Located on Florida’s “big bend,” Apalachicola is a perfectly pristine pet-friendly paradise.
By Deborah Burst - photography by Jack Gardner
Lying on the beach, there's a spotty crowd--some are reading books while others are surf fishing. A Great Blue Heron shuffles across the silky sand. He looks like a regular, staking his territory alongside a fisherman, pruning his feathers with one eye on that fishing line. The laughing gulls are busy at work but that heron has an odd look; I believe he is on vacation. After studying the beach a little closer, I notice several animals are doing a little R&R: the golden retriever playing Frisbee, the lab chasing waves. Not your usual beach scene, but then this is Apalachicola, Florida, the Fido-friendliest beach on the Gulf Coast.
Apalachicola holds company with a colony of barrier islands--St. George, St. Vincent, and Dog Island--skirting the v-shaped portion of the panhandle. Thousands of species make their home inside the Apalachicola Bay estuarine system, the most productive in the northern hemisphere. A flirtatious bunch, osprey, bald eagles, barred owls, even the dolphins seem to perform right on cue.
However, to be properly welcomed into this Northwest Florida Animal Kingdom, it might help to start with a lesson on the region’s ecosystem at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) followed by a pontoon boat tour along the banks of the Apalachicola River guided by Alan Knothe, ANERR education and training specialist. The National Geographic channel comes to mind as a 12-foot alligator charges the boat and bald eagles soar above, challenging osprey guarding their nests.
Landing on a ruddy sand bar, we trail inside a forest shrouded with towering palms and pines. Alan plays a series of chanting owls when suddenly a pair of barred owls swoops down for a closer look. Curious, they zoom right above us, posing for pictures, and screeching warnings to keep our distance.
The next day we join the Journeys of St. George Island with Captain Justin and his first mate, Blue, his black lab. They cruise the barrier islands in search of wildlife and seashells, stopping along the way for photo ops and history lessons. Blue stands at attention at the first sight of a dolphin fin, jumping to the back of the boat spotting a dolphin pod with a baby. Guests rush behind him clicking cameras watching the dolphins ride the crested waves. “One time Blue saw a sea turtle in distress and we rescued it, saved its life and maybe the lives of many others; it was a female,” Justin says, proud of Blue’s instinct in locating dolphin pods and other wildlife. “We had this family on board and luckily the dad was built like a football player and we got it in; took us a little while, but we got it in.”
Our next stop is a small spit of sand called Sand Dollar Island where Blue dives into a flock of resting gulls, showering the sky with a storm of birds. Layers of shells blanket the sand but serious shellers follow Captain Justin’s lead wading knee deep for the sand dollar trophies.
Back on the boat, we head to St. Vincent Island, a 12,350-acre National Wildlife Refuge with 14 miles of beaches that is a paradise for shell collectors and photographers. Some roam the beaches while others hike inside the canopy of palms and hardwoods. Along the sandy trails, busy tracks reveal native and exotic animals, offspring from a previous owner’s collection. We end the day with a sunset cruise eating oyster appetizers plucked straight from the water and served with crackers and a shot of hot sauce.
On shore, enjoy a culinary kingdom where oysters reign supreme in more than 30 restaurants served bayside, seaside, moonlight, or candlelight. Some offer outdoor pet-friendly dining with customized menus for the precious pups. And don’t forget patio entertainment with music, happy hour cocktails, and “yappy” hour treats. Pampered pets will also enjoy shopping downtown at the howling boutique, Petunia: For Pets and Their People, with pet/owner apparel and accessories.
Reserve an entire day combing the 200-year-old historic district immersed in arts, heritage, and shopping. It’s an eclectic village lifted from the pages of a seaside novel. Waves of pastel splash across a six-block square from Water Street to Market Street filled with art galleries, antique shops, clothing, and gift boutiques. Nearby, a bouncy stream of music rides the sea breeze as Carol Harris, a wandering minstrel, plays her fiddle on Avenue E.
“We’re a walking community and music makes people smile,” says Carol, a music teacher and solo guitarist who enjoys roaming the downtown streets with other musicians. “On weekends and during festivals we walk in and out of restaurants or play on porches of historic homes.”
Smack dab in the middle of that walking community is the Water Street Hotel & Marina. With 30 luxurious suites—all with a kitchen and screened in veranda right on the Apalachicola River—visitors can check into a perfect home away from home they will find hard to leave. Guests can even dock their boat (up to 55 feet long) right up to one of the hotel’s 20 slips. And like the rest of Apalachicola, the Water Street Hotel & Marina is pet friendly.
Natives and transplants fiercely protect their downtown paradise with strict building codes and zoning laws. Their coastal charm and cultural heritage have been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in naming Apalachicola as one of its 2008 Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
“Tourism has not changed the face of the town or the lifestyle of its residents,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It is Florida as it once was and its authenticity is one of the best reasons to visit this charming community.”
Apalachicola delivers a gifted vacation with beaches, wildlife, and pristine waterways wrapped in a bow of savory cuisine, cultured shopping, and free-spirited entertainment. “It’s a living, breathing town, a true vestige of old Florida,” says Joe Taylor, owner of Avenue E, an antique and home interior shop. “…an independent spirit, unpretentious and discretely sophisticated.”
Heaven on a halfshell
Picked by Kathie Farnell
The shallow waters of Apalachicola Bay produce 90% of Florida’s oysters. And what oysters they are--these sweet, non-gritty morsels of the sea have been a gastronomic hit since prehistoric times, as Apalachicola’s ancient shell mounds illustrate.
What makes Apalachicola oysters so special?
Some scientists say the Bay’s complex cycles of flood and drought produce the ideal oyster. The occasional drought brings out the oyster‘s briny taste, but a long drought is fatal. Today, oystermen and scientists alike are worried--the Bay’s ecology is being impacted by increased water demand from Atlanta, and last year‘s record drought did not help.
St. George Island, across the bridge from Apalachicola, is home to the Oyster Spat Festival each fall. In addition to live music, a parade, a 5K race, kayak racing, a fishing tournament, the event--set for October 3-5, 2008--always features a food court with a staggering variety of oysters.
Experience oyster harvesting first-hand with a tour of the bay and estuary from Journeys of St. George Island. After the tour, head next door to the funky Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar for their excellent oysters and beer.
Seeking a pearl among oysters? The Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce says that when selecting fresh-shucked oysters, check for a clean, sea breeze aroma and a clear or slightly milky light gray liquid--this is called the liquor and is a key ingredient in recipes for the succulent shellfish.