By Kathie Farnell
Photos by Jack Purser Jr.
Florida’s Franklin County, located in the Florida Panhandle, only recently got its first traffic light.
With a population of only 10,000 and 87% of its land protected by the state or federal government, Franklin is the ideal destination for the visitor who wants to explore nature.
And any explorations here will include the local seafood—Apalachicola, the county seat, is the source for 90% of all Florida’s oysters. Apalachicola Bay has been famous for its shellfish since before Europeans reached the area–prehistoric shell mounds attest to the local oyster’s long-term popularity—and the area still supports a thriving fishing and oyster industry.
The best way to find out about the county’s natural attractions is to visit the headquarters of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) in downtown Apalachicola. A joint program between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Department of Environmental Management, ANERR includes nearly 250,000 acres of lands forming one of the most important bird habitats in the Southeastern U.S. as well as territory that is vital to maintaining the area’s fishing and shellfish industry. The educational center includes aquariums, a honeybee colony and exhibits on the animals and plants of the area. The staff are always happy to help visiting birders plan trips, and if time permits, will even go along to help spot rare species like the red-cockaded woodpecker.
On one early spring day, we headed for the Apalachicola National Forest with education and training specialist Alan Knothe. We didn’t see red-cockaded woodpeckers, though we spotted the trees where they would later nest, but seeing bald eagles, hawks, water birds, and colorful warblers more than made up for it. Spring songbird migration peaks in April, and the same birds pass back through in fall, headed for Central and South America.
The shallow waters around Apalachicola are prime spots for kayaking and canoeing, and more than a dozen businesses offer eco-tours of the area. One of the best outfitters is Journeys of St. George Island. Founded in 1991 by Jeannie McMillan, Journeys offers guided canoe, kayak and boat tours. We headed out under the guidance of Jeannie’s son Justin to kayak the creeks and byways of the area, floating past thick stands of tupelo trees which are the source for the county’s famous tupelo honey. Gliding peacefully under Spanish moss-draped limbs, we spotted areas on the bank where alligators come to sun themselves—and long scratches down the bark of a cypress tree where a beehive-raiding bear apparently beat a hasty retreat.
Nearby, the Tate’s Hell National Forest (named for the unfortunate Mr. Tate, who ran afoul of something unspecified there and staggered out to announce “I’ve been to hell and back” before succumbing) offers hikers the opportunity to discover rarities including a pitcher plant bog with the world’s highest concentration of these insect-eating plants.
Despite the emphasis on getting back to nature, staying in Franklin County doesn’t mean roughing it. Accommodations in the Apalachicola area range from the hundred-year-old Gibson Inn (which houses the world-class restaurant Avenue Sea) to the brand-new Water Street Hotel and Marina. We opted to stay across the bridge on St. George Island at one of the modern upscale beach cottages managed by Collins Vacation Rentals, Inc. Our multilevel beachfront cottage, appropriately named Sea Break, featured incredible views, a state of the art kitchen, an elevator for our baggage and even a screen porch and outdoor shower.
With the abundance of local seafood, Apalachicola has plenty of dining options. St. George Island is home to Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar, a funky establishment next door to Journeys of St. George Island. Oysters and beer are the draw here. Harry A’s, located just off the island’s main intersection, offers an “island low country boil” featuring shrimp, corn, new potatoes and sausage as well as oysters on the half shell and plenty of variety in fresh seafood options. On the beach, the Blue Parrot Ocean Front Café has the island’s largest deck for outdoor dining and serves up signature Po’ Boys, fresh seafood, and steaks, along with a dynamite bread pudding.
In downtown Apalachicola, the Wheelhouse Cafe, right on the waterfront, has fabulous fried oysters with a spectacular view of the working harbor, and even offers guided boat tours to the surrounding area.
East of town on Highway 98, the appropriately-named That Place on 98 serves fresh local seafood—including a wonderful Panhandle Chowder full of fish, clams and potatoes—and homemade desserts with a sweeping view over St. George Bay.
Franklin County’s natural abundance attracts visitors year-round. The cooler months are the off season here and offer low rates, a bug-free ambiance, and peaceful views over the water. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee, Franklin County is served by Tallahassee Regional Airport with daily flights by Delta, Northwest Airlink and other airlines.
For more information on visiting Franklin County, contact the Franklin County Tourist Development Council at 1-866-914-2068 or check the website at www.anaturalescape.com.