It was late, the wine had been mostly dispatched and the candles had begun to weep crazily across the patio table. It was end-of-the-party conversation, desultory and rambling, about our favorite places. Favorite place in Florida, my husband mused. That's easy, St. George Island. Everyone but me looked at him blankly.
Finishing each other's sentences, we painted the picture: Some of the darkest, most star-filled skies in the continental United States, partly because of nighttime light restrictions to aid the nesting loggerhead sea turtles. Paved bike paths the length of the island, a gorgeous and underpopulated state park beach, flounder fishing off the Bob Sikes Cut.
And then there's the charming historic port of nearby Apalachicola, founded by 19th-century cotton and lumber barons, with its Georgian and Victorian manses and its oyster bars. It was an idle comment: We should all go sometime.
Then the e-mails started. Were we serious? How expensive would it be? Could we find a house big enough for all of us?
Thus, last spring, five families converged with beach essentials. For some this meant kites and sand toys, for others long-deferred paperbacks and quality chocolate. In a house called Afternoon Delight (the Starland Vocal Band hit featuring prominently on our iPod playlists), we spent four unforgettable days on Florida's so-called Forgotten Coast, a stretch of sand that dips into the Gulf of Mexico from Florida's panhandle.
Rolling dunes, miles of white sand dotted with perfect sand dollars and hardly another person in sight define the place. There are no multiplexes or amusement parks, few malls, even fewer fast-food restaurants. It stays cooler here than elsewhere on the Gulf, making it a little nippy in the winter and more than tolerable in the summer.
Before the Forgotten Coast was collectively overlooked (the area got its name when a Florida tourism group forgot to include information on the destination in its brochure), Apalachicola was Big Time. Established in the early 1800s, it initially provided the South's cotton plantations an accessible port. Cotton warehouses were erected to house and bale the Old South's most successful crop. At one point, the town boasted 43 warehouses, making it the third-largest cotton port on the Gulf Coast, behind Mobile and New Orleans.
After that, it was sponge diving, timber and turpentine from slash pines that kept the region afloat, followed by the St. Joe Co. paper mill. St. Joe has turned its attention toward developing its massive landholdings in this area to environmentally conscious residential and resort communities. The indigenous fisherfolk and oystermen don't pay these tourist enticements much nevermind, concentrating instead on their Crassostrea virginica, or eastern oysters, crabs, shrimp and fish.
Town with a fishing problem
We drove west through Carrabelle, its weathered pickups sporting the bumper sticker "A small drinking village with a fishing problem," and then on through Eastpoint. "For sale" signs as common as weeds, Eastpoint looks a little down at the heels these days.
Continuing to St. George Island and Apalachicola, though, there's a palpable feeling of optimism. On the island, the new Cape St. George Lighthouse had its dedication ceremony last April, the white tower a testament to civic pride and perspicacity. In 2005 the lighthouse, built in 1852 on nearby Little St. George Island, collapsed into the gulf. Volunteers cleaned the mortar off the thousands of old bricks, lugged them to a safer location and, with the help of state and federal officials, erected a new lighthouse in the center of town. Seventy-two feet, 92 stairs and a gasp-worthy view.
In Apalachicola, the 900 historic homes and repurposed cotton warehouses (most now containing antique shops and charming seafood restaurants) were honored in 2008 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations.
Many of the regal old homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places are available to tour each May during an open house. The rest of the year visitors can stop at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce and pick up a self-guided historic walking tour map.
Stroll past the little white Greek Revival Trinity Episcopal Church, the sixth-oldest church in the state; Orman House, an original 1838 home of cotton merchant Thomas Orman; and then take a swing through the Gibson Inn, built in 1907 as a hotel.
Something for everyone
Afternoon Delight was a monster, three-story, six-bedroom affair on stilts in the gated community called St. George Plantation, which stretches from gulfside to bayside on the island's west end, with slow, winding roads and lots of speed bumps to keep the pace leisurely. We settled in, unpacking groceries and playing Scrabble. The latecomers got the worst bedrooms, but even the couple stuck with the curtain-instead-of-a-door room had to admit it was a good deal (Thursday to Sunday, each family paid under $400).
Like the less-crowded Nantucket or Cape Cod of a generation ago, St. George is about easy, beachy pleasures, the toughest decision of the day being whether to head back to the beach or take a dip in the pool instead. A drift of flip-flops accumulated in the foyer, sand found its way into the sheets and a few of us dropped a bundle chasing spotted sea trout. There were sing-alongs and fierce games of Spoons, night beach walks and morning Ashtanga yoga for the early risers. We frittered time deliciously, each in our own way. I'd wager that for the next "my favorite places" conversation, St. George and Apalachicola won't be forgotten.