By Sarah Jaquay
Special to The Plain Dealer
Apalachicola, Fla. -- "Apalach has just started becoming a tourist destination," said Hilary Stanton, our guide on a walking tour of the town of Apalachicola, on Florida's Panhandle. Like many locals, she shortens the municipality's moniker to Apalach.
Her statement was hard for me to fathom on my second trip to my new favorite Sunshine State venue. As we stood around the Water Street Hotel and Marina's pool and admired the view of Orman House, a graceful antebellum mansion built in 1838 for shipping magnate Thomas Orman, I thought, "This place will be bigger than Disney World."
Then I snapped back to reality and remembered theme parks and nature parks play different positions. But I relished the thought I had four days to spend in my fantasy land: Franklin County, Fla.
Franklin County is one of Florida's least-developed areas: more than 85 percent of its 348,800 acres is preserved as state or federal parkland. That's a large, semitropical backyard for nature lovers to play in. Visitors can also get some beach time and explore the quaint fishing village of Apalach, Franklin County's seat.
Apalach has an illustrious history (a town physician, Dr. John Gorrie, invented the ice machine that was the precursor of air conditioning) and lots of Queen Anne architecture. The icing on the cake was plotting out my meal strategy for obtaining some of those renowned Apalachicola oysters, fresh from Apalachicola Bay.
I love these briny bivalves right from the water -- on fried oyster po-boys at Papa Joe's or baked with some of Rockefeller's green (spinach, that is). But those were the good old days before BP's oil spill catapulted Gulf-harvested seafood into a category of things to fear, a la trans fat, malicious software and IRS line-by-line audits.
The oysters have weathered controversy before. The federal Food and Drug Administration last year proposed a ban on the sale of live, untreated Gulf of Mexico-harvested oysters during the summer months. The proposal was later shelved after an outcry from the seafood industry and local lawmakers.
"We dodged a bullet on raw oysters," said Helen Spohrer, chair of the Franklin County Tourist Development Council.
A group of us listened to the benefits and caveats associated with consumption while we downed Apalachicola Bay oysters and sipped sauvignon blanc on St. George's Island, just across the bay from Apalach.
Alan Peirce, bureau chief of Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told me over the phone last week that the state's seafood industry is safe. "Shellfish harvesting areas are wide open -- the beaches are clean and the oysters are as safe as they've ever been," he said.
Peirce noted there has not been "a single shellfish harvesting area closed [due to the oil spill], contrary to the media blitz." Peirce furthered explained what every oyster aficionado knows: Raw oysters can contain naturally-occurring bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, that people with liver disease, diabetes or weak immune systems should steer clear of.
Even more than its seafood, Franklin County's sand is a draw. The beaches, too, have been largely unaffected by the oil spill. A few small tar balls have washed ashore in Franklin County, but none of the area beaches has been closed.
"Eighty percent of our visitors come here for the beaches -- they're a major draw," said Curt Blair, administrator for Franklin County's Tourist Development Council. "Visitors are coming and enjoying them as they always have."
Florida's Panhandle is famous for its sugary beaches, but the weather wasn't co-operating this trip. No matter -- I wanted to soak up Franklin County's natural beauty and unique wildlife created by the estuarine ecosystem where the Apalachicola River empties into its eponymous bay. Good things happen when two waters mix.
"Apalachicola Bay is pristine because it has no deep harbor or port. There's a richness of species here unlike anywhere else in the United States, including 315 kinds of birds," said Alan Knothe, an education and training specialist at Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.
On a previous visit, I toured the reserve's interesting exhibits and learned about making Tupelo honey from white gum trees that grow along the river. (This delicacy is collected via boat and can be pricier than imported honeys.) Knothe drove us to Tate's Hell Forest, which abuts Apalachicola National Forest, to go birding.
Tate's Hell is a diverse environment containing wet prairie, flatwoods, strand swamp, bottomland forest, baygall wetlands and floodplain swamp. It's home to endangered species, including bald eagles, Florida black bears, gopher tortoises and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The forest is named for a local legend about a farmer who, armed only with a shotgun, hunted for a panther that was killing his livestock. He got lost in the swamp for seven days, was bitten by a snake, and drank from the murky waters to quench his thirst. Finally, he came to a clearing and whispered, "My name is Cebe Tate and I just came from hell!" (It's not clear if he ever found the panther.)
Knothe is an avian magnet and played his screech-owl recording to attract red-cockaded woodpeckers, brown-headed nuthatches and neon-yellow breasted pine warblers. He also showed us carnivorous pitcher plants that trap bugs with their sap and turn them into plant food. Knothe's expertise got me to thinking that perhaps Tate only saw Hades because he had no guide.
My next adventure was kayaking on the Carrabelle River, about 20 miles east of Apalach. Paddling past mangroves, surrounded by long-leaf pines and listening to birds sing after a welcome rain, I felt like part of Ranger Rick's family on the 1960s television show "Flipper." Although that show was about the Everglades, those early Floridian images looked similar to what I was now experiencing. Virtually no one was on the river. It was a totally natural escape from the 21st century.
I don't camp, so my love affair with nature ends after dusk. There was no better combination than spending my days in the wilds of Franklin County then returning to luxury accommodations at historic Coombs House Inn, once described as the "most elegant house in Apalachicola."
After a hot shower, I walked a couple of blocks to downtown Apalach in search of fresh seafood.
Maybe it's because I'm a hearty Northeast Ohioan; but I've seen worse things wash up at Mentor Headlands State Park and I eat Lake Erie perch and walleye pretty much at will. Personally, I'm way more afraid of a line-by-line audit than anything Apalachicola Bay produces.