Apalachicola: The Oysterman's Village
This shabby-chic Florida seaside village is a must for oyster lovers.
A man with a gray beard hanging between his Schwinn beach-cruiser's handlebars lurches along. His rolling reflection fills the storefront windows of cafes, antiques shops, and seafood raw bars. Such is the jigsaw puzzle that is Apalachicola, Florida's oyster capital. Dangling from an isolated lobe in the Gulf about an hour east of Panama City, this oft-overlooked, 2,300-person, shabby-chic town flanks the end of the Emerald Coast and has arguably two priorities. First: oysters. About 90 percent of the state's harvest comes from Apalach (as it's called); therefore, a Bubba Gump-like devotion to oysters ("you can get 'em raw, steamed, baked, fried...") is palpable. A close second is providing them for folks—locals or transplants—who salivate over these filter-feeders lining the town's pristine bay, where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf.
"Our oysters have the best flavor because of rich sediment coming down the river," says Johnny Richards as silhouettes of skiffs heavy with swollen burlap sacks pass by at dusk. An oysterman for 53 years, he was forced off the water by an aortic aneurysm. According to Richards, the bay—sheltered by the beach-laden and lighthouse-festooned St. George Island—was never closed during the oil scare, and beds were constantly tested. "The water is our artery," he continues, touching his chest. "If it bursts, we die."
The spot to suck down your first Apalach aphrodisiac and tilt a bottle of cold suds is the Hole in the Wall Seafood Market & Raw Bar (23 Avenue D; 850/653-3222). Oysters Fletcher—baked with horseradish, Cheddar, and green onions—is a specialty. A sign above the door sums up the town's vibe: "Dinner choices: 1. Take it. 2. Leave it." The Owl Cafe, one block toward the river, is the closest thing to fine dining in town. Exposed brick meets dark wood in this two-floor Provençal showcase for local seafood. The mother-daughter team of Susan and Cassie Gary has run the kitchen for 14 years, serving dishes like crab-stuffed red snapper with fresh herb-and-red-pepper hollandaise. The 250-label wine list includes Cakebread and Kistler Chardonnays.
Once a chandlery supplying goods to a thriving shipping industry, the Grady Market now sells lavish provisions to discerning landlubbers. Inside the red-brick, riverfront building, designer tags like Eileen Fisher apparel and Colonel Littleton accessories share space with local artwork, weathered furniture, and Apalachicola's own Tupelo honey. The building's second floor served as the French Consulate in the early 1900s.
Where to Stay in Apalachicola
The Consulate boasts four luxury apartments. From the 650-square-foot Port Captain to the 1,650-square-foot Ambassador, each room is outfitted with overstuffed furniture, heartwood-pine floors, and either river- or garden-facing balconies. The Gibson Inn, built in 1907 and sheathed in wraparound porches, has 30 distinct rooms accoutred with antiques: four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs, and pedestal washbasins. But, it is perhaps best known for its ghosts. When you book 309, expect a roommate in the form of poltergeist Captain Woods. The captain, like any proper Apalach visitor, loved to watch the bay from his window until he drifted into dreams of the next day's oysters.