In the News
By Jane Ammeson | The Grand Rapids Press
1 January 2012
APALACHICOLA, Fla. — Dreaming of deep rich chocolates, I snap back to reality when George Stritikus, owner of the Apalachicola Chocolate Co., waves away my MasterCard.
“I run my business the way I want and that means no business cards, no website and no credit cards,” he says proudly of his store in Apalachicola, Fla. But seeing my crestfallen face, he adds, “If you don’t have enough cash, just come back later and pay me.”
Did I hear right? Guess so, as Stritikus hands me the box of chocolates I just carefully selected and I am on my way — out of his corner shop with its old-fashioned glass and wood display cabinets backed by gleaming stainless steel kitchen area where Stritikus and his staff make their artisan candies. When I return with cash and purchase even more chocolates, Stritikus informs me that people always return.
“They like my candy,” he says.
Stritikus isn’t the only one living life on his own terms. In the short time I’ve been in this waterfront town on the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve encountered many free spirits dancing to their own piper.
Coombs InnThe magnificently restored Coombs House Inn is one of more than 900 historic buildings in Apalachicola.
“I had to climb into the dining room window to see what this place looked like,” says Lynn Wilson, owner of the Coombs House Inn, a Grand Victorian built in 1905 that was swept by a kitchen fire in 1911 and then sat vacant and decaying for the next 70 years. “The doors were blocked by debris.”
Determined to own the home despite coming face-to-face with a screech owl in an upstairs bathroom, Wilson spent a decade trying to purchase the house and another two years fixing it up.
Booms and Busts
At the time, Apalach (as locals call it), having gone through several booms and busts in its almost 200 years, was down on its luck. But Wilson, owner and founder of an international interior design firm, became addicted to restoration and soon redid five more historic properties, including the 1838 Cotton Warehouse, now a cultural center, and the 1831 Sponge Exchange.
Others, too, saw the ghostly beauty in abandoned and ramshackle buildings and now 900 homes and buildings, some dating back to the 1830s, are listed as part of the town’s National Historic District. Apalachicola is a true old Florida kind of place tucked away along a coastal road that follows the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico passing through small beach towns and wide swaths of pines and palmettos. It is not for those seeking jolts of action and nightlife. But it will appeal to those drawn to Florida’s Forgotten Coast, with its historic architecture, fresh seafood, sense of whimsy, expansive views and timeless feel.
On the dock behind the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, filled with artifacts from the town’s maritime past, I board the Starfish Enterprise, the museum’s 40-foot catamaran. The museum offers a variety of eco-tours, including the three-hour one I’m taking today that travels through the Apalachicola River Basin.
Accompanying us is the museum’s founder and local boy-made-good, George Floyd, a dedicated environmentalist, whose family settled here in the 1840s. After working in the family cannery and building boats with his dad, Floyd moved away, developed a medical records software program, became wealthy and returned with several lofty goals.
He is establishing a wooden boat-building school to help bring traditional boating crafts and jobs back to Apalachicola and, since his grandparents met on a paddleboat going up river, he soon plans to host paddleboat trips as well.
As Floyd talks, we pass old shrimp trawlers abandoned alongside the edges of the cypress tree- lined estuary, the nursery grounds for 75 percent of the marine life in this area. We navigate through one of the few remaining swing bridges in the nation and watch happy dolphins crest the surface of the calm waters.
Apalachicola harvests more than 90 percent of the oysters sold in Florida and 10 percent of the nationwide supply. The historic downtown has several oyster restaurants, including the waterfront restaurants Boss Oyster and Up the Raw Creek.
There are oysters on the menu at Tamara’s Cafe as well. But chef Danny Itzkovitz, who, with his wife Marisa Getter, renovated the 1920s building, exposing the red brick walls, also offers pecan-encrusted grouper fingers with spicy jalapeno sauce, paella and the freshest of fish.
Indeed, Itzkovitz approaches our table carrying a giant red snapper that doesn’t know yet he’s on the dinner menu. Itzkovitz instructs us to note the still-flapping snapper’s beautiful coloring. Then he whisks it away, returning in about 20 minutes with the transformed fish now on large platter, studded with garlic and grilled.
At the Bowery Art Gallery, named after its location — the once rollicking riverfront area where sailors debarked for scandalous fun — Leslie Wallace-Conn puts the finishing touches on a commissioned canine sculpture.
Fishing boatAn old fishing boat is seen during the three-hour eco-tour along the Apalachicola River Basin.
“I love animals,” she says, gesturing toward the whimsical dog sculptures that fill her studio space. “I love the humor that we see in their physical being and their human personalities.”
This taste for whimsy stretches far back in Apalachicola’s past. When Florida State Parks took over the 1839 home of Thomas Orman in 1994, the last of the Orman riches were gone. Gaslights still lit the once-glamorous home (no one had upgraded to electricity yet) and the one elderly remaining Orman lived in the dilapidated back of the house, seceding the front rooms with their high ceilings and marble fireplaces to a horse named Candybar who grazed on the front lawn during the day and came into the parlor at night.
The grounds of the restored mansion, now a museum, are dedicated to Dr. Alvin Chapman, the first botanist in the U.S. to study outside the Northeast. Chapman moved to Apalachicola, but his northern sensibilities prevailed and during the Civil War he assisted escaping Union soldiers. When disapproving Confederate soldiers came looking, Chapman hid in the Episcopalian Church. Built in 1836, it is the sixth oldest church in the state.
Dr. John Gorrie, a friend of Orman and Chapman, invented refrigeration and air conditioning after watching too many of his patients die of tropical diseases in the torrid heat. Though Gorrie’s 1851 invention was a success, the muscular ice industry up north prevented him from getting commercial financing. He died heartbroken and disillusioned. But his ice machine is displayed at the John Gorrie Museum State Park, across the street from the Episcopal Church, Chapman’s Civil War hide-out.
Later, I travel the causeways and bridges that connect Apalach to St. George Island, where I meet friends paddling part of the 1,600-mile Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail that hugs the Forgotten Coast. Their trip is three days long; I join them for about three hours, kayaking close to the shore edged with twisted live oaks with their gauzy Spanish moss, slash pines planted decades ago and an abundance of small but colorful wildflowers. It’s sweaty work, and as I head back to the Coombs Inn in my rented car, I thank Dr. Gorrie for his invention.
— Jane Ammeson is a freelance writer based in southwest Michigan.