By: Charlene & Richard Mixa
Explore and Enjoy: “A different time, place and way of life”
Step back in time where the pace is a little slower, away from the crowds at Florida’s theme parks and beaches. Find a special place where seafood reigns, friendliness and graciousness is a way of life, history is proudly preserved, and miles of serene natural beaches are among America’s best. Welcome to Apalachicola on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast.” Far from a typical “tourist town”, Apalachicola is a charming mix of eclectic and discretely sophisticated locally owned shops, restaurants, and galleries among former 19th century granite cotton warehouses, ship’s stores, and old net factories all set along its working waterfront.
Heading west on Florida’s Big Bend Scenic Byway (US 98) is like going back in time. Beautiful blue bays create images of Florida post cards of a bygone era. Despite living in Florida over 40 years, it’s our first visit to the “Forgotten Coast.” Crossing the high bridge over Apalachicola Bay we catch a glimpse of town with a quaint waterfront interwoven with oyster houses, shrimp packing plants, local eateries and businesses.
Our first introduction to town is the Coombs House Inn, a luxurious Bed &Breakfast. The house was originally built in 1905 by James N. Coombs, a lumber magnate and one of Apalachicola’s wealthiest men. Touted as the “most elegant house in Apalachicola” it even had the luxury of indoor plumbing. Mrs. and Mr. Coombs passed away shortly after a house fire in 1910. Closed, boarded up and basically abandoned by the family in the 1960’s, the house deteriorated over the years until Lynn Wilson, a well known interior designer of luxury hotel properties, and her husband, purchased it. Passionate for the Coombs House history, Lynn returned the house to its original elegance while preserving the black cypress wall paneling, nine fireplaces, and a carved oak staircase leading to the second floor. After a beautiful transformation with numerous upgrades it opened in 1994 as the Coombs House Inn.
Today, Coombs House has three separate houses with a variety of room and suite options. Chatting with Lynn, she shares the fascinating history of the house, mentioning that the ghosts of Mr. & Mrs. Coombs often visit the Inn. No worry, they’re “friendly ghosts,” as their beloved home has been magnificently restored. Surprise! Our room, the Coombs, is the original bedroom suite of Mr. and Mrs. Coombs. It is conveniently located on the second floor of the Mansion above the dining room. With a large bay window it features an original carved four poster king bed, fireplace, reading area with Victorian sofa, chairs, and desk. An oversized bathroom has a massage Jacuzzi tub and separate shower, his and her sinks, and a mini refrigerator. Um! Staying in the Coombs bedroom, will Mr. & Mrs. Coombs stop in for a visit?
Downtown Apalachicola is a picturesque seaside village that time “almost” forgot. Maintaining the original town plan of the 1830’s, restaurants and shops line Market Street and Commerce Street with friendly shopkeepers willing to chat and share their story and the town’s. No tee shirt shops or no tourist stores here! On Water Street shrimp boats are docked waiting to go out for their evening catch while elegantly restored cotton warehouses sit alongside vacant abandoned warehouses. The Apalachicola Cotton Warehouse is beautifully refurbished and used for civic and cultural events. This week is the Great American Plein Air Paint-Out. “Plein Air” is a French word meaning “open air.” On display are the gorgeous paintings that these visiting nationally acclaimed artists have completed of sites and scenes on Florida’s Forgotten Coast. The talent is phenomenal! On our visit we frequently spot an artist painting in the “open air.”
At the Visitor Center and Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce we get suggestions for our visit and pick up a handy map, area brochures and the “Apalachicola Historic Walking Tour” featuring 37 historic sites around town. Over 900 historic homes and buildings are listed in its extensive National Register District. At one time this quaint village was the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico with its marine and lumber industries. Committed to preserving its working seafood industry, maritime culture, and history, we continue to gain a new appreciation for this special place.
A tour through the Maritime Museum gives the past, present and future of the Apalachicola’s maritime industry. Apalachicola Bay oysters, as well as, other seafood specialties of shrimp, blue crab and finfish are big business. The Apalachicola River and Bay create a basin that encompasses what is considered one of the least polluted, most undeveloped, ecologically diverse systems left in the United States generating a resource worth over $5 billion annually to the SE United States. Oystermen harvest oysters the same way they have for over a century, using long scissor like “tongs” to haul in the oysters. It’s a physically demanding job.
It’s “oyster time” in “oyster paradise!” At Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar and Grille we finally get to taste Apalachicola’s famous oysters. The Oyster Combo lets us sample three different toppings of oysters on the half shell. Choosing raw, steamed, and oysters Rockefeller we are immediately sold on these phenomenal oysters. Fantastic, sweet, succulent and fresh! From harvest to table it’s just a few hours. Papa Joe’s offers a diverse seafood menu in a casual laid back setting. Dining by huge windows at long picnic style tables we enjoy our tasty seafood dinners while watching the scenery of Scipio Creek and Apalachicola Bay. We decide that any time is “oyster time” in Apalachicola. We can’t get enough having them each day for lunch and dinner.
