So You Want to Live in ... Apalachicola

Genuine people and faulous seafood attract newcomers and visitors to an out-of-the-way Florida fishing town.

Apalachicola Oystermen
Photo: Michael Hanson

Residents of Apalachicola give directions based on “the blinking light.” That’s the flashing downtown signal where U.S. 98 makes a right-angle turn. No one ever mentions the legit stoplight (the only one in Franklin County) nine blocks west.

No wonder tourism promoters call this stretch of the Florida Panhandle “the Forgotten Coast.” Apalachicolans seem to embrace that as a badge of honor. “They’re awesome people. They’re so self-reliant,” Shaun Donahoe says.

Shaun moved here in 1970 from upstate New York, married a “local gal,” and later went into real estate. He says Apalachicola possesses the easy-living qualities that New Urban communities such as Seaside, a couple of hours west, seek to re-create. “New Urbanism is where you can walk everywhere and sit on your porch and visit with the neighbors,” he says. “We have it!” The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees. It recently honored the town as one of the nation’s most “distinctive destinations.” The historic district amounts to a giant candy store for architecture aficionados. Grand Victorians stand next to modest “Apalachicola bungalows,” all liberally interspersed with tall pines and muscular live oaks. Some homes predate the Civil War.

The essential character of Apalachicola―a hardworking but laid-back town intimately linked to water―has survived decades of booms and busts. A few visitors grouse about the gentrifying influx of galleries and high-end antiques shops. Residents disagree. After all, two prominent downtown streets are named “Market” and “Commerce.”

“The old mercantile buildings have changed functions, but they’re still pretty much what they were originally intended to be,” says photographer Richard Bickel, whose gallery inhabits one of those buildings a half block south of the blinking light. Richard visited on a magazine assignment in 1994, loved the “polite Southern town,” and moved here six months later.

As with a lot of small towns, economic worries have buffeted Apalachicola, particularly affecting the oystering and shrimping industries. But tourists consider it a hidden gem, and newcomers are adding to the town’s mix.
Dale Julian, owner of Downtown Books & Purl, which sells books and knitting supplies, says Apalachicola’s essence hasn’t changed. She sums up the town with a smile and four words: “Perfect climate. Gracious people.”

(published December 2008)

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  • Inside Information: Apalachicola

    Setting: Nothing bigger than a two-lane road leads to this 1830s-vintage working port (population about 2,300). The nearest beach is on St. George Island, two bridges and 10 minutes away. Apalachicola is 70 miles southeast of Panama City Beach and 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee.Attractions: Peace and quiet. Terrific fishing and boating. Fresh seafood (plump, sweet Apalachicola Bay oysters are among the best anywhere) and excellent restaurants. Nature-oriented experiences (most of the county is publicly owned). Better shopping, including a wine store and a weekly farmers’ market, than most small towns.Drawbacks: Limited job opportunities. The seafood industry, the town’s biggest, is struggling. Hurricane Dennis in 2005 reminded residents how destructive storms can be to the coast. For some of life’s finer things, such as a decent selection of women’s shoes or the Sunday New York Times, residents have to drive to Panama City Beach or Tallahassee.Housing options: Prices in the historic district are higher on the south side of U.S. 98 (closer to the water). The south side has the occasional million-dollar house―usually a restored Victorian on a park or the bay. A three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow might run about $400,000 with a renovated interior, $300,000 without. The equivalent on the north side might cost less than $250,000.Your next-door neighbors: Retired executives from the World Bank, Coca-Cola, and other corporations. Oystermen and shrimpers. Fishing guides. High-powered consultants who visit their clients via private plane. Artists. Part-time residents, including semiretired executives, professors at Florida State University, and schoolteachers.How you’d spend your free time: Hitting the dog-friendly beach at St. George Island. Fishing, boating, or kayaking. Bicycling the paved path along the river. Indulging in a shake or malt at the Old Time Soda Fountain. Attending plays and other events at the Dixie Theatre. Hanging out at the Gibson Inn on Friday nights.

  • Blue beach + home

    Exploring Apalachicola and Beyond

    Find out where to shop, eat, and visit on your next jaunt to Florida’s Forgotten Coast.

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