Apalachicola surprised and delighted me: There was much more to this town that I had expected.
Located in the Big Bend area on the Gulf Coast below Tallahassee, it is a wonderfully historic town, full of preserved and restored buildings. Plaques describing local history appear on nearly every block.
It’s compact and walkable, with enticing shops, good restaurants, a great local craft brewery and live music in sidewalk cafes on weekends. It is mercifully free of the boring sameness of franchise restaurants and lodging.
All that, and it’s the perfect base for a day at the spectacular beach on St. George Island, just 20 minutes away over two beautiful causeways.
Apalachicola’s glory days were the early 1800s, when cotton was king and steamships brought bales down the Apalachicola River to the port here. Great wealth was generated, but soon the railroad replaced the river as the critical mode of transportation. Even then, Apalachicola boomed as a port for lumber and turpentine, and then it thrived as it mined the bounty of Apalachicola Bay — sponge fishing, oysters, shrimp and other fish. Those seafood products are still important.
Today, however, tourism and vacation homes are the key to its economy. Many of the restored buildings have VRBO signs, including a cute row of houseboats on the Apalachicola River, and there are a number of bed-and-breakfasts and historic inns.
The many mansions and handsome commercial buildings from 100 to 150 years ago tell the story of a place that was once grand and successful, fell on hard times, and is now preserving and recovering its heritage in new and interesting ways.
It’s fun discovering the past here and seeing how it is being revitalized today.
Downtown, for example, is a hopping place. On the Sunday night we visited, Oyster City Brewery, 17 Ave D, whose good craft beer seems to be served in every place in town, had live music and the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk. Residents sat in their beloved golf carts and listened and chatted.
Across the street, the Owl Cafe, 15 Ave D, was full of visitors. It’s a popular fine dining restaurant located in a building that has housed a version of the Owl Cafe for 100 years. (The painted image of the owl on the second story of this building looks just like the historic images.)
Along the waterfront, crowds gathered at the Up the Creek Raw Bar, 313 Water St., with a big second story deck for open-air dining overlooking the birds, clouds and Apalachicola River. As we walked to Up the Creek, we could hear music from the Bowery Station, 131 Commerce St., and see people gathering there.
During the day, there are a variety of day trips available.
- You can head to the beach on St. George Island (see below).
- There are miles of great kayaking trails near here along the Apalachicola River, which is one of Florida’s great paddling rivers. Here’s a guide to the Apalachicola River Blueway.
- Just south of Apalachicola, Vincent National Wildlife Refuge occupies an island you can reach only by boat. It’s a wild place – there is no visitor center and no drinking water. It’s so remote, it’s been selected for a program to breed red wolves. There are nine miles of empty beaches and miles of fat-tire bike or hiking trails. (But be aware: There are no trail or road signs.) Here’s a shuttle operator who takes visitors to the island by boat.
Apalachicola’s smaller attractions
There is also more to Apalachicola’s charm, including parks and museums that might pique the interest of some visitors:
- Apalachicola’s most famous son is Dr. John Gorrie. Never heard of him? You wouldn’t enjoy Florida nearly as much without Gorrie, the father of air conditioning. The John Gorrie Museum tells the story of the doctor who invented refrigeration because he felt that cool air might combat the scourge of yellow fever.
- The Orman House Historic State Park preserves an 1838 mansion built by a wealthy cotton merchant. You can tour for $2, but even if you don’t want to go inside, you can stroll the surrounding Chapman Botanic Gardens. It’s a pleasant walk, though the gardens are not elaborate.
- We also recommend a short driving tour along the southeastern coast of the peninsula. Take the left turn as you come off the causeway and follow the sign pointing to Battery Park. You’ll find a beautiful neighborhood of Victorian mansions overlooking the bay. Lafayette Park — which was created in the 1830s! – has a long boardwalk stretching into the bay with beautiful views.
- There’s a small Apalachicola Maritime Museum. One of its most popular features is its boat tours, which includes an 11 a.m. daily waterfront cruise in a motor vessel as well as daily kayak tours. See the boat tour schedule here.
Visiting St. George Island and St. George Island State Park
When it comes to Florida’s barrier islands, you’ll find few with better natural beaches than St. George, just 20 minutes from Apalachicola. Its beach, ranked among the best in the world, extends for nine miles with the eastern five miles accessible only by foot or bike.
At St. George Island, you experience a beach that looks exactly as it did before we all moved to Florida and started spoiling it, and it’s a splendid experience. When you walk down this beach, you will soon see no trace of man’s influence, except an occasional sign marking a turtle nest.
When you first arrive on the island from the causeway, you can make a stop at the lighthouse, which you can climb for a small fee. There’s a terrific beach with good facilities here and, what’s more, it’s a nice Old Florida feeling to find free parking at a beach.
There’s one road on St. George Island and if you head east toward the state park, you will pass a few miles of intense beach house development. All the beach houses on their stilts looked to us like a horde of fiddler crabs. There are no high-rises and the development is not dense, so it doesn’t quite ruin St. George’s ambience.
At the park, once you’ve paid your $6 entrance fee, you’ll pass a few small beachfront parking lots with dune crossovers along the main road and two large parking lots where you will find a cluster of restrooms, picnic shelters and changing areas.The buildings in this relatively new park have been designed to blend well in the beautiful dune environment.
We parked in the last lot and walked several miles into the undeveloped part of the beach, and we felt like explorers. To our great delight, we repeatedly saw a pod of dolphins fishing off-shore, and we passed exactly three other groups of people in our five-mile round-trip walk – on Memorial Day. (There were plenty of people enjoying the park nearer the parking lots.)
The sand is blindingly white, easy to walk on, and feels, well, clean – and there’s a reason for that. The Yelper of beaches, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, says the sand here is nearly pure quartz crystal. “While most noncarbonated (noncoral) beaches are composed of 15 to 20 different types of sand, the Panhandle beaches are like a bar of Ivory soap – 99 44/100% pure,” he said.
On the bay side of the park, you’ll find an outstanding campground amidst shade and pine trees that are a pleasant green respite from the white dunes. There’s a 2.5 mile nature trail here too.
St. George Island lends itself to bicycles. There is a separate paved bike path along the main road and when you get to the state park, bikes can continue the five miles to the end of the island where cars are not allowed. It looked like riding would provide splendid views, but, be aware, these trails offer no shade.
Accommodations in Apalachicola and St. George Island
We liked the Victorian Gibson Inn, built in 1907 and beautifully restored. The big two-story Gibson Inn is the first thing you see in Apalachicola as you come over the causeway and its lobby has a popular restaurant and bar. (Be aware: You’ll be taking stairs; there are no wheelchair-accessible rooms.)
We also stayed at the Coombs Inn and Suites, a bed and breakfast located in a complex of historic homes, a few blocks from the center, which is an elegant spot with excellent B&B style breakfasts and a romantic atmosphere.
There are several other inns and B&Bs as well as a Best Western.
On St. George Island, the St. George Inn, while not on the beach is well located in the small commercial area around the lighthouse, just a block from it.
Campers should seek reservations at St. George Island St. Park, which has one of the best Gulf campsites near the beach.