After following the two lane road that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico and winds through the small beach towns and large swaths of woods that make up the Forgotten Coast—a stretch of old Florida with quaint seafood shacks, rickety stands selling fresh fruit and trucks with their back doors open hawking freshly caught shrimp, I arrived in Apalachicola, once the largest cotton shipping port on the Gulf but now a sleepy but charming small town brushed with the magic of time forgotten.
After handing me my keys and relaying the fact that Mr. Coombs, who died almost 100 years ago, sometimes visited female guests and taking the liberty to gently stroke their faces—he must have loved it when the models and crew stayed while shooting the 2013 swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, owner Lynn Wilson tells me how she discovered the inn.
“I had to climb into the dining room window to see what this place looked like after being empty for 70 years,” says Wilson, about this Grand Victorian built in 1905 and abandoned in 1911 after a kitchen fire and the owners’ deaths. “The doors were blocked by debris.”
Determined to own the home despite a face to face with a screech owl in an upstairs bathroom, it took Wilson a decade to purchase the house and another two years to fix it up.
At the time, Apalach (as locals call it), having gone through several booms and busts in its almost 200 years, was definitely down on its luck. The once magnificent downtown and the neighborhoods filled with homes, some dating back to the 1830s, were falling apart. Like Wilson, others too saw the ghostly beauty in abandoned and ramshackle buildings and now 900 renovated homes and buildings are listed on the National Register District.
In the early evening, after dinner I often wandered among the historic neighborhoods using the walking tour maps available at the visitor’s center and even, as dusk settled, took a ramble in the cemetery across the street from the Coombs House until my friend Mary Lu was spooked by a shadow or two and demanded we leave.
For those seeking jolts of action, don’t bother to make the drive to what is truly an old Florida sort of place—no big box stores or nightlife unless you count taking a sunset cruise on the water or gigging for flounder with a local fisherman as lively. But for those who like historic architecture, freshly caught seafood, whimsy and great views, there’s definitely much to do.
One day I board the Starfish Enterprise, a 40-foot catamaran docked behind the Apalachicola Maritime Museum. Dedicated to the area’s boom as fishing village, the museum also offers a variety of eco-tours including the three hour one I’m taking today that travels through the Apalachicola River Basin.
Accompanying us is the museum’s founder and local boy made good, George Floyd, a dedicated environmentalist, whose family first settled here in the 1840s. Floyd, after working in the family cannery and building boats with his dad, moved away, developed a medical records software program, became rich, rich, rich and returned home.
As Floyd talks, we pass old shrimp trawlers abandoned alongside the edges of the cypress tree lined estuary, which is the nursery grounds for 75% of the marine life in this area, navigate through one of the few remaining swing bridges in the United States and watch happy dolphins crest the surface of the calm waters.
Currently Apalachicola harvests over 90% of the oysters sold in Florida and 10% of the nationwide supply and the historic downtown has several oyster restaurants including the waterfront restaurants like Boss Oyster and Up the Raw Creek.
There are oysters on the menu at Tamara’s Café as well, but chef Danny Itzkovitz who with his wife Marisa Getter, renovated the 1920s building, exposing the red brick walls, also offers pecan encrusted grouper fingers with spicy jalapeño sauce, paella and the freshest of fish.
Indeed, Itzkovitz approaches our table carrying a giant red snapper who doesn’t know yet he’s on the dinner menu. Itzkovitz instructs us to note the still flapping snapper’s beautiful coloring before whisking it away. 20 minutes, we’re served the fresh-as-possible snapper, studded with garlic and grilled.
Like many quaint coastal towns, Apalach has a lively art scene. The old Dixie Theatre has been renovated and now shows old movies and offers live entertainment. At the Bowery Art Gallery, named after its location—the once rollicking riverfront area where sailors debarked for scandalous fun— Leslie Wallace-Coon puts the finishing touches on a commissioned canine sculpture as she tells us about her work.
“I love animals,” she says gesturing towards the much-in-demand whimsical dog sculptures that fill her studio space. “I love the humor that we see in their physical being and their human personalities.”
When Florida State Parks took over the 1839 home of Thomas Orman in 1994, the last of the family fortune was long gone. Gaslights still lit the once glamorous home (no one had upgraded to electricity yet) and the one elderly remaining Orman lived in the dilapidated back of the house, succeeding the front rooms with their high ceilings and marble fireplaces to a horse named Candybar who grazed on the front lawn during the day and came into the parlor at night.
This iconoclastic past may be one reason why Apalachicola still carries its many charms.