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Petunia is a boutique shop in Apalachicola for prized pets and their owners.
Petunia is a boutique shop in Apalachicola for prized pets and their owners. (Globe Photo / Frederick Burger)

Fishing and fixing up are Apalachicola's lures

By Frederick Burger
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2007
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- A number of communities promote themselves as examples of the "Old Florida," before a swarm of developers descended on the state. Franklin County, however, is the real thing. So is Apalachicola, the county seat.

"People who come here want to get away," Anita Grove, head of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, said recently over lunch at the Owl Cafe, a popular restaurant. "They don't want outlet shopping and water slides. We could be like anywhere else, but we've chosen not to be. People like the scale of it. We're not overrun with tourists."

One important factor that has kept the county small is that 87 percent of it is publicly owned - protected as national and state forests, preserves, and parks - so beyond the grasp of developers. Those assets make the area attractive to hikers, bird-watchers, campers, and anyone who likes boat trips to see the area's ample wildlife: alligators and dolphins, manatees, osprey, and bald eagles.

Periodically a Florida black bear ambles into town to check things out.

In the early 1500s, French and Spanish explorers discovered a thriving Native-American culture here that lived off the bounty of the forests and the rivers. By the early 1800s this was the third-busiest port on the Gulf of Mexico, according to "At the Water's Edge: A Pictorial and Narrative History of Apalachicola and Franklin County," by William Warren Rogers and Lee Willis III (Donning, 1997).

As many as 130 steamboats would go up the Apalachicola River to retrieve the inland cotton crop from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida and transport it down the Chattahoochee, Flint, and Apalachicola rivers. Tons of cotton bales were loaded onto schooners that moved them to textile centers in the Northeast and Europe. Later, Rogers and Willis write, timber became a staple of the local economy, particularly the coveted cypress.

Throughout its long history, however, this town near the crook of the Florida Panhandle has had to reinvent itself to survive and prosper. In modern times Apalachicola changed again, not so much by calculation or design as by sheer grit and happenstance and the good fortune of its location and natural resources.

Today the town's economy focuses on tourism, history, and commercial and sport fishing, some of the best in the country. About 90 percent of the oysters harvested in Florida - 10 percent of the national total - come from the rich and carefully monitored beds of Apalachicola Bay, which spans 30 miles. Connoisseurs covet them for their unique, sweet taste.

The town also has become a destination for fine dining Panhandle style, which has made it a regionally popular weekend getaway year-round, even in what can be chilly winters.

There are the obligatory beaches, of course, and St. George Island, just 15 miles to the east and about 4 miles from the mainland, boasts some of the most pristine and uncrowded beaches in the state, even in peak season. The island has a couple of motels and some townhouses, but it is essentially a community of single-family homes, many of them investments and about 800 of which are available as vacation rentals.

The island is about a half-mile wide and 20 miles long and has only a smattering of commercial development. Further, the longstanding three-story height limit on new construction has spared it from the condo caverns that have engulfed much of the Florida coast.

The entire county has only about 11,000 people and Apalachicola about 2,300, slightly fewer than in the bustling 1800s. The town has two stoplights (the one in the center of town is a blinker) and only one fast-food franchise (Burger King). The closest interstate passes through Tallahassee about 70 miles to the north. The closest Wal-Mart is in Panama City about 60 miles to the west.

What this fishing village does have is small-town charm. Its centerpiece is a business district that is three blocks wide and six blocks long and features shops, galleries, and restaurants that tourists leisurely explore on foot.

There's Petunia, a pet boutique, and The Tin Shed, which sells nautical antiques, collectibles, and gifts that reflect the town's history: old brass diving helmets ($1,195), brass ship bells ($1,100), birds carved from wood ($10), and mermaid bottle openers ($5).

"We're not on the way to or from anywhere," said Bill F. Spohrer, an air-cargo executive who moved here from Miami a few months ago. "It's a fascinating place. The town is loaded with beautifully restored houses. People want to retire here. A lot of attorneys from Tallahassee maintain homes here."

Spohrer and his wife, Lynn Wilson, an interior designer, are among the town's most loyal patrons. They recently restored the old Cotton Exchange building, which dates to 1836, and the Sponge Exchange, built in 1831.

The Spohrers' signature project is the Coombs House Inn, an elegant bed-and-breakfast that promotes its "romantic" aura. Built in 1905 by James Nathaniel Coombs, a native of Old Town, Maine, the house was abandoned and nearly in ruins when the Spohrers spotted it in the early 1990s. They oversaw a meticulous renovation, which was completed in August 1994. A couple of adjoining buildings were later renovated, giving the inn 23 rooms, seven with Jacuzzis.

A handful of B&Bs are the backbone of tourist accommodations here, including the Bryant House Bed & Breakfast. But even the Water Street Hotel and Marina, a condo-hotel that opened on Labor Day, is relatively modest in scale with 30 suites.

One of Apalachicola's showplaces is the Gibson Inn in the middle of town. It opened as the Franklin Hotel in 1907, but by the late 1950s it was mostly vacant save for a beauty salon and a real estate office on the ground floor. The two floors upstairs were abandoned, except for a vagrant or two.

