I’d never seen anything like it. As soon as I cast my line out into the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I got a hit. Clint, our intrepid charter boat captain, had told me to jerk the line a bit as soon as I felt the fish, but in my excitement I would always forget, and whatever giant specimen I’d lured would swim off with my bait. An experienced fisherwoman, I was not.
Yet even with my lack of skills, poor judgment, and nervous excitement, I still managed to catch a pile of fish—red snapper, striped snapper, Spanish mackerel, and grouper. Sadly it wasn’t the season for red snapper so we threw those lucky critters back. And truth be told, I wasn’t planning on doing any cooking on this trip, so whatever “keepers” we caught Clint took home and shared with his mom and dad.
One thing’s for sure. Captain Clint knew how to find fish. And for someone like me who’s ambivalent about fishing, actually catching a few is real important. The last time I’d gone fishing, I hadn’t caught a one and decided fishing was not worth my time. But this was a whole new experience—and tons of fun, too.
I was visiting Franklin County, Florida, which stretches along the eastern side of the Panhandle south of Tallahassee. It’s where most of Florida’s oysters are harvested. In fact, many say the oysters from Apalachicola, Florida, the county seat, are among the world’s best. The waters of Franklin County also produce prized clams and myriad other seafood bounty.
But what struck me most about the region was its old-Florida vibe. For example, the entire county has only one street light. And 87 percent of its land is federal- or state-protected: aquatic preserves, state parks, state forests, a national estuarine research reserve, national wildlife refuges—the county is a nature lovers’ paradise. Here’s a quick look at some of the activities you can enjoy during a natural escape to Franklin County.
If you watched “Ulee’s Gold” with Peter Fonda, you’ve already seen Franklin County, which is where the 1997 drama was filmed. And the best way to get to know the county up close is, of course, on the water. We explored the meandering rivers and creeks of Tate’s Hell State Park with an outfitter called Expeditions in Hell based in Carrabelle. Owned by Robin Hilton and Rama BenBaruch, friends who met up north and decided to relocate to sunny Florida, the business offers guided tours on land, sea, bayous, and rivers—or you can rent your equipment and do your own thing.
Our expedition took us deep into Tate’s Hell State Park, so-named because a farmer got lost in the swamp while looking for a panther that was eating his livestock. He emerged seven days later, his brown hair suddenly white, and said with his dying breath, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from hell.” In fact, you definitely want to cover every inch of exposed skin with insect repellant. But once suitably protected, you’re in for a treat. Paddling through pristine stands of cypress trees, you’ll feel transported to a peaceful primeval place where humans rarely venture. Although it was spooky at times deep in the heart of the forest, it was also lovely and unspoiled and worth the occasional bug bite!
Carrabelle is a cozy little town that boasts the World’s Smallest Police Station, a phone booth. Fishing and boating are its claim to fame with five full-service marinas. Nearby Alligator Point offers pier, surf, and offshore fishing, as well as birding and hiking in Bald Point State Park. My accommodations in Carrabelle were at Pirate’s Landing, a cute condo complex with a pool and Jacuzzi that sits right beside a boat ramp with easy access to the Gulf. The condos are modern, comfortable, and affordably priced.
For fun, locals head over to Harry’s Bar, a Carrabelle landmark since 1942. In the New Orleans-style courtyard, you can enjoy a tropical beverage and cool breezes blowing off the Gulf. For lunch, try Hog Wild BBQ, where hickory-smoked “que” is tops, or 2 Al’s at the Beach, where they serve the “Sea Monster,” a seafood burger with shrimp, scallops, oyster, and grouper. For dinner, try Pirate’s Tiki Hut, conveniently located next to my condo, where fresh local seafood, phenomenal views, and cool breezes await.
About 45 minutes west, Apalachicola is an old-Florida gem. Here’s where you’ll find the county’s only stoplight. You’ll also discover historic homes on back streets with live oak trees offering year-round shade and neighbors that know each other. In the charming downtown, you can explore boutiques, galleries, and antique shops. During our visit, Apalachicola was in the midst of a two-week plein air event, and everywhere I went, it seemed, painters were outdoors capturing the beauty of nature and the old-Florida ambiance that makes this area so unique.