After our hearty breakfast at Coombs House Inn, we head to St. James Bay Golf Resort in Carabelle, Florida only 25 miles away. A demanding and challenging course it was designed to be in harmony with nature. Playing this perfectly manicured 18-hole championship golf course is target golf. With wetlands or water hazards to carry on the drive, in the fairway, or in front of the green and being alert to bunkers, placement of shots and careful layups are critical. Thank goodness for the GPS! Just touch the screen where you want to aim and it calculates the distance. No. 15 a Par-5 is a real challenge! The second longest hole on the course the drive must avoid the bunker and two pine trees. The second shot has two options. The aggressive golfer can go for the green with a 200 yard carry over a marsh or a conservative shorter hitter can play the 100 yard carry to a fairway. Don’t assume going for the fairway is safe. Richard executed what looked like a perfect shot only to find it went through the fairway and was lost in the hazard on the far side. Any golfer visiting the area will definitely enjoy a round of golf at St. James. Avid golfers will want to check out their stay and play packages.
A quick change at the Inn and grabbing a couple of their scrumptious homemade cookies, we’re off for a Sunset Cruise. At the Water Street Inn and Marina, we board a small boat with another couple. Starting out in Scipio Creek, Joan, our guide, educates us on this dynamic marine area. At a small dock off Scipio Creek is a massive pile of oyster shells. The oystermen have a strong restoration program to recycle the shells by returning them to the bed. Going from Scipio Creek to Apalachicola River to Apalachicola Bay, we get the “facts and figures” of these waters which are home to 360 marine mollusks, 131 species of fish, 127 of the rarest species of plants and vertebrates, the highest density of amphibians and reptiles in the United States and over 50 species of mammals. Wild life is abundant on this late afternoon. Pelicans zoom overhead and dive for fish, a baby Osprey peeks out of its nest atop a tall pole, and as we go under the bridge (US 98) friendly dolphins dance and dive around the boat. The views and scenery of town, the creek, river and bay are enchanting.
A new day and new adventures, we hop on the complimentary bright yellow bicycles at Coombs House Inn. Peddling around town we view historic homes, parks and coastal scenery. At the Gorrie Museum we learn the fascinating story of Dr. John Gorrie and his desire to cure yellow fever and malaria. His invention of the ice machine led to air conditioning which ultimately opened up Florida to have tourism become the state’s No. 1 industry. At Layfette Park we walk out on the long pier for serene, scenic views of the coastal wetlands.
The afternoon is for sun, surf, and beach. Donning our swimsuits and grabbing a couple of the complimentary beach chairs, umbrellas, and beach towels from the Inn, we drive over to St. George Island. Exiting the bridge to this barrier island we see the rebuilt St. George Island Lighthouse which actually collapsed and was restored in its new location through the hard work and efforts of local volunteers. A few tourist shops, hotels, condos and restaurants dot the area but to us these are like a bump in the road compared to other Florida beaches.
At the east end of St. George Island is the St. George Island State Park with nine miles of the most pristine and undeveloped beaches along the Gulf coast of Florida. The beach just won the #4 Ranking in Dr. Beach’s Top Ten Beaches of America for 2012. Crossing the boardwalk over the sand dunes the brilliant white sugar sand beach and crystal clear emerald green Gulf waters are dazzling. As we stroll the shore our feet “squeak” in this soft sand. It’s a “barefoot beach” with few sea shells and a smooth sandy shore that leads all the way into the Gulf waters. Yes, this beach is easily the most beautiful in Florida. Even our famous St. Pete Beach and Clearwater Beach don’t compare. Fabulous! We have the beach to ourselves! Quiet, scenic and serene! A real Florida Paradise – the perfect beach for relaxing on a “bright, bright sunshiny day”.
On weekends, the Coombs House Inn hosts a Wine & Cheese Hour for its guests. Chatting with other visitors we find a diverse group from various parts of the country and were drawn to Apalachicola for its simplicity, natural setting and special charms. Actually, we are all glad that Apalachicola has remained a quaint small village preserving its heritage. Conversation also focuses on the Inn and its wonderful friendly staff and hospitality. Is the Inn really haunted? One guest has an App on her iPhone for paranormal activity. It shows high level of paranormal activity in the Dining Room. Our room is above the dining room, we guess Mr. & Mrs. Coombs enjoy watching guests visit and enjoy the elegance of their beautiful home and town.
If you go:
Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, 122 Commerce Street, Apalachicola, FL 32320 850.653.9419, www.apalachicolabay.org
Coombs House Inn, 80 Broad (6th)Street, Apalachicola, FL 32320 850.653.9199, www.coombshouseinn.com
Papa Joe’s Oyster House301 B Market Street, Apalachicola, Florida 32320, 850.653.1189; www.papajoesoysterbar.com
St. James Bay Golf Resort 151 Laughing Gull Lane • Carrabelle, Florida 32322 850.697.9606; www.stjamesbay.com
Water Street Hotel & Marina, 329 Water Street, Apalachicola, FL 32320; 850.653.3700; www.waterstreethotel.com