Then in 1983, Neil Koun, an investment banker with Solomon Brothers in New York, stumbled across it. He called his brother, Michael Koun, who worked for W.R. Grace in Chicago. Within a month of seeing it, they and Michael Merlo, a Chicago lawyer, had bought it for something under $100,000.

A two-year, $1.5-million renovation began immediately. And in November 1985 the hotel's 30 reconfigured guest rooms reopened.

"It's a town that's changing, but the face of the town won't change," Michael Koun said recently in the Gibson's vintage bar. "The people who have come here have bought homes and restored them. I don't think you're going to see condominiums rising. There's not that much room to grow. . . . The city's pretty big on not letting anyone tear down anything of historic significance."

Some think the Gibson is haunted by several ghosts, particularly Room 309, where a fishing-boat captain named Woods is said to have died half a century ago. The specifics are vague, but in any event some guests ask for Room 309.

"He's just mischievous," said Sue Wojtkonski Bodick, the hotel's assistant general manager, with a grin. "People say Captain Woods moves things around in the room. Pictures fall off the walls. Some people say he tucks them in every night."

Bodick, a native of Rochester, Mass., has never seen the ghosts, but the housekeeper and others claim they have.

The Gibson Inn is home to one of the best restaurants in town, Avenue Sea. Chefs David Carrier and his wife, Ryanne, lease the 62-seat restaurant, which was written up in Gourmet magazine last May. Selections from their five-course a la carte dinners - the menu changes daily - run $6-$15 each. Sides cost $7, desserts (Ryanne's specialty) $5-$6.

Carrier, a 1999 graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, tries to buy much of his naturally-grown food locally. Meals average $35-$40 per person.

Competition for the local dining dollar comes from a number of other popular restaurants, including Chef Eddie's Magnolia Grill and Apalachicola Seafood Grill, better known as The Grill. Both have Massachusetts ties.

Chef Eddie Cass, 61, talks of having studied under executive chefs at the Ritz-Carlton, the Parker House, and Harvard Club in Boston and graduating from the now defunct Chef Training Institute of New England in 1966.

"The chefs are here for the quality of life," Cass says. "It's very laid-back, and you don't have any cookie-cutter houses. This is becoming a dining destination, and the island is massive. From May to August we're jamming. We're going to be the Key West of the Redneck Riviera. There are a lot of artsy people here, craft people."

Beverly Hewitt, 61, co-owns the Grill, which boasts that it serves the world's largest fried fish sandwich ($13.95). Raised in Peabody and Gloucester, she followed relatives to Florida about 16 years ago and bought The Grill in 1992. The building has been a restaurant since 1903.

"Apalachicola is like one of the smaller fishing villages in Gloucester," Hewitt says. "It has the same salty feel. It's like Cheers: Everybody knows your name."

Frederick Burger, a freelance writer and editor in Anniston, Ala., can be reached at Ratliff123@aol.com.

If You Go

How to get there

Nearest commercial air service is to Panama City (60 miles) and Tallahassee (70 miles). Apalachicola has a general-aviation airport.

Where to stay

Gibson Inn
51 Avenue C
850-653-2191
gibsoninn.com
Beautifully restored 1907 hotel whose 30 rooms range from $85-$260.

Water Street Hotel & Marina
329 Water St.
888-211-9239, 850-653-3700
waterstreethotel.com
Condo hotel with 30 luxury suites, $139-$300.

Coombs House Inn
80 Sixth St.
888-244-8320
coombshouseinn.com
Beautifully restored B&B, $79-$229.

Where to eat

Avenue Sea
51 Avenue C
850-653-2193
gibsoninn.com
(click on restaurant)
Upscale a la carte dining at the Gibson Inn.
Average meal $35-$40 per person.
Has monthly wine tastings.

Chef Eddie's Magnolia Grill
99 11th St.
850-653-8000
chefeddiesmagnoliagrill.com
Lobster with Apalachicola scallops, shrimp with crab stuffing ($29), fresh fillet of snapper ($19), Grouper Tropicana served with black beans and rice ($22).

Apalachicola Seafood Grill (The Grill)
100 Market St.
850-653-9510
"World's largest fried fish sandwich" ($14), Gulf Coast grouper ($11), Captain's Platter (fish, shrimp, and oysters, $17).

What to do

Stroll downtown shops, galleries, and restaurants. The chamber of commerce has extensive listings at apalachicolabay.org.

Florida Seafood Festival
floridaseafoodfestival.com
Held annually first weekend in November in downtown Apalachicola. Parade, oyster eating contest, 5K Redfish Run, entertainment.

The Wheelhouse Café & Tours
317 Water St.
850-653-8860
wheelhousetours.com

fws.gov/saintvincent/
Water tours of wildlife areas. Two-hour tours for up to six people ($140 per boat), four-hour tours ($260). Some tours include visit to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, a 12,490-acre island.

Robinson Brothers Guide Service
118 Commerce St.
850-653-8896
floridaredfish.com
One of the area's numerous charter-fishing companies. Two people for a full day $500; four people, half day, $350.

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