APALACHICOLA, Fla. - From the start I knew I was going to like Apalachicola. On my first morning in town I joined the line for breakfast at the counter of Café con Leche. The woman in front of me took one look at the freshly baked Apalachicola kumquat and devil’s food cake with fresh ginger and Triple Sec liqueur and ordered a slice. “If you are going to eat a bunch of calories, I say do it early in the day when you have a better chance to work them off,” Caroline Weiler explained.
The logic and the cake were both irresistible. As I dug into my slice, I listened to the mostly local crowd discuss real estate, trash pickup schedules, the seemingly ageless Mick Jagger, church concerts, and American Indian traditions. “I moved here from south Florida 22 years ago,” Weiler told me. “I love it. We’ve got our characters.”
The sleepy Florida panhandle village about 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee anchors the fecund estuary of Apalachicola Bay — unique on the Gulf Coast for nutrient-rich waters that harbor sweet wild shrimp and all the wild oysters still tong-harvested in the United States. Pelicans skim along the broad expanse of flat water as herons alternate between stalking the shallows for crabs and sleeping on one leg perched in the dunes. It feels like the Florida of centuries past.
But just as the shellfish and shorebirds have their place on that rustic coast, so do the people. With a population of about 2,200, Apalachicola proves the adage that the smaller the town, the bigger the characters. Historic buildings in the compact center recall its 19th-century heyday as a major cotton shipping port and source of sponges. When the railroad steered north of Apalachicola, the town became a literal backwater, and that has been its salvation. The central Florida tourism excesses of Disney and Universal Studios never arrived, leaving the folks here to revel in the slow pace of small-town life. They don’t need Mickey and Donald. They have their own characters.
John Lee runs the shop Retsyo, Inc. (that’s “oyster” backwards) where he sells souvenir T-shirts and local bric-a-brac. He loves to recount his brush with fame as “Handsome Deputy Number Three” in the 1989 film “Little Sweetheart.” “They told me to act natural and be eye candy for the ladies,” Lee said. “I got to arrest John Hurt.” Shoppers sometimes ask him for his autograph, but Lee knows that he can’t compete with Peter Fonda, who starred in “Ulee’s Gold,” the 1997 film that captured the mystique of the local honey harvest.
Tupelo honey, derived from the nectar of the white tupelo gum tree that grows in the wetlands of the Apalachicola River basin, is often called the “champagne of honeys.” Lee sells “Ulee’s Gold” posters and devotes a corner of his shop to jars of honey. “Add it to hot green tea with a touch of cinnamon. It’s good for your blood pressure, your heart, and cholesterol,” he says in a spiel worthy of a late-night TV pitchman. “If you have a bitter margarita, add a touch of honey.”
Lee has more recipes (and more tales) and an hour passed before I could pay for my jar of honey and head out the door. “That’s the thing about a small town,” he told me in parting. “You get to play and do things that are fun. I fish every day. I take a book and a crossword puzzle. If it’s a tough puzzle, I don’t put any bait on the hook.”
Fun is also the watchword at the Apalachicola Chocolate Co . Proprietor George Stritikus is originally from Birmingham, Ala. “I retired here to do this. I’m working harder,” he said, smiling at the irony. “But I’m having more fun.” He is particularly proud of his chocolate-enrobed tupelo honey walnut caramels. “I used to make it with orange blossom honey, but I changed it to use tupelo. It made all the difference in the world. It’s a little sweeter, but the dark chocolate brings it down nicely.” Stritikus likes to experiment. “I have a diary on every piece of candy,” he said. “This is fun.”
Apalachicola has about 900 structures in its National Register Historic District. I did manage to tour a pair of antebellum mansions to learn about the lifestyles of the early cotton aristocracy, and I wandered among the moss-draped trees and lichen-spotted stones of Chestnut Street Cemetery. But I kept returning to the laid-back commercial district, where a sign on the door of the retro soda fountain announces, “Our restroom is for everybody that needs it. Come on in!”
Susan Wolfe of Forgotten Coast Books encourages browsers to grab a chair and thumb through the merchandise. She specializes in used and out-of-print books with an emphasis on Apalachicola and the nearby coast. “I don’t know if it’s the air or the water, but the place resonates with some people and they are hooked,” she said. She and her husband first came on vacation and keep returning for longer and longer stretches. “This is my fun. I’m retired now,” she said. “Any crazy idea, if you’re willing to put in the time, people will help you.”
Everywhere I stopped people had a similar story. Artist Leslie Wallace-Coon creates wonderfully exaggerated ceramic sculptures of animals and helps oversee the Bowery Art Gallery, a showcase for local and regional artists. Wallace-Coon is originally from central Florida and lived in Atlanta and even Somerville, Mass., before she and her husband landed in Apalachicola. “I never thought I would end up here,” she admitted. “But we love it. People say, ‘You come here, you’ve got to be different.’ ”
Perhaps no one appreciates the spirit of the land and people like photographer Richard Bickel, a Pennsylvania transplant who operates his eponymous gallery from an old downtown storefront. He first came nearly 20 years ago on assignment for Travel Holiday. “It’s a special place — one road in, one road out, one stoplight,” he said. He is drawn to the rich textures of old maritime Florida, from the gnarled docks and trees twisted by the elements to the sun-sculpted hands and faces of the oystermen, shrimpers, and other fishermen who welcome him into their watery world. “They’re amused by the attention,” said Bickel, who can (and does) tell a story about every character he has ever caught on camera.
“When I decided to stay here, it was the people and the way of life. I used to fish every day,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect.
“Until I got tired of catching so many fish.”