The coastal communities of Franklin County, Fla., the heart of Florida’s “Forgotten Coast” are working hard to ensure their marketing theme doesn’t foretell the area’s future.
Six communities comprise the 545 square-mile Franklin County — St. George Island, Carrabelle and Dog Island, Apalachicola, Alligator Point, Eastpoint, and Lanark and St. James — and for years the county has made quiet business of marketing its quietude. More than 85 percent of Franklin County is either state or federally protected. State parks and forests, national wildlife preserves, national forests and wildlife management areas are all to be explored and enjoyed.
I traveled to Franklin County, staying on St. George Island, on April 28, just days after the April 22 explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The area’s chief industries are tourism and seafood, and concern among residents about the county’s future was profound. Franklin County harvests more than 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the oysters consumed in the nation. Shrimp, blue crab and finfish are also very important commercially, bringing in over $11 million worth of seafood to Franklin County docks annually.
At press time, the beaches of Franklin County were open and no fishing advisories had been issued. The Franklin County Tourism and Development Council issues daily reports, viewed on its website (see When You Go).
For 20 years I’ve enjoyed near-annual trips to the Florida Panhandle beaches of Seaside, Rosemary Beach, Destin, and Panama City, though until recently, I knew nothing of the Forgotten Coast. Franklin County is a scenic drive along U.S. Highway 98, 93 miles from Destin and 48 miles from Panama City. I flew into Tallahassee; as of mid-May, the area is now served by Southwest Airlines at the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport with direct flights from Nashville.
My visit to Franklin County focused on St. George Island, Apalachicola, and Carrabelle with an agenda of dining, hiking, kayaking, bicycling, enjoying the beach, and touring a golf course.
St. George Island
St. George Island is a 28-mile barrier island accessed from the mainland by a four-mile long bridge. My home during my four-day stay was a three-story pink beach house offered by Collins Vacation Rentals named Serenity, accommodating up to eight people. A private boardwalk leads over the dunes to the uncrowded beach.
Right outside my door was the town’s historic icon – the St. George Island Visitor center and Lighthouse Museum. Built in 1852, it was relocated to its present location after the lighthouse collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. The original plans were obtained from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the lighthouse was reconstructed on St. George Island using as much of the original materials as possible.
St. George Island State Park occupies the far eastern end of the island with nine miles of undeveloped shoreline, majestic dunes, bay forest, sandy coves, and salt marshes. The park has a series of hiking trails, boardwalks and observation platforms. Several of the journalists I traveled with spotted a bald eagle on a bike ride to the State Park.[pagebreak]
St. George Island is among the few districts left in Florida where dogs are allowed on the beaches if they are on a leash and well behaved. Dogs that respond to commands can take an untethered romp in the surf. Half of the more than 650 rental homes and condos offered by two of the barrier island’s primary rental companies, Collins Vacation Rentals and Resort Vacation Properties, offer pet-friendly lodging options included in the rental price.
Journeys of St. George Island outfitting store accommodates dogs on boat cruises and fishing excursions. I didn’t bring along my dog Jethro on the trip, but I did enjoy a black water kayaking adventure with Journeys.
Visitors should keep in mind that St. George is an island; you won’t have access to a Kroger, though small convenience stores and a grocery store serve the island. Across from my beach house was a great little store with an outdoor patio called Sometimes It’s Hotter Seasoning Company carrying local and organic seasonings, salsas, specialty cheese, and, to my delight, Peroni Nastro Azzurro (an Italian beer).
Once the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, Apalachicola’s diverse and colorful past remains visible today. There are over 900 historic homes and buildings in the National Historic District; handsome Victorian homes border tree-lined streets. The grandest is the Coombs Inn, operated now as a bed and breakfast by Lynn Wilson, a well-known interior designer of luxury hotel properties and her husband, Bill Spohrer, a retired airline executive. The couple is widely credited for initiating the revival of Apalachicola after visiting the then run-down town in 1978.
As a special treat, Lynn invited a small group of journalists to tour their equally grand private home.
The best dining of the trip was experienced in Apalachicola. Verandas, located upstairs on a corner in the heart of historic downtown Apalachicola, is a restaurant and wine shop boasting Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for the past five years. Wines can be purchased to go, or to be enjoyed at the table for only $5 corkage fee, a fantastic value given the typical restaurant mark-up of retail wine prices.
Tamara’s (pronounced Tam-are-ah) Café Floridita, also located in the historic downtown, is recognized for its inventive fish entrees. A television producer in her native Venezuela, Tamara Suarez savored the skills of world-famous chefs and collected the recipes they prepared on her popular TV show. Now, she dons the chef’s apron at her own restaurant.
St. James Bay in Carrabelle is an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Walker. He worked closely with Audubon International to create a course that blends seamlessly and in complete harmony with acres of wetland preserve, abundant wildlife and unspoiled forests.
While touring the property with John Hosford, marketing director, he pointed out a nest a black bear had created in a small tree on the course, explaining that each evening, the bear takes up residence in the tree offering a view of the clubhouse. When the lights go out, the bear helps himself to whatever food he can find, retreating back to his tree for dinner and returning to the forest before dawn.
WHEN YOU GO:
Franklin County Florida Tourism Development Council
Collins Vacation Rentals
Resort Vacation Properties of St. George Island
Sometimes It’s Hotter Seasoning Company
Tamara’s Café Floridita
Verandas Restaurant and Wine Shop
St. James Bay Golf Course & Crooked River Grill
St. George Island Adventures
(bicycle and beach rentals)
Journeys of St. George Island
St. George Island Visitor Center and Lighthouse Museum