I am eye to eye with a bald eagle again. They seem to be everywhere in Franklin County, Florida. Forgetting how close this is to popular tourist destinations is easy, since just south of Tallahassee and east of Panama City lurks the environmentally serene and ecologically rich county bearing Benjamin Franklin’s name.
What is so unique about a region billed as a Florida’s forgotten coast? For starters, a whopping 87% of Franklin County is in either state or federally protected parkland or nature preserve. Other areas are comprised of eco-planned and preserved communities interspersed with friendly historically significant neighborhoods.
This astounding absence of sprawl is possible when a permanent resident population of 10,000 preserves 500 acres of premium and pristine forest, wetlands, and 200 miles of beaches forever. Find some of the most diverse examples of our nation’s subtropical resources right here but, make no mistake, living at one with nature does not mean roughing it or missing a family-friendly or premium relaxation experience. Nature is to be enjoyed rather than avoided.
Meticulously mixed historic and contemporary coastal communities include the cozy county seat of Apalachicola – or “Aplach” as the locals say – where Mayberry meets Old Florida. Pedestrian-friendly Aplach appreciates its cultural resource and maritime commerce heritage preserving a historic shopping district along with 900 buildings dating from the 1830s, showcasing its fishing fleet culture as part of a “working waterfront”.
Franklin County’s famous seafood industry is a matter of pride, and workboats are openly sprinkled among the charters and sailboats rather than relegated to another part of town. Aplach’s revitalization is a sort of an endangered species of communities unto itself, and Forrest Gump would enjoy puttering back from a successful shrimping expedition to unload his bounty.
A few steps in any Aplach direction will reveal an effective sprinkling of quaint shops, docked boats, inns, and restaurants almost as it felt 50 years ago. Nostalgic snapshots include the Old Time Soda Fountain Gift and Shells shop on Market Street with the best ice cream. The entrance door sign saying “Our restroom is for anyone who needs it – come on in” best captures the town’s spirit. Try to find that in the big city.
Find other cultural delights in numerous modest museums. Try the Camp Gordon Johnston World War II Museum in the smaller town of Carrabelle where amphibious forces trained. The Civil War buff will like the Raney House Museum in Apalachicola. Enjoy its water legacy at the Apalachicola Maritime Museum. Orman House State Park is an 1838 Greek revival home overlooking the Apalachicola River. The Apalachicola Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park features a replica of the National Mall statue in Washington D.C.
If lighthouses are your thing, don’t miss Carrabelle’s 112-year old Crooked River lighthouse as well as St. George’s Island visitor center and lighthouse museum for the best views and photo op. For something quirky, try Aplach’s John Gorrie Museum State Park building commemorating the unusual topic of ice machine invention to cool yellow fever patients’ rooms, and leading to the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851.
Accommodations are as varied as the leisure opportunities. Thoughtful sustainable developers have strategically intertwined green infrastructure with diverse rental condos, homes, and inns in Carrabelle, Alligator Point, Dog Island, Eastpoint, St. George Island, St. Vincent Island, and Picketts and Pirate’s Landings. St. James Bay is an Audubon International Certified Silver Signature Sanctuary golf course development. For something different, Aplach offers the historic Victorian Gibson Inn, Coombs Inn B & B, and the Water Street Hotel & Marina.
If staying on the Gulf of Mexico, the very popular sandy strip of St. George Island offers an astounding selection of styles of cottages and contemporary bungalows among protected wildlife habitat. Combining all the serenity of a pristine beach and nature without excessive pavement, the St. George barrier island is connected by a single road and sandwiched on each end by protected state and federal preserves.
Juxtaposing amenity against the backdrop of vast and varied natural resources is what Franklin County does best. The ecologically inclined will appreciate that this region is in both the east coast’s temperate and northern subtropical zones. This unique blend of climates and habitats, along with the mixing of fresh and salt water, provides a diverse biological stew of plant and animal communities in record numbers.
Check out live oaks, Spanish moss, tupelo forests (where the honey comes from), and a plethora of scarce species including loggerhead sea turtle nesting, bald eagles, black bears, dwarf cypress swamps, and numerous birds. And this is just on land. Moving to the water reveals premium game fishing and rare wildlife including dolphins and manatees even this far north.
Don’t miss the nation’s second largest estuarine preserve – the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve or ANERR – a biological hotspot so productive that numerous scientists from all over the world help manage and study the area. One of the last of its kind, the ANERR is comprised of 1,300 species of plants, 131 species of fish, and over 50 species of mammals. Don’t miss the boat tour of wetlands, bald eagles, and a great view of Aplach’s waterfront along the way. Hiking, cycling, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and birding is all here.
Other premium natural areas include Bald Point State Park, Tate’s Hell State Forest, St. George’s Island State Park, Apalachicola National Forest, and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. Try the High Bluff Hiking and Deep Creek Trails at Tate’s Hell for pristine cypress wetlands. St. Vincent provides the most remote habitat and photographic opportunities. St. George is the best for beaching it and biking – as is the whole island actually. Bald Point has similar opportunities plus the best Black Bear viewing.
Easy guided eco-tours provide access to hard-to-reach habitats with some environmental education on the sly – or do it yourself with a canoe or kayak. Try Book Me a Charter for oystering lessons and culture, or the Wind Catcher and Peregrine for an authentic sailing experience on a vintage restored sloop. A favorite is Journeys of St. George Island – its Bounty of the Bay excursion takes as many as five persons for a three-hour tour (yes, as in Gilligan’s Island).
Sustainable fishing and shellfish harvesting not only contributes to the economy, but also dictates restaurant menus. Most are delightfully unpredictable for no other reason than a community-wide commitment to serve only what is caught locally at any time – which varies based on the fickle yet productive critter soup of the Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Florida’s oysters and crabs can make their way to the table as done a century ago. Critters with shells not your thing? No problem. Try their renowned game fish filets.
Don’t underestimate the purity of relaxing on the dock of a restaurant at sunset after a popular regional dinner of red royal shrimp, oysters, grouper or red snapper. As the day fades to moonlight, denizens of urban areas will not only appreciate the salt air, sounds of rolling surf, and stirrings of nocturnal nature, but also the absence of artificial light and noise. If you need to plan, you don’t belong here.