west of Apalachicola and parallels the coast for about 20 windswept miles of high dunes and untrammeled beaches. Partway out the peninsula, in fact, is where 2018’s Hurricane Michael came ashore with such ferocity that it carved a navigable channel across the spit before it savaged Mexico Beach. Already, though, the slash is filling back up with sand as nature resets itself, and now the place feels wilder than ever.

Similarly, the waters reaching inland from Apalachicola—the river that shares its name—are potent places to experience that aching wildness that defines the ancient Panhandle of Florida. It’s an Audubon escapist fantasy to go upriver here, even for a few hours, and to feel yourself the lucky explorer, the discoverer of a small and beautiful world.

Where to Eat

After the oyster crash of 2012, a new wave of farmers is bringing the beloved delicacy back. Get local varieties consistently at The Franklin and Up the Creek Raw Bar. This is also shrimp country, and the catch is done up right at Apalachicola Seafood Grill, a historic corner-store-style lunchroom with just enough kitsch to keep it real (don’t miss the mustardy potato salad). Nearby, the Oyster City Brewing Company has excellent craft beers.

Ken Lumpkin is the chef of The Franklin.
Jessica Sample
Try Apalachicola’s famous bivalves at The Franklin.

Where to Stay

Recently restored and updated, The Gibson Inn is a modern historic gem. Spend happy hour with locals at the Parlor Bar (try a Gibson Breeze, their signature cocktail).

Local goods from Emily Raffield's Becasa boutique.
Jessica Sample

Where to Shop

From the vintage maritime riot at The Tin Shed Nautical & Antiques to the fashionable but approachable boutiques Becasa (featuring owner and designer Emily Raffield’s timeless and trend-forward pieces) and SGI Threads, downtown has every retail niche covered. Your shopping list: Apalach Outfitters, The Grady Market, and Downtown Books & Purl. Keep your eyes peeled for the local variety of Florida tupelo honey, rare and highly valued for its silky texture and rich flavor.

Where to Play

Explore the Apalachicola River estuary aboard the Half Shell, a refashioned classic Apalachicola oyster boat, with renowned guide and captain Gibby Conrad.

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