Decades ago oystermen working the waters of Apalachicola Bay, from the estuary of the Apalachicola River to St. George Island, pulled the equivalent of 50,000 cans of oysters from the oyster beds below the shallow waters. Today the oyster beds are less crowded, but the best-kept secret of American gourmands is that the oysters found off the coast of Franklin County, Fla., are the tastiest in the world.
Some might claim that the oysters of Chesapeake Bay are better, but Steven Rash, owner of Apalachicola's Water Street Seafood, a wholesale distributor, declares to anyone who will listen that the oysters in his local waters are the best.He cites several reasons for his oysters' tastiness: no oyster farming, oysters in their natural environment and no dredging. Oysters are pulled in the old-fashioned way with long-handled tongs.
Probably the most important reason is that the delicate mix of fresh water from the Apalachicola River and the sea water from the Gulf of Mexico produces a meaty oyster with a slightly saltier taste, which is the delicacy of delicacies for those who relish these bivalve mollusks.
Locals are so proud of the saltiness of their oysters in the small town of Apalachicola that they've made their tourism slogan "We're salty."
That's just the first of many anomalies here in Franklin County, the most rural of all Florida counties. Some folks call the region "Old Florida" because it remains the way the state used to be before the amusement parks, strip malls, suburban sprawl and mega-hotels dotted the landscape from Miami to Orlando and from Tampa to Jacksonville.
The land is dominated by national forests, state parks and wildlife reserves. The Apalachicola River estuary is such a unique biosphere that in 1984 it was recognized by UNESCO as part of the Central Gulf Coast Plain, a designation that recognizes the watershed's scientific significance.
Franklin County has taken to calling itself Forgotten Florida. Tourists generally tend to bypass the area en route to the Gold Coast, the West Coast, Disney World and Daytona Beach. While it is one of the prettiest places in all of the Sunshine State, it is only accessible by Route 98 southwest of Tallahassee and southeast of Panama City.
Best of all, visitors can still do all of the traditional sun sports here. In 2011, St. George Island's State Park beaches were ranked in the top 10 in the country by the notorious Dr. Beach. There's a lot to get excited about here as it stretches nine miles, making it the longest beachfront state park in Florida.
Altogether the island boasts 22 miles of white sand beach, but visitors won't be overwhelmed by crowds of other sun-worshippers. A five-mile causeway connects the island to the mainland.
Neighboring St. Vincent Island also has a beautiful strip of beach called Tahiti Beach because of the palm trees that sprouted near the water's edge. But this island is a wild animal preserve, home to a vast ecosystem of native species plus a few that were introduced (Sambar deer from Asia) and reintroduced (red wolves).
The only way to get there is by boat, and anyone not hiking into the interior of the island won't have to worry about encountering any wildlife.
But a walk along the beach might yield shells and bits of broken pottery left behind by Native American settlers. These artifacts must remain on the beach because this is protected federal land.
Anyone taking a boat to St. Vincent Island from the port town of Apalachicola will pass numerous small crafts, generally manned by two people handling long poles. One of the most prolific oyster bars rests to the north of the island in Apalachicola Bay.
The long poles, which are usually 12 feet to 16 feet long have a catch at the end and operate somewhat like scissors. Using these tongs is hard work, but a good oysterman can pull in four to 10 60-pound bags of oysters a day.
The big range in the amount caught is due to weather, seasonal variations and flows from Apalachicola River, the largest river by volume of water flow in the state. The river's beginning can be found 500 miles to the north in Georgia, where two rivers, the Chattahoochee and Flint begin their long journey south only to converge north of the Florida state line.
Many people who make their living on the bay digging for clams, shrimp, or oysters or fishing for grouper or 30 other species of fish believe thirsty Atlanta is using up the waters of Chattahoochee, thus affecting the flows of Apalachicola, which upsets the delicate balance of freshwater and seawater that makes the estuary of Apalachicola so rich in seafood.
For anyone craving oysters or fresh seafood of other varieties this is still the place to be. Anyone driving down from Tallahassee should stop at Posey's in Crawfordville. This is a local place filled with local characters, and seafood (along with just about anything else) is served the way locals like it — fried. The best bet is a plate of fried oysters, hush puppies and cheese grits.
For something a bit more traditional, I recommend two fine places in the historic town of Apalachicola. First is Boss Oyster, a landmark waterfront restaurant that national food pundits seek out. Here the draw is experimenting with different toppings for the oyster, and there are no bad choices.
Less heralded but equally as good is another waterfront place called Up the Creek. The young chef, Brett Gormley, often stretches for the unusual and attains near perfection in his presentation of seafood. For anyone who doesn't like seafood, Gormley does a mean alligator soup or gator burger.
WHEN YOU GO
The closest major airports are in Tallahassee and Panama City, Fla. Then get a car and drive old state road 98.
There are great historic inns such as Coombs House Inn (www.coombshouseinn.com) and Gibson Inn (www.gibsoninn.com) in Apalachicola. I stayed in a condominium on St. George Island.
To arrange a house or condo rental there turn to Collins Vacation Rentals Inc. (www.collinsvacationrentals.com) and Resort Vacation Properties (www.resortvacationproperties.com).
For water activities, such as fishing or kayaking, I used Journeys of St. George Island (www.sgislandjourneys.com).
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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