Stumbling upon towns like Apalachacola, FL make being an unpaid and seemingly aimless explorer seem like the highest calling.
I left Savannah, GA needing to get some miles under my belt. I did what I had to do: make time on the interstates. In this case, I-95 south and I-10 west, where I drove 70 mph through endless pine forest. Pretty, and much more pristine than I would have expected, but a little monotonous. By the time I got to Tallahassee, I figured I’d made sufficient progress that I could consider a detour, and there was this dotted line road (you know how atlases put dots next to the especially scenic roads? One of those…) heading south towards the water that was taunting me. There were no big population centers and no towns I’d ever heard of along it. In fact, I knew nothing about this part of Florida.
It seems not many other people do either, because they call this corner of the world “the Forgotten Coast.” Aha. I went for it.
The Forgotten Coast is sandwiched between two different worlds. To the east, the gulf coast hits the main part of Florida and heads due south towards Tampa and St. Petersburg. To the west, you’ve got what folks call the “Redneck Riviera” – the endless string of beaches and hotels that stretch between Panama City and Pensacola. In between these two American playgrounds lies a stretch of shallow and swampy coastline rimmed by loblolly and longleaf pine trees. The Forgotten Coast is bisected by a sizeable river, the Apalachacola River, and at that river’s delta lies the town of Apalachacola.
The Apalachacola River drains much of western Georgia, starting from all the way up by its border with the Carolinas, but it doesn’t take its name until it enters the Florida panhandle. This waterway has a long, rich history, starting with its significance to Native American civilizations and continuing through the period of Spanish colonization when missions were built along its banks. The Apalachacola River saw its fair share of fighting both when it flip-flopped between Spanish and American control and when it became a strategic battleground during the Civil War. Shortly after the Civil War the area hosted a booming lumber industry, as $13 million worth of yellow pine and other woods were transported upriver for inland use until dwindling resources took their toll on timber extraction. The exportation of cotton helped make Apalachacola the third largest gulf port city (after New Orleans and Mobile) for a while as well. But it’s the seafood industry that has really marked this community, and it is clear that locals are proud of their association with it. Oysters are the predominant crop here, and 90% of Florida’s oysters come from the Apalachacola Bay. Shrimp are netted as well, and for a time harvesting sponges was an important part of the town’s economy.
Today, Apalachacola today is an artsy-feeling coastal community with a thriving commercial and recreational fishing industry, charming old beach houses, and far more oyster bars per capita that Sonoma County, CA. Old brick buildings with faded lettering once used by the fishing industry have been rescued from ruin by art galleries, restaurants, and gift shops. There’s a small houseboat community with a VRBO sign in front of it, and a couple of guide shops boating catches of redfish, black drum, trout, and pompano.
I had absolutely no intention of staying here, but there were enough curious corrugated metal buildings and boats in dry dock to warrant a walkabout with the camera, so I stopped. Within a few blocks I was captivated by abandoned crab shacks, a nautical salvage store, and the smell of the rivermouth. It occurred to me that it would be wonderful to sit and eat some kind of off-limits (for me, usually!) fried seafood at one of the dozen down-home looking available options. At exactly the moment that I had that thought, I was passing a faded wooden inn built on a dock perched above the river. It happened to be having a mid-week special – so there you go, a night in Apalachacola, despite my best intentions to get further west before calling it a day.
I wandered. I took pictures. I wrote. I ate crabcakes and fried green tomatoes and drank something made from pecan vodka and sweet tea while chatting with a man who had ridden his bike there from San Diego – he had only a few days of riding left to make it to his destination, St. Augustine. I biked around town, rescued a turtle from the middle of a road, and watched fisherman clean their boats. But mostly I sat in the peach-colored chair on the deck outside my room, allowing myself to slow down from interstate driving pace to Apalachacola pace. I spent hours admiring the immensity of the gulf sky and watching the river’s traffic go by, in much the same way that it has for centuries – at the speed of the water.
“Maybe I’ll make up the miles tomorrow,” I thought. The again, maybe I won’t.
The problem is, I just keep getting rewarded for my detours. And, I keep getting reminded that time moves differently when I release my grasp on it. Nothing like being dwarfed by a majestic river to be put in my rightful place – as part of the flow, not the captain of it.
EXPLORASPECTIVE’S APALACHACOLA TRAVEL TIPS
The super casual Up the Creek Raw Bar where you order classic local seafood dishes and southern sides at the counter and then enjoy them while sitting on a stool watching the river was perfect for me.
The Apalachacola River Inn is what convinced me to spend the night in town. There’s just something irresistible about having a room that opens onto a dock, and a dock chair of your very own. An included breakfast overlooking the water doesn’t hurt either….
The Forgotten Coast has the perfect radio station for its landscape. I’m not sure why, but somewhat cheesy 70’s and 80’s “lite-rock” (you know, Air Supply, Manilow, Toto, America) just fits long winding shoreline drives, and and WFCT “The Coast” provided the soundtrack I was looking for.