The fishing industry is big in Apalachicola, and you’ll find plenty of picturesque fishing harbors along the edge of the Apalachicola River. We toured the river with Capt. Larry Covell of Wheelhouse Tours on a 28-foot landing craft, perfect for scooting around the tall grasses that line the shores. He showed us tupelo trees in quiet coves, where local beekeepers bring their hives in spring and leave them. There the bees collect pollen from the blooms and create what many consider to be among the world’s finest honey.
You can learn more about the local ecosystems by visiting the headquarters of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR), one of only 25 sites designated as such by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Seth Blitch, ANERR’s manager, told us it’s the most productive estuarine system in the northern hemisphere. Its 246,766 acres support 1162 subspecies of plants, 308 species of birds, 186 species of fish, and 57 species of mammals. It’s a veritable wildlife stew, and its stewardship is one Seth takes very seriously. “It makes the state richer,” he said.
An excellent place to grab lunch in Apalachicola, Tamara’s Café Floridita offers a diverse menu with South American- and Caribbean-inspired fare. Chef Danny Itzkovitz, who hails from Virginia, runs the colorful restaurant with his wife, Marisa, and it’s not unusual to see extended family members on the premises. I enjoyed Thai chicken salad with fresh veggies and rice. Salads also come with salmon, seared tuna, and grouper. Yum. Oyster lovers can head over to Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar & Grill, where you can get oysters fried, steamed, baked with toppings, and on the half shell, which is just the way I like them.
Apalachicola is also the home of a huge oyster packing plant, Leavins Seafood Company, which supplies oysters in the shell and shelled to countless food vendors across the U.S. Grady Leavins, the owner, recently perfected a unique technique to freeze raw oysters on the half shell, which he makes available to cruiselines and casinos. He says even a French food snob couldn’t tell the difference between one of his thawed oysters and a fresh one.
For dinner, I recommend Café Momi at the Gibson Inn, a landmark historic hotel which has welcomed guests to Apalachicola since 1907. The vibe at Café Momi is decidedly hip with bold, colorful original artwork lining the walls. Here you’ll find eclectic cuisine with an emphasis on seafood, of course. From drunken Alligator Bay clams to blackened grouper, fresh and local are the operative adjectives. After dinner you can sit a spell on the porch in comfy rocking chairs, watching the world go by.
AMONG THE DUNES
Franklin County, Florida, is a natural escape that attracts visitors looking for a slow-paced lifestyle. I met a number of people who vacation here every year, and they said there’s nowhere else on Florida’s coast where time seems to stand still like it does along this stretch of shoreline.
Families can find spacious and, for those inclined, sumptuous accommodations on St. George Island, midway between Carrabelle and Apalachicola. A barrier island, St. George has been welcoming families for generations. Older, modest homes share the beach with sparkling new elegant properties catering to the well-to-do. Whichever your preference, you’ll find the perfect beach escape hidden among the dunes. All you have to do is look!
Back out on the Gulf, Capt. Clint stowed fishing gear as we prepared to head back from our expedition. All of a sudden, there before us, miles from shore, was a sea turtle about 4-5 feet in length, swimming lazily by. He poked his head up out of the clear blue-green waters and looked over as if to say, “Welcome to my world.” Then with a wink and a wave of his webbed foot, he paddled off. It was a privilege to meet him and to be reminded that enjoying the beauty of nature requires us to be careful of our precious resources. Thanks to forward-thinking naturalists, Franklin County offers visitors a chance to see what the real Florida is like—in its natural state.
For more information:
• Visit Franklin County’s tourism council site: anaturalescape.com.
• Capt. Clint Taylor/Big Fish, LLC: 850-370-6631
• 2 Al’s at the Beach Café: 850-697-4576
• Pirate’s Tiki Hut: 850-697-4331
• Pirate’s Landing: mysandybeach.com
• ANERR: 850-653-8063
• Café Momi: gibsoninn.com
• To find homes for rent on St. George Island, visit collinsvacationrentals.com or resortvacationproperties.